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Grow them or lose them: how we do performance management at CharlieHR

If you want your company to thrive, then good performance management is essential. Today’s generation of talent doesn't just want a career – they expect their employers to help them grow, develop and progress. This is the story of CharlieHR's performance management journey.

Charlie has already lost great people because we didn’t pay enough attention to our performance management. Over the last three years, there have been more than a few times when someone wanted to move faster along their professional journey than we were able to accommodate – and when it became obvious that Charlie couldn’t help them do that, they went to find an employer that could.

Losing those people damaged Charlie in a very real way, and it’s exactly the same for every company out there. It's also an issue only becoming more and more critical as time goes on.

If I went back 20 or 30 years and asked my parents what they valued most about their jobs, I’m pretty sure I know what their answers would be. It would be their salary, their job security and the standing that career could earn them amongst their peers. And fair enough, because those things are important.

But I don’t think it’s quite the same anymore.

Obviously, our salaries mean a lot to us. The capacity of a job to provide the lifestyle that we want is still one of the primary drivers behind any career choice, and always will be.

But more and more, people see their career not as just a way to make a living, but as a journey. No one in this generation wants a ‘job for life’ – they have somewhere they want to get to, and know they have to keep moving forward to get there.

People want to make progress in their professional lives – the team you have in your office today won’t stick around unless you pay attention to that development.

But this isn’t just about retention. I’ve always understood that the most powerful levers I have at my disposal are the people in our team. That’s what is going to make a real difference to the future of my business, and it’s why we make performance management an absolute priority at Charlie.

Every one of those departures has encouraged us to refine our process, making sure we are always making room for our team to develop, progress and become better.

Here’s how we do it:

Trial and error

For new starters, I can imagine that our performance management process might seem pretty well put-together. It hasn’t always been like that. It’s really been a process of organic growth, with a lot of trial and error – we’ve tried a lot of different things. Some of it worked. Lots of it didn’t.

A early (and pretty rough...) iteration of Charlie's performance management setup. We've come a long way!

I remember at one point I was personally running monthly one on ones for all 18 people at the company. That meant having a one to one nearly every working day – that really took it's toll on me.

We tried running face-to-face, ‘radical candour’-inspired feedback sessions on Monday mornings (those didn’t last long). We ditched monthly one on ones, then quickly brought them back. At the end of 2018, we introduced Personal Development Plans for the first time (even for our CEO).

After three years, a lot of mistakes and just as many improvements, Charlie’s system of performance management is much more settled. I can now see this system splitting out into three distinct layers:

  • Delivery  
  • Behaviours  
  • Development

1. Delivery  

On paper, Delivery is probably the simplest of the concepts we have here. In a nutshell, it asks:

“Is this person delivering what the company needs?”

Having typed that out in front of me, it actually seems almost too obvious to be worth saying… it basically asks ‘is this person doing their job?’. But it’s probably the most important thing going on here – we absolutely need our team to deliver on what we need, and if they aren’t able to do that then we have a problem.

You can actually take care of a lot of this just by making sure you get your hiring processes right. It’s why every single applicant to Charlie will have to complete at least one (often more than one) stage of work assessment, and it’s also why we are proactive about using probation periods to make sure we’ve got the right person.

But that’s not the only thing going on here.

It’s not as if your team is split down the middle between those doing fantastically and those doing terribly – even your highest-achieving star performer can get better. That’s the other side to Delivery, and where it becomes really crucial: optimising the performance of every single person at the business.

It’s why we have spent the last three years constantly iterating on the routines, habits and practices that make up our working day – to ensure that our team isn’t just working well but working brilliantly.

Here are a few of the things I’m talking about:

Full Company Standups

This one’s pretty common among early-stage startups, but we’ve made a real point to hang on to it even now we’re a team of 25. At 10am each day, the whole company will gather round the whiteboard that lists our Weekly Goals. Each team will take it in turns to share news on their progress and highlight any potential blockers, and it’s also a good time for Team Leads to share other company-wide news.

But it also serves another purpose.

Getting the whole company stood up and talking to each other every morning really helps to keep our energy and enthusiasm high. Everyone’s had those mornings where you just feel a bit off… if you’ve had a frustrating week then it can so tempting to just slip into the office and quietly ease yourself through the day. Standups are a great way of kickstarting the morning.

There will inevitably come a point when a business becomes too large for full company standups. Knowing when that point has arrived is something of a judgement call – the critical thing is not to ditch it, but to work on an alternative that helps provide the same kind of togetherness and cross-team momentum.

Team Huddles

We do these straight after Standups. Once we’ve met as a company, we split into our own teams to run through the work they are tackling that day. It seems like an obvious thing, but it acts as a great trigger mechanism for getting a team onto the same page before they start work.

Move the number, own the number

This is a relatively new one. Every day at Standup, a different team will present a metric from their function of the business. On Mondays, we hear the customer activation number from the previous week. On Tuesdays, the content team shares the organic blog traffic over the same period. And so on.

This might seem a bit superficial, but it’s really part of a wider drive to stitch accountability into the fabric of the whole business. If a team is responsible for moving a number, then they need to be ready to own that – and be open to challenge if the number isn’t moving.

2. Behaviours

In the ‘People’ sphere, I very regularly read or hear people talk about ‘culture’ and ‘values’  – I think those words have become incredibly unhelpful. So many people equate culture to just having a fridge full of beers and a pingpong table in the hallway. In the same way, your ‘values’ are not the pithy phrases you have framed on the wall.

That’s not at all what it’s actually about. Your culture and values are the behaviours that your team exhibit every day they are in the office.

If you’re clocking off half an hour early every Friday, that’s your culture. If your team are more worried about one-upping each other rather than working together, then that’s what you value.

Unless the words framed on the wall of your office are echoed by the actions of your team, then they don’t mean anything at all.

We’ve put a tonne of work into defining the behaviours that we value at Charlie. It was a long and involved process, and I’m not going to pretend that we’ve figured it all out even now – but we do have a system and I’m pretty confident in how it performs. We call this system our High Performance Behaviours, and you can read more on that journey here.

High performance v4

When it comes helping someone improve professionally, there is a tendency to overlook the Behaviours aspect – people tend to fixate on the ‘hard skills’ centred around their specific job roles. The reality is that no business succeeds because of an assortment of siloed individuals. They succeed as a product of high-performing teams working together seamlessly.

How someone does their work is just as important as the work they do – and you owe it to your team to help them become better at that.

3. Development

We touched on this one already, but it’s well worth reiterating.

Here’s a fact:

None of your team is going to work at your company forever.

When you accept that, you’re naturally led to a realisation that many founders seem to struggle with:

Everyone on your team is thinking about the next steps of their career – about a time when they’ll leave your company and move onto a new challenge.

I know that no one about at Charlie is enthralled by HR software – Charlie is just one step in their professional journey. They all have long term professional goals and are focused on getting there. If you want your team to do their best work, then helping them develop professionally needs to be an absolute priority. The reason is this:

The very best work happens when you align the objectives of the business with someone’s personal goals.

If I’ve got someone on my team who aspires to be a truly world class developer, then it’s not helpful to them to be asked to do anything other than that. Give them the space, resources and direction to become the developer they want to be, and let them do it – they will pull your company up with them.

There are a few different ways you can act on this. We’ve already mentioned Personal Development Plans – that’s a great place to start. You can run PDPs in any number of ways, but at Charlie, we pair everyone up with their Team Lead, who runs monthly catch-ups to check on their progress.

Here are a few other ways we make development a priority for our team.

Learning and Development Budget

Every year, Charlie sets aside £500 for every team member to invest in their own professional development. It can be used towards any course or learning experience – anything that person thinks will help them be more effective at work.

Career Progression Framework

Our Operations team have just begun work on a comprehensive career progression framework. We want everyone at Charlie to be able to visualise where they are in their career, and what progression within the company looks like to them.

I’m always interested to hear how other companies go about getting the best from their team. If there’s anything you think we’re overlooking or getting wrong, then please feel free to leave a note in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!