This article is part two in Rob O'Donovan's High Performance Behaviours series –detailing CharlieHR's journey towards a culture of genuine culture high performance.
For context – the first post is available here.
When it came to rolling out those high performance behaviours we had an advantage. Many of our team had been involved in the identification process already so the “launch” was hardly much of a surprise.
Understandably, amidst the excitement, there were some nerves and a healthy dose of skepticism. That wasn’t driven by cynics as much as it was simply that change is always uncomfortable. We have an open environment where we encourage the team to challenge each other by default, before then agreeing to commit wholeheartedly to the process. This was no different.
Here we’ve outlined the process we went through initially as well as what we learnt and have adapted along the way.
Step one : evaluate
To kick things off, everyone in the business rated their peers anonymously on a scale. The aim was that we could all understand the perception of how well we did (or didn’t) exhibit each of the behaviours. We used the below scale so there could be no “average” option - if an individual wasn’t “good” then they were deemed “poor” - and each scoring had an invitation to attach comments.
- very poor
Learning #1 : Anonymous ratings - for our culture - weren’t effective. We had never done anything anonymously previously and always took pride in our ability to be candid with each other face to face. This somewhat atypical strategy of ours was perhaps driven by a stirring lack of confidence in our own judgement! The anonymous process felt incredibly alien to everyone and created a weird mist of mistrust. That’s the last time we’ll try it.
Learning #2 : The quantitative assessment wasn’t hugely useful. In fact, we all found it incredibly frustrating. The written notes were far more insightful and, as a result, everyone now invests a solid amount of time in providing detailed written feedback, avoiding any numerical scoring at all.
Learning #3 : You are now only reviewed by your immediate peers in your team. We found this was where the most valuable insights came from and it enabled everyone to invest more of their time in offering really sound reflections on those they worked closest with.
"The anonymous quantitative feedback was unhelpful - constructive, thoughtful feedback can be an inspiration and you can use it to springboard into action" Tim (Software Engineer)
"I wanted to follow up with people on their observations to learn more... I also wanted those people to recognise how helpful their feedback was, so that they'd be more comfortable to give it to me in the future" Tom (Head of Product)
"The qualitative feedback was where the magic was... as you unpackaged a bit of feedback, there was a real opportunity to work on something." Matt (Product Designer)
Step two : review and reflect
My co-founder Ben then sat down with every individual in the business to review the feedback they had received and help them dissect it.
Each person identified their two weakest areas and shared those publicly with the rest of the company. That gave us all a good opportunity to be vulnerable - we capitalise hugely on vulnerability as a way to build stronger and more effective bonds within our team - while also thanking everyone for their feedback, demonstrating its positive impact and inviting more. It’s always good to remind each other that that - while difficult feedback can be hard to give - it’s hugely appreciated. Furthermore, this is an important recognition that we were all working through the process together as a whole company.
Learning #4 : We now pick one weakness and one strength (or “superpower” as we call it). That not only ensures we are championing the “good” behaviours, but also demonstrates examples for what “good” looks like and who can help you get there.
Step three : the action plan
Each team member then works with Ben to create their development plan. What opportunities are there for them to work on developing these behaviours? What do they need to help them do that? Where can they find more support/insight/inspiration? How can the company help support them?
While Ben helps guide the process, it has been particularly powerful when these plans are self-directed. An important part of developing the behaviours is the personal reflection that goes into understanding what they look like and how you can get there.
Learning #5 : We originally shared our action plans with the whole company too, but this became a huge amount of reading for everyone and an unhelpful distraction. It’s hard enough remembering your own! We no longer do this, although it’s unlikely anybody would shy away from a request if asked and I’m sure they are discussed in small groups on occasions.
Step four : weekly coaching sessions
Ben invites every team member to a thirty minute coaching session each week to mould/adapt their plans, reflect on what’s working (and what’s not) and keep momentum. Regular, short check-ins ensure that everyone is held accountable, that their work on developing behaviours remains front of mind and that there’s an opportunity for feedback on the process. We’ve also found it an invaluable source of understanding for us as a company to determine what more we can do to help, support and guide.
"They're such a valuable space to discuss things that don't surface as regularly during a typical day." Matt (Product Designer)
"I always enjoy those - Ben is really good at getting me to introspect. The action plan check-ins were very useful for keeping accountability moving forward." Tom (Head of Product)
Step five: reset and go again
As a company, we operate in ten week OKR cycles, so the “gap week” in between those are an ideal opportunity to regroup and reflect. We refine the behaviours and clarify their descriptions, fine-tune the process and look at the results in the wider context of the company’s goals and ambitions. This is a crucial moment to ensure that everyone has the ability to shape our culture together before we begin “step one” again at the start of the following cycle.
So, what's changed as a result?
It’s a constantly iterative process, and we’re refining as we go. It would be a lie to suggest that we have all now perfected these behaviours - or even the approach - but it’s undoubtedly had some palpable outcomes to date:
- A few people have left the business. As often happens when expectations change and the standards are elevated, it creates discomfort that isn’t welcome to everyone. It’s always sad to see people go, but a culture that demands its people to strive for high performance doesn’t suit everyone. This process enabled individuals that were really hungry to self-select in, and for those who want to choose a different path to do so.
- Everyone is far happier… in spite of the fact there is more pressure, more stress and a more demanding slate of work. It turns out that people with the potential to be high performers really do prefer to operate outside their comfort zone - you just can’t expect them to venture there themselves the whole time. It creates an incredibly infectious place to work as the team chase up the positive spiral, constantly excited as they grow themselves and inspired as they watch those around them. The fair and right thing to do is push people hard. That was what we never clearly understood beforehand.
- Over the past few months in particular, we’ve delivered the best work we’ve ever done - faster than we would ever have been capable previously - and the hunger and ambition within the team demonstrates there is even more to come.
It’s been an enormous investment of time, particularly from Ben who probably commits close to half his week - every week - developing this process and working with each member of the team to deliver on their goals. But that is easily time well spent.
"My primary mission is to get the team operating at their absolute best - if I'm successful in that, it's an enormously valuable contribution to the business." Ben (co-founder)
So far, so good. But we cannot rest on our laurels. This is not a one time initiative, but a seismic shift in the way we operate as a business, how we develop and grow our people, and now an enormous part of our strategy to realise our potential as a company.
In the next post in the series, we talk about our long-term thinking around building a high performance culture at Charlie.
"I think setting the performance expectations at a company level was invaluable, and it was really useful to see how my strengths are others' weaknesses and vice versa." Alex (Head of Engineering)
"The energy is higher, the output is better, and I think people are happier." Emily (Product Designer)
I am definitely more aware of how my actions and behaviours can contribute to the overall success of Charlie." Saffron (Customer Experience Manager)
With all the will in the world, the realities of running a small business mean that a commitment to high performance behaviours can sometimes take a back seat. Click here to find out how Charlie made it stick.