Performance Reviews should have as their main purpose to assist the person concerned to reach their full potential and succeed. Unfortunately both terminology and practice don’t always serve to achieve this. This does not have to be so.

It seems a momentum is developing in the corporate world for organisations to move away from performance reviews, certainly the once a year, formal jobs. It is only a matter of time before this trend gets some traction within the professional services market. I would caution against this. The rationale about moving away from performance reviews seems to be:

  • once a year is not enough and is far too long a gap between ‘discussions’;
  • they are not popular;
  • they are not done well;
  • they are often disguised as something else (e.g. a retrenching tool);
  • they don’t achieve what they should.

While all of these points may be true in many cases it is not necessarily a good reason to not have them. It has always been a concern for me what they are termed and how performance reviews are conducted and perceived in both the corporate and professional services worlds. As a result they certainly don’t do what they are meant to and are most often even resented.

Professional service firms should be careful not to rush to get on this band-wagon. As we have all seen, these developments, initiated in the media and supported by social media and other commentators, can quickly gather momentum and become flavour of the month. Often for the wrong reasons, without organisations having properly thought through the implications and with bad outcomes for all concerned. Law firms are particularly susceptible to such changes, and follow like sheep other firms who are perceived to be leaders.

The purpose:

The answer is really to ensure your version of performance reviews is serving the purpose for which it was intended. But therein also lies the problem. Very often the purpose is problematic. I have always suggested to clients that the main purpose should be feedback, development and support for the person for whom the review is being done. Actuality has to follow the words though and you have to make sure that is really what they are for.

Too often the purpose for which they are designed in organisations is purely to support salary reviews or progression decisions. Sometimes to support things like retrenchments. This is dangerous, as it brings a whole new bunch of dimensions into the discussions and invariably clouds the discussion. I believe salary reviews should be separated from feedback sessions. The true purpose should be to help a person reach his or her full potential – you do this by honest feedback, support and helping them to develop and grow in their roles. Sure, you still discuss performance ‘issues’, but the primary focus is to help them develop. Even partners, CEOs and Managing Partners need this type of support. It is not just for staff!


Furthermore, it is not enough to have one discussion a year. That discussion should only have to serve as a semi-formal stock-take or fine-tuning on how the discussions that should be taking place year-round are going. We always tell people who are going to be Responsible Partners® or Responsible Persons™ (see below) that it is really a 24/7 role – it never stops and that is the way it should be.

Language and terminology:

There is also the question of language and terminology. I think it is fair to say that most professionals dislike the idea of being ‘performance managed’. Phrases such as these have always had a somewhat negative connotation and are perceived as something that is being ‘done to the person concerned’ and has an air of ‘righting a wrong’ rather than being what they should be – a discussion about how to help the person succeed and reach their full potential. However it is important that action should follow and support terminology. It is no good if you have nice positive terms but in reality they are still the old negatively perceived, one-sided performance reviews!

Responsible Partner® and Development Discussion™ methodologies:

It is for his reason that we developed the Responsible Partner and Responsible Person methodologies some two decades ago and have evolved and improved them ever since. They are geared to ensure proper feedback and support is provided to everyone to ensure they reach their full potential. It is a very serious responsibility and how it is conducted by the person who is ‘responsible’ is in turn an important factor in how they are contributing to their firm and are perceived to be performing.

At the heart of the system is ensuring that a genuine interest is taken in the professional and personal success of your people.  They are supported by what we call ‘Development Discussions™’ (note the change in emphasis from ‘performance review’!). Working together it ensures that nothing is left to chance in how a person is supported and they receive feedback and are helped to reach their fullest potential. They are less formal, are personal and not mechanistic and take place on an ongoing basis. A further positive element of the system is that feedback goes both ways – ‘up and down’, so to speak. The important thing is that this approach works in practice.

It is quite challenging to get organisations to conduct these discussions and processes in this way but it is achievable. These methodologies have been successfully implemented in a number of different international jurisdictions and in both the professional services and corporate worlds. Contact me if you would like to learn more.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International