Performance Measurement
February 5, 2013

High performance by design

Being a high-performing organization is like being a high-performing individual: it requires a vision of excellence and a commitment to achieving it. Mediocrity is not usually something to which people aspire. High performance requires clarity, commitment and engagement.

In today’s challenging economic and fiscal environment, citizens want fast, accurate and convenient service. They also want better value for their tax dollar. In short, they expect a high-performing, productive public service.

To respond to these pressures, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) is engaging employees at all levels, across all business lines, on how to enhance an already high-performing culture, to a state where employees are motivated and where their work is evaluated against clear expectations on a constant and consistent basis. We want to be an organization where every employee is able to make the link between their individual, day-to-day performance and the organization’s priorities and desired outcomes.

We have many high-performing employees, and we are proud of our accomplishments in the service of Canadians. What we have not had is a concrete strategy to ensure we remain a consistently high-performing organization. Until now.

Effective performance management means aligning our performance policies, plans and processes with our business priorities. We are asking ourselves fundamental questions like:

  • What are our business objectives?
  • What does success look like?
  • What key performance indicators matter most?

When we have clear priorities established at all levels of the organization; when our financial and human resources are allocated toward meeting them; when our employees understand and can articulate how their own jobs contribute to our goals; and when they understand the performance standards on which they are to be evaluated – only then will we have a consistently high-performing organization. Our approach will enable us to create an environment where employees can excel and help us ensure we have the right people with the right skills doing the right job.

A key success factor in achieving this goal will be our managers, because managing the performance of employees is their key role.

The first step is for managers to set clear performance expectations. Employees deserve this clarity right from the beginning. It is important for managers to be as specific as possible, and to describe what success looks like and how it will be measured. Managers must also provide employees with the tools and supports necessary to complete the job.

The best managers provide feedback, both formally and informally. All feedback should be focused on the facts, not on opinion. Where possible, getting input from others can enrich the feedback and provide a useful perspective to the employee.

For some, performance management has been a vague notion based on unclear expectations or it has been a pro forma, check-the-box exercise. For others, performance and learning agreements have been focused more on the “learning” than the “performance.”

So while there must be a formal paper exercise, the real benefits come from the conversations. Employees see how their work contributes to the organization’s bottom line and managers can adjust expectations based on what they hear from their staff. It is about allowing the employee to learn and increase their productivity over time.

Moving to this high-performing culture is not as simple as it sounds. Managers will need support. They will need training, coaching and mentoring. They will need to understand the full suite of tools at their disposal. They will need to learn how to set expectations. They will need to learn how to give constructive feedback, how to have difficult conversations, and, in some cases, how to deal with non-performers.

Employees too will need support. They will need to know they can take an active role in the process and that they can speak up and address their own performance when managers are reluctant to do so. We want our employees to embrace and talk about being part of a high performance organization. But this means committing to the entire journey, to staying the course, to ensuring consistency, and to walking the talk.

In the end, it comes down to leadership and culture. A journey like this requires a commitment from the entire senior management team. It requires a change in the language and culture of the organization – a change in the way the organization talks about itself, the behaviours it rewards and the behaviours it will not accept.

At HRSDC, we’re on our way…

Peter Larose is the assistant deputy minister, Human Resources Services Branch, with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

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