Appraisals may be challenging but they are essential for any law firm. Joella Bruckshaw advises on the right way to approach such conversations.
Appraisals are a much derided instrument in the management tool bag and yet, if there is one thing that can really make a difference, it has to be appraisals. It is in this conversation that employees can take responsibility for their own performance and convince their boss that they really want to make a difference to Widgets and Co.
This fact was brought home to me when I was working with the senior partner of a 15 partner, family law firm in the North East. He told me he wanted to have time for fun in his life! More specifically, he wanted to create an excellent legal service, which gave him the freedom to generate good ideas and build good systems. With the enhanced efficiency, he wanted to make more money and have the time to holiday with friends.
Seeing the bigger picture
To do this he could see he would need to be able to delegate his responsibilities to a far greater degree and that would mean that the employees would need to step up to running the firm in his absence. When we met there were a few individuals who weren’t fully engaged. It wasn’t that they were being negligent or not doing things they were contracted to do, they just weren’t signed up to "making the boat go faster".
This solicitor wasn’t losing interest but he did feel he wanted the space to think and stretch his wings. He was still deeply committed to serving his clients with excellent legal advice with all that entailed and to make that happen, he needed everyone to support a shared vision of the future.
No vision no future
We set about creating a plan to align the organization so his people understood what he was trying to do and could be fully engaged in making it happen. Things weren’t going badly up to that point but he wanted a bigger and better future and could see greater possibility if departments were reorganized and led by motivated people who espoused the firm’s vision. The challenge was how to evoke that engagement.
I asked him to show me his appraisal forms. This he did and in our discussion it transpired that often appraisals were a dead letter, they happened late or didn’t happen at all. Sometimes they were used as a threat but more often they spawned a rambling conversation with little understanding on either side of what they were really for.
Appraisal forms usually look something like this:
Part 1: Reviewing last year’s performance
1. General overview - General review of the year
2. Objectives - Progress against previous year’s objectives
3. Competencies - Review of progress against core competencies
4. Personal Development - Reviewing your personal and professional development
Part 2: Planning for the year ahead
1. Objectives - Setting SMART objectives for the year ahead
2. Personal development - Setting personal and competency development goals for the year ahead
On the whole personal appraisals are inclined to be long and rather deadening, focusing on the competencies and the person you are supposed to be, from the firm’s point of view. They are less concerned with why you are doing the job and how you feel about it. And yet unless there is a win/win for employer and employee why would an employee be willing to put their heart and soul into an employer’s enterprise?
Together we redesigned the forms and made them much simpler. There were just three questions:
1. Knowing the kind of person you are and your vision for the firm, what do you think we need to be doing to make that happen?
2. What do you think your contribution should be to the above?
3. What training and/or resources do you need to make that happen?
The Senior Partner interviewed everyone in the firm himself and the conversations he had were extraordinary! Many were delighted by his willingness hear about their ideas and treat them with respect. Some felt very confronted but had a go anyway. A very small group, including the ones who weren’t fully engaged, really didn’t have much to say that was convincing and suddenly it was an easy conversation to ask what they would prefer be doing and help them towards doing it! Three people left the firm!
As a result he found he was able to have a conversation with his people unlike any he had experienced previously! The energy levels rose and there was an unexpected willingness to take more responsibility for the firm’s success. The conversations triggered changes in structure and reporting, which he carried out step by step until he reached a point where he judged the firm to be more fully aligned than it had ever been.
Although putting his plan into action threw up a number of challenges, his clear vision gave him the basis for structured conversations carried out through the appraisal system. The mental space he created for himself by this exercise led in time to buying another building, where he started a whole new enterprise! The last time I saw him he was hopping from foot to foot with a most unsolicitor-like enthusiasm and it was all as a result of asking the right questions!