When Caroline Wilson joined Kennedys as HR director in 2011, the firm had not had a formal appraisal or performance management system before. With their business based around a core of very highly skilled individuals, they had relied on a pen and paper system to manage and record performance and remuneration. But Kennedys had experienced rapid growth since 2000, opening new offices and merging with or acquiring other firms, and the legacy approach no longer met their needs.
One of Caroline’s first initiatives was to institute an online appraisal system incorporating 360 degree feedback.
“We introduced the online system and it did get good traction, but we never managed to achieve more than a 50% completion rate. It was progress, but not the progress that we wanted. For a global law firm with 38 offices, I thought we should be doing better. We wanted to have a clearer picture of performance from one office to another.”
Caroline had discussions with the firm’s senior partner Nick Thomas and the Global Strategy Board, who wanted more traction with performance management. This was prompted, in part, by a project HR had delivered — “Future-proofing the working lives of our lawyers” — and one of its big learnings was a need for more frequent and improved conversations, not just with lawyers but all colleagues.
“I knew the debate around continuous performance management, I’d read a lot of opinions on the subject, but the actual products I’d seen felt very cumbersome. I couldn’t see them working at Kennedys. I didn’t want to present our lawyers with a complex tool that would ‘turn them off’, so to speak, the moment they saw it. If we were going to do this, it needed to feel accessible.”
A new hire in the HR team, Leo Wing, supported Caroline on the continuous performance journey. Leo had experience in implementing continuous performance management at a previous employer, and showed Caroline an online demo of Clear Review’s software. She was surprised at how clean and simple the interface looked, and agreed to invite Clear Review in to show the product live.
“I remember feeling very cynical before the meeting. I still had a vision in my head based on some of the alternative products I had seen: that this process would be clunky and cumbersome; that it wouldn’t be a natural fit for us.
“Perhaps what impressed me the most, apart from the clean simplicity of the product, was the pedigree of HR thinking. Stuart’s background in HR comes across so clearly: I left the meeting convinced that this was neat, easy to use, and would do what we needed it to.”
Caroline invited Clear Review to help her present her proposal to the Kennedys Global Strategy Board in May 2018. Although she knew the appetite was there for a better approach to performance management, she was delighted at how quickly they bought into the idea. Within a matter of weeks, Kennedys were planning a global rollout of Clear Review.
“We made sure that we built up to it in the right way. We got the Board to buy in to the project first. Then we went to the local managing partners and team leaders — the senior people managers. We made sure they got the idea, that they were invested in what we wanted to do and would carry their teams along with them. I’d go so far as to say that by the time we’d finished preparing the way, there was quite a lot of excitement. People wanted to see what this could do.”
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Encouraged by the support from senior leaders and the simplicity of the Clear Review software, Caroline brought all the global HR managers and office managers together to roll it out to all offices simultaneously.
The approach was prompted, in part, by Kennedys’ restructuring along product lines. With more and more teams operating across international boundaries, more frequent and improved communication was a huge priority. The HR team have also noticed that the new software is particularly popular with younger employees.
“Obviously our younger employees have grown up with digital communications as part of their lives. They appreciate the ability to communicate like this. We can talk via Skype, make sure that contact within project teams is close and consistent across time zones, and use Clear Review to sew this together and track feedback and priorities.”
Check-ins have now become a part of Kennedys’ vocabulary. The business also uses Clear Review to support its internal awards programme, the GEMs (Going the Extra Mile). People can nominate each other, at any time, to be recognised as a GEM and the HR team can refer to Clear Review and use feedback to help support the nominations. But, in conclusion, it’s the rate of adoption that has been most satisfying for Caroline.
“We implemented slightly later than we had intended to: we pushed the launch back a little, from November 2018 to March 2019, but this ended up coinciding with our year end. And yet even then, within weeks one in three employees had already had a check-in. More than half of our people had already sent feedback. That hugely exceeded our expectations. It’s up to us to keep the momentum going but already it feels like it’s part of people’s working lives here. Lawyers have to record their time — that’s a natural part of this business — and Clear Review is starting to feel like it occupies that same mental space: it’s a function of what we do.”
Caroline is also impressed by performance management’s new prominence within the business.
“I think there’s a danger that you look for underperformance rather than focussing on the positive. We all know that, to get the best out of people, you need praise, you need constructive criticism, you need coaching. We have more balance now. People will know if they’re doing a good job. They get a more rounded feedback experience now.
“It also makes it easier to identify when there are performance issues. We can spot whether people are unhappy more easily. This is true of new people, younger people coming into the business, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how it helps us with people who’ve been at the firm for ten years or more. Are they still at the top of their game? How can we make sure we maintain the standard of high performance? Clear Review is producing lots of different conversations. It’s very healthy.”
For those looking to implement a more continuous model of performance development focussed on bringing the best out of their people, Caroline offers this advice:
- Get rid of the coupling of appraisals to remuneration review. A lot of organisations still use them for that. Take a broader piece of feedback from your employee population. We heard, time and again, about the fear factor associated with that annual meeting. Let conversations focus on what’s possible and achievable, not what they’re going to earn or not earn.
- How on earth do organisations set 12-month objectives? Long-term priorities are fine, but we all need to recognise that situations change. We need to cope with the unexpected and be more agile. Organisations that can change, that can be fleet of foot, will see real success. That’s something Kennedys does really, really well.