The case study

Kennedys implements global performance development

With Caroline Wilson, HR Director at Kennedys

Company info

Since its founding in London in 1899, Kennedys has grown to become a truly global law firm specialising in insurance, dispute resolution and advisory services.

  • Industry

    Legal

  • Headquarters

    London, United Kingdom

  • Company Size

    2,000 employees in 22 countries

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.” 

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.