Performance reviews: to ditch or to keep?

Over the past several months, I’ve seen tons of articles come across my desk about companies ditching the annual performance review. GE is the big one. Instead of a formal review process where they used to simply hack off the bottom 10% of performers (talk about archaic and heartless!), they have an app which encourages constant 360 degree feedback.

I am so on the fence about this!

What happens if you have a manager who’s busy, doesn’t like using the app, doesn’t know how to give feedback or simply doesn’t care about the employee’s development? Are managers held accountable for providing feedback to their employees? I’m assuming not, since they’re not being formally reviewed either. Sounds like the employee really gets the short end of the stick here.

To me, this isn’t an either/or situation. We need a culture of both frequent feedback and annual performance reviews.

On frequent feedback:

We need to better train our managers on how to give feedback. It’s easy to tell someone they’re doing a good job (although we probably don’t do it often enough) but it’s much harder to tell someone they need to improve. Managers get uncomfortable with conflict and leave the tough conversations to the annual performance review.

If the frequent feedback we’re giving is negative, make sure to document it. Send a quick recap email to the employee about your conversation. If performance doesn’t improve and you need to terminate the employee, you want everything documented clearly. Just wearing my HR hat over here!

As the leader of the organization, promote a culture of frequent feedback. Publicly praise employees when they’ve gone above and beyond! Institute a recognition system for star performers! When other managers see you doling out feedback (when deserved of course), they will do the same.

Your best employees are ones that want to improve. Giving them frequent feedback throughout the year allows them to make real-time adjustments to working style or output which will bring your middle-of-the-road performers to the top. And that just means a higher functioning organization – win-win!

On the annual performance review:

I think these babies need to stay. They are a formal, structured way to dole out salary increases based on cold, hard, documented facts. It makes me itchy to think about a system in which raise amounts, timing and rationale aren’t documented or consistent.

Annual reviews give no excuses to managers or employees. Both are forced to think about big picture goals, long-term development and how the employee can best contribute to the organization. Isn’t strategic thinking a good thing?

Maybe we simply need to revamp our performance review process? Do away with the seventeen-page document of rate on a scale of 1 to 5 and repetitive, confusing questions and instead talk about:

  • Where the employee really knocked it out of the park
  • Times they felt like they weren’t performing up to par
  • How they want to/can best contribute over the next year
  • What is their BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)

So what do you think? Ditch the reviews or should they be here to stay?



Leading around the world

Several years ago, I had direct reports in Nepal, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Haiti and Nicaragua. While I was excited at the prospect of visiting each of them throughout the year and experiencing their countries, I was at first nervous about building a relationship. I would spend maybe three weeks, tops, with them annually and worried: Will they be offended I don’t speak their language? Will it be difficult to communicate? How will I be able to tell if they’re performing well? Will they respect me as a leader?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. To build individual relationships, I quickly initiated weekly Skype calls during their business day – I often started my work day very early – to establish that mutual respect and understanding type culture that I wanted to promote. I asked a lot of questions in those initial calls and listened more than I talked – I wanted to learn everything I could about not only their work processes and activities but their culture, families and aspirations. While we Americans often cut the small talk and dive right into business, my colleagues in Mali asked about each member of my family (including the dog!) every time we chatted. Being patient, giving him space for this cultural norm and then asking about his family connected us on a deeper level than just discussing the budget.

Once I had an employee in Nicaragua resign for a higher paying opportunity elsewhere. I knew we needed to fill the position quickly but I already had other trips planned and couldn’t make it to Nicaragua for a couple months. I had to build the team from afar! I enlisted the help of other in-country staff to post the job description locally, then reviewed resumes and spent hours on Skype with potential candidates. I narrowed it down to my top three candidates then passed them on to the in-country program team to interview in-person. They shared their recommendations and I made a final decision, sight (almost) unseen. That candidate, many years later, is still a key player in the organization, which goes to show it can be done!

Finally, how do you connect a global team to each other? I wanted my team to know each other, despite their geographical differences, in order to share best practices and connect with the organization on a deeper level. I eventually figured out how to connect six different time zones into a common meeting time without making anyone be awake in the middle of the night. We talked about big picture ideas: organizational strategy, best practices for internal audits, ideas for a better budgeting process. I included all of the team in my communications and encouraged them to share ideas with each other. As the organization grew, a few of them were even able to meet each other in person at international events.

It is challenging to build a high-functioning global team, but a wonderful opportunity! If you are willing to put in the extra effort and perhaps some early mornings, to effectively connect many different people, cultures, time zones, working styles and ideas, you will reap massive benefits.

Diversity and inclusion at its best!


Sunshine in February

So is February the month of love for you, filled with pink and red hearts, romantic dinners and red roses? Or is February the month that winter sets into your bones and you are desperately craving a dose of sunshine? For me it’s the latter. Not that I don’t adore my husband and dog-son but we’ve never made a big deal about Valentine’s Day. I think last year we even skipped exchanging cards in favor of doing a house project! This month’s blog theme is relationships – get excited!

Today we’ll talk about keeping your staff not only inspired and engaged by your mission but also satisfied with the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work.


Let’s look at the Pyramid of Employee Needs from Bain & Co via Harvard Business Review and start at the top; as nonprofits, I think we need to focus the most on satisfaction and I’ll explain why.

For us nonprofits, inspiring employees is the easy part! Most likely, employees have joined the organization because they have a personal passion for what we’re doing. We’re not selling pharmaceuticals or providing IT support, we are changing the world! We’re bringing education and clean water and shelter and healthcare to people who need it and we are darn excited about it. Inspiration? Check!

So if we’ve got an organization full of passionate people, they often form extraordinary teams. What feels better than joining forces with other people who are as excited about secondary education in East Africa as you are? Many of the nonprofits I work with are small and so your impact is felt throughout the organization – you have and know your purpose and even the Executive Director can feel the work of a Program Coordinator. You’re fully engaged with your work, the people and the mission.

Satisfaction. This is a challenge for many nonprofits because frankly, we don’t usually have the funds to provide as much training or compensation as we’d like. We’re too busy spending it on programs (which is, of course, a great thing!). But there’s a beautiful balance between a low overhead rate and ensuring you’re taking adequate care of your employees – at the end of the day, passion for the mission will only keep someone for so long.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking about doing more for employee satisfaction with less (or often nothing!):

  • Create a comprehensive onboarding program to make employees feel welcome into the culture and knowledgable about how things work immediately
  • Invite board members or other professionals to host soft skills trainings or webinars pro bono – time management, conflict resolution, leadership skills
  • Host regular information sessions on benefits – employees often feel overwhelmed or confused about health insurance or 403(b) retirements plans and taking the extra effort to spend time talking about it goes a long way
  • Ensure employees’ performance is being reviewed annually and reward accordingly. If you can’t afford large salary increases, consider small bonuses
  • Recognize employees’ work publicly – announce staff who’ve gone above and beyond during monthly meetings or consider an Employee of the Month program
  • Give staff appropriate, functional technology – no one should be expected to use their personal computer or obsolete equipment

How are you ensuring your employees are not only inspired and engaged but also satisfied? Need help on 403(b) training or developing an onboarding program? Give me a ring!



Livin’ the dream as a nonprofit CFO

When I was a child I played Office. I had an old monitor, a keyboard, a rotary desk phone and reams upon reams of paper. I could hole myself up in my room for hours, typing away, jotting notes on paper and creating complex alphabetized filing systems. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up but I knew I wanted to work in an office.

Well? I’m living the dream! Whenever there’s a particularly stressful day or my Excel budget template is giving me a hard time, I jokingly say to my husband, Yup, just livin’ the dream but in many ways, I do have my dream job as a nonprofit CFO. Mission connection. I get to care deeply about my organization. I’m not slaving away, crunching numbers in a back office so Joe CEO can sell more products and enjoy his four mansions; I’m slaving away, crunching numbers so that girls can go to school in Nepal. Big difference.That little spot in the middle of a Venn diagram. I enjoy numbers (I create spreadsheets for fun – I’m serious) and I’m good at it. Financial analysis comes natural to me and I find nothing more satisfying than solving a financial puzzle. My program staff and right-brained friends are confused and cringing right now, but I truly have a purpose-driven career.

Freedom & creativity. Many nonprofits operate with a start-up mentality which can mean that not all systems are in place yet and you have the freedom and flexibility to create your own. You often escape that awful repressive mentality that we do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it and instead are constantly seeking efficiencies to better utilize our resources. If your Strengths Finder strengths are Focus and Maximizer like me, you will love developing structure, systems and efficiencies. Commonalities with coworkers. I know we’ve all said it before: we’re not here for the money. We’re thrown together because we all love serving children or homeless or the environment, and it is incredibly energizing to be in a room full of people as excited about that as you. Sure, not every single person will be pumped about the new dashboard report you just created, but our core purpose is similar.

Constant learning opportunities. No, we might not have an endless professional development budget (or have one at all!) but if you don’t know how to do something, most likely you’ll have to learn how to do it yourself. In previous roles, I had relied upon the auditors to complete the 990 but one day I found myself leading an organization who always prepared it internally. I didn’t have the option to hand it off so I dove in and learned that form inside and out. Was it challenging? Yes, for sure. Am I glad I know how to prepare it myself? Definitely!

What’s your dream job? Do you have a purpose-driven career or are you still trying to figure out what that is?



Meetings: From Ineffective to Efficient

Ah meetings. Aside from emails, they are probably the bane of any 9-to-5’ers existence. At the beginning of a new job, meetings are a great way to get to know your colleagues and take copious pages of notes to help you learn the ropes, not to mention they fill that empty time when you don’t quite have your own projects yet. Fast forward a few months, though, and you have a full to-do list, an exploding email inbox and not enough time in the day to effectively handle it all. Then, the ever-dreaded meeting request pops into your inbox and you’re one step away from losing it.

Why do we react that way to meetings, groaning to our colleagues as we plop down at the conference table for the fourth time that day?

Because meetings, when not managed properly, are a colossal waste of time and energy. Organizations need collaboration and face-time, but leaders need to work harder at maximizing this time together so everyone walks away feeling accomplished.

For starters, here’s how:

  1. Stop having meetings for the sake of having meetings. I know we get a lot of emails too, but if you simply need everyone’s okay on a decision you’ve already discussed, send an email and be done with it.
  2. Set a time and agenda and stick to them. Unless it’s a strategic brainstorming session, meetings should not last more than an hour and should have defined structure. We tend to repeat ourselves or digress after sixty minutes when we could be back at our desks working on our action items.
  3. Change up your meeting location once in a while. Your office, the conference room, Starbucks and the cafeteria all create different vibes that will keep the group feeling fresh and energized. Caffeinated beverages don’t hurt either.
  4. Close those laptops. I know many people take notes on their computer but it may not always be the most effective. Other meeting attendees can get distracted by the clickety-clack of the keys and the question of whether or not that person is actually listening to you as their face is buried in their laptop. For the note-taker, it can be hard to ignore emails popping up on the screen, especially if you’re not actively engaged in the meeting.
  5. Honor your attendees. As an introvert, I often shut down during meetings filled with extroverts who are thinking aloud and spouting out ideas left and right. I spend those meetings jotting notes and thinking to myself, but my ideas often go unheard because by the time the extroverts are done, the meeting is over. As leaders, we need to honor the different personalities in the room – ask the introverts for their opinions when you notice them thinking quietly, ask the room to silently think for a couple minutes before tossing out ideas.

Bonus: Have you heard about the walking meeting? I have yet to try this but love the concept. We all have heard that sitting is the new smoking but it’s truly hard to avoid. I am a big note-taker so I wonder about the logistics of jotting down ideas for further consideration or remembering action items.

Edited to Add: I found this great article about choosing the perfect meeting venue. Let’s all get out of the office for a meeting this week!

Have you had a walking meeting and what was it like?

What is your favorite, most productive meeting experience? What about the worst or most inefficient meeting you’ve ever attended?



Developing a high-functioning team

We all know too well the frustration and despair that comes with trying to lead a team that just doesn’t jive well together. People’s motivation, dedication and skill-sets vary, they’re not on board with your strategic vision for the department, or they just flat-out don’t like each other. As the leader, you may end up doing much of their work yourself, not including them in strategic brainstorming sessions, or stopping team meetings altogether, just to avoid your motley crew of a team.

When I think about a great team, I remember a cold winter evening at a corner booth in an Indian restaurant. The five of us had just finished a big project together and as we sat sipping our cocktails, chatting and laughing, I sat back and thought, I really love this team!

But why?Since then, I’ve tried to figure out how to recreate that team, but since cloning isn’t readily available, I thought of some characteristics and best practices for developing a high-functioning team.

Scrap the resume and look for culture fit. I think I just heard an audible gasp from my HR colleagues, so maybe we don’t want to entirely ignore the resume. But once you’ve determined that they have the basic qualifications, look for culture fit. How will they interact with the other team members, the CEO, or the program staff? Are they passionate about the mission (yes, even the finance team should be passionate about the mission!)? Does their attitude and outlook on life fit in with the organization? I’ve seen time and time again where candidates were hired based on the top school, big name work experience or fancy volunteering on their CV but they flopped within weeks at the new place because they just weren’t a culture fit. Please get to know your candidates and ask them what they’re looking for in their next employer’s culture.

Give them a voice. Most  organizations go through an annual strategic planning process with the leadership team and board of directors. CFOs: do you include your staff, even the entry-level accountants? If you want a high-functioning team who’s ready to execute that plan, you must get their input and buy-in from the beginning. I share the prior year’s plan with the group and ask that they come to our next meeting ready to brainstorm and discuss next year. As a finance team, we are so detail-oriented that we don’t often get the opportunity to think big, but in this session we share ideas that contribute to the final draft. Once it’s approved, they already recognize it as part of their work and take ownership over its execution. It is a simple technique that is so often neglected.

Turn them off. No, don’t repulse them by being the smelly lunch eater, but make sure they’re taking vacation or comp time, shutting down computers at a reasonable hour each night, limiting overtime and not checking emails at all hours. Let’s face it – they work at a nonprofit whose cause they’re passionate about so they probably would work 80 hours a week if you asked them. But we should all know by now that productivity will decrease and unhappiness will increase unless our team gets regular breaks from all things nonprofit. As leaders, we need to set the example and the expectations by turning our team (and ourselves!) off at a reasonable time each night. That email will still be there for you in the morning.

Get personal. I love learning people’s stories – their hobbies, families and outside-of-work passions – and in order to build trust I share my story with my team. When I know that Rachel is starting an herb garden or Matt is planning a trip to Sedona or Tom plays in a cover band on the weekends, however irrelevant to our mission as a team, I feel just the tiniest bit more connected to them and our team’s work. We’re not robots, people. Get to know your team.

What was your favorite team like? Were you BFFs or high-efficiency robots or somewhere in between?