Performance Management

Connors Group

The Challenge: Performance management in the consulting industry

In 2018 Connors Group’s performance management process for their entire workforce consisted of a 6 tab spreadsheet that a quantitative finance professor might have looked at in mix of admiration and sheer terror.  It was the keystone in a loathed process that people would avoid using if at all possible.  Today, they run an incredibly elegant and data rich process for performance management that their employees happily use.  They’ve collected over 117 thousand pieces of feedback, completed 4800 objectives, conducted 403 one on one reviews, and have exchanged 569 direct pieces of public praise between teammates.  This is the story of their transformation. 

When John Schiavo and Patrick O’Leary approached Rhabit in 2018 they had one thing on their mind: How can we simplify our performance management process? The existing process had become tedious, inefficient, and unsustainable as Connors had grown rapidly in recent years.

Connors is a consultancy of industrial engineers. Fun fact: it is industrial engineers’ field of expertise to find efficiencies, achieve operational excellence, and save time and money. 

Industrial engineers eat, sleep, and breathe efficiency. It is their key metric. But why was it so hard to make the performance management process efficient? 

When Connors was a relatively small company, they successfully used a multi-tab Excel sheet with countless pull-down menus and rating scales. The faster they grew, the harder it became to make their 80 consultants adhere to the process and find time to fill out the many fields and scales. 

Consultants and managers simply did not have the time to deal with complex Excel sheets after each project. Consulting work is project work, and consultants were on every changing teams with different project managers each time, often working autonomous and unsupervised. Only a fraction of employees self-rated their performance and almost no manager provided ratings. During bonus season, almost no hard data was available to guide the allocation of rewards and promote their most talented employees. More importantly, employees did not receive developmental performance feedback.

So right out of the gate, John and Patrick’s shopping list for a Performance Management System had threekey items:

  1. Performance feedback and ratings have to be easy and non-invasive
  2. The entire process has to accommodate changing teams, changing project managers, and non-tradition reporting structure (matrix and project-based)
  3. The performance management process has to capture performance but also behaviors that reflect highly professional conduct 

What would a performance management system have to look like to operate in these conditions? 

Connors Group’s focus on values [Connors needed PM that focuses on values]

Connors’s company culture (reflected in their values) has two major elements. The first is value for the client. Consultants have to be excellent in providing cutting-edge techniques, delivering efficiently, and ensuring the client’s return on their investment. 

However, Connors focuses just as much on creating a work environment in which they can retain their highly coveted industrial engineers. Connors's key to success has been finding and retaining the most talented graduates from engineering schools who are only hired after completing extensive internships on top of complex personnel selection procedures. So keeping talent is key.

Therefore, Connors’ second set of values focuses on being a great place to work, having a friendly, respectful, and supportive work environment. At Connors being productive is not enough. Leaders and employees alike have to adhere to the highest ethical and interpersonal standards. John Schiavo, Connors VP of Training and HR stated to Rhabit: “We cannot have people working here who elbow their way to productivity at the cost of others.”

Connor’s approach to Performance Management: An Overview

With these three requirements in Mind, John and Patrick started the conversation with Rhabit in early Summer 2018. In July of that year implemented the basis of a performance management process that, after a few expansions, is in use today in 2022. 

The process implemented consists of 4 Key Elements:

  1. Habit Feedback
  2. Objectives (OKR) Ratings
  3. End of Project Reviews (1:1)
  4. End of Year Reviews

Habit feedback is provided weekly. This baseline feedback gives clear behavior guidance to consultants no matter what project they are on. Three to five 

Objectives are created for each project. Projects are consulting projects that range from 3 weeks to 3 months in duration. 

At the end of each project, the project manager and consultant are automatically prompted to create an End of Project Review in Rhabit. For Connors, this very frequent and just-in-time review was absolutely critical.

“Having this dedicated time with your manager is a must. It is our number one retention tool. Our consultants are very driven, usually among the best in their graduating class. They want to grow, they want that professional expansion. This happens in these 1:1s.” - John Schiavo

Finally, at the end of the year, the formal manager reviews the overall performance across the year during an End of Year Review. The 1:1 is set up to show objectives across the entire year and all habit feedback. Here is where the manager and employee look at the big picture and how (and if) the employee has grown across the year. These 1:1 reviews are generated instantly, without any labor from the manager with all data in one place.

Putting it all together: the Company-Level Review

Connors Group’s focus on talent does not stop with hiring top candidates and actively developing them. Connors has a long-term plan for every employee that includes promoteability into leadership or sales engineering roles. Knowing your over 100 employees can be daunting, so they asked Rhabit to create a tool to review all employees. This tool is based on a traditional 9-box. Habit feedback forms one axis and objectives ratings form the other. John: “It is not enough at Connors to be the best at industrial engineering. You have to be a team player, you have to fit in with our culture.” 

A detailed look at Habit Feedback

Rhabit’s unique habit feedback was a key selling point for John and Patrick. Habit feedback allowed their company to set clear expectations for the employees and their managers. 

Connors collaborated with Rhabit to identify the key behaviors necessary to be successful for Connors consultants. A sample of the habits selected for individual contributors and managers is listed below. For Connors, it was important that these habits support their value of client satisfaction (Dependability, Client Impact) but also create a work environment in which people love to come to work (Core Values, Collaboration, Dependability). Habits for leaders were specifically selected to create a developmental environment, in which employees can grow and have a satisfying, long-term career (Supporting the Team, Developing Talent, Leadership Mentoring).

Sample of Connors Habit Model

Viewing your Feedback on Demand 

Most consultants at Connors are industrial engineers. Like most engineers, there is one thing that engineers value above all else: objective data. John and Patrick were impressed by Rhabit’s dashboard capabilities, which strike a balance between ease-of-use and detail. 

A detailed look at Objectives (OKR) Ratings

A key criterion for Connors was to ensure that employees’ performance could easily be tracked. While in-progress each objective is shown in a simple Kanban-style dashboard. Any objective can be in the state of In Progress, Awaiting Reviews, or Reviewed. 

Creating an Objective

A key feature for Connors was Rhabit’s capability to create custom libraries of standard objectives. These pre-configured objectives can easily be assigned to a person (the objective owner). Connors has standardized many of their consulting services, so a consistent and comparable set of objectives made the entire performance review process more efficient. However, even without the use of the library feature, creating an objective only takes about a minute in Rhabit. 

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Rating an Objective

After an Objective is complete both owner (the person who does the work) and the stakeholder (the person who reviews and objective) can rate the quality of the work. This is done on a simple 5-point scale ranging from 1-5. Connors heavily relies on Rhabit’s Comment feature. Each objective can be commented on at any time. As a result, objective reviews (and the subsequent 1:1 reviews) can be filled with context and meaning because comments help the manager understand what was actually happening during the project.

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A detailed look at End of Project Reviews: 1:1

Reviewing as the true tool of performance management

How does a consulting firm with about 120 associates attract and retain an ambitious and highly coveted college graduate who could work for any well-known large corporation? Connors answer is simple: Give them the right challenges that stretch them just the right amount and grow them as a professional. 

Rhabit's 1:1 End of Project review is the work-horse for this approach. Experience Project Managers review the objectives of a given project, read the comments, and discuss all of it in the context of habit feedback.

Standardized Talking Points

Rhabit tries to make the review process as efficient as possible. Project Managers can select from review templates that provide standardized talking points (or create their own). This saves time but also makes reviews across multiple project managers comparable and standardized.

Both project managers and consultants can comment on each talking point. These comments can be completed ahead of the review or during the review. Rhabit’s 1:1 review instills an atmosphere of transparency. The consultant knows what is coming and will not be surprised during the review with bad news. 

Please note that project managers and employees have access to all objectives scores and habit feedback in addition to the talking points.

A detailed look at End of Year Reviews 1:1

Performance may fluctuate from project to project. Some are easy and routine, some are more demanding and complex. Connors established an End-of-Year review to create a more formal, overarching checkpoint. 

The tool is the same, a 1:1 review. However, HR leaders can schedule and enforce these reviews for the formal line manager of each employee. In this review, the big picture matters. Have consultants been deployed on a variety of assignments or were all assignments the same? What gaps in their experience do they have? What are their preference and what stretch assignments would they like to encounter in the future.

Line managers can use these meetings to zoom out and see trends in performance. Are objective ratings fluctuating wieldly or is the consultant delivering consistency. None of these trend discussions would be possible without rich data from objective ratings and habit feedback

Wrapping it all up: A detailed look at the Career Planner (9-box)

Connors Group is growing and needs new entry level consultants and analysts. However, just as critical for growths are team leaders, managers, and directors. A lot of leadership roles need to be filled in this growing company.

Connors likes to hire leaders from within to ensure that leaders have the technical skills that are learned as consultants and can operate within the cultural norms of this organization. The Career Planner or 9-Box review is a key feature to plan succession and promoted the right people at the right stage in their career.

Once a year, manager, directors, and senior leaders, review all employees and categorize them by job role. For example, all senior consultants are compared.

The 9-box review categorizes them into 9 categories (see below). Each consultant is automatically placed in one of the 9 boxes, depending on their habit and objectives scores. Senior leaders then have the ability to review any objective, 1:1 review, and habit scores. They can read comments made about these consultants and move them around in the 9-box. John: “We want an algorithm to prepare the evaluation but we want humans to make the final decision.”

Managers also review if each consultant is ready for promotion, should be trained or upskilled, or is appropriately placed in the current role.

The outcomes of the review drive bonuses, merit increases, and promotions. 

Why did John and Patrick go with Rhabit?

Connors Group has been using Rhabit for now about 4 years. Rhabit and Connors have partnered and collaboratively developed and tested many features. 

“What we really liked about Rhabit is that they listened. Performance Management is hard but without a flexible partner, we would not have been able to customize our process as we did with Rhabit”, says John Schiavo. 

In the end, Rhabit was able to deliver a customized but proven method that accomplished the three main objectives on John and Patrick’s shopping list. Rhabit was easy to use that feedback is actually being collected. Objectives are easily created and quickly rated. Even quickly changing teams can be reflected in Rhabit and finally, Rhabit’s focus on behaviors helped Connors establish a behavioral baseline that instills technical skill but also interpersonal excellence among its employees. 

In 2018 Connors Group’s performance management process for their entire workforce consisted of a 6 tab spreadsheet that a quantitative finance professor might have looked at in mix of admiration and sheer terror. It was the keystone in a loathed process that people would avoid using if at all possible. Today, they run an incredibly elegant and data rich process for performance management that their employees happily use. They’ve collected over 117 thousand pieces of feedback, completed 4800 objectives, conducted 403 one on one reviews, and have exchanged 569 direct pieces of public praise between teammates. This is the story of their transformation. 

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