M. Tamara Chandler on “How Performance Management Is Killing Performance”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Tamra Chandler is a bona fide people maven. This means she’s someone who has spent the majority of her career thinking about people, researching how they’re motivated, and developing new and effective ways for organizations to achieve the ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. She’s also the CEO and co-founder of a thriving Seattle-based consulting company called PeopleFirm, which focuses on helping organizations find success by improving how they utilize, motivate, and support—you guessed it — their people.

Her book, How Performance Management Is Killing Performanceand What to Do About It, was published by Berrett-Koehler (2016).

An award-winning leader in her field (she’s been recognized by Consulting Magazine twice as one of the top consultants in the U.S.), Tamra has more than 25 years of experience guiding clients, ranging from tiny non-profit arts groups to giant multi-national corporations, through varied and complex business transformation projects. She’s recently focused her considerable energy on solving the problem of performance management. Her Performance Management Reboot system has received international acclaim for its innovative, customizable, and down-to-earth methodology. It stands out in a field that’s awash in criticism but sorely lacking in real answers. Outside of her work, Tamra treasures any free time she can find with her husband, two children, and three pedigreed mutts.

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First, a few general questions. Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

I’ve worked with so many brilliant people in my career, I really couldn’t isolate just one person or situation. Instead, I believe the combination of insights from people above, beside, and below me over the years has been an invaluable gift. I’d also say that each stage of my career has helped me develop in different ways. My early days at United Research and Gemini were important for building my consulting chops; my time at Arthur Andersen, where I was one of the very first members of a budding Seattle consulting team, taught me how to build a business and lead a team. Leading our 200-person consulting practice through the obliteration of Andersen gave me a painful and powerful lesson in leading through crisis; and launching PeopleFirm in 2008 has brought a whole new set of experiences. In fact, if feels like my pace of learning as increased significantly during the last eight years, through hands-on experience, study, and being surrounded by my brilliant tribe at PeopleFirm.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

After a short non-consulting stint at Microsoft early on, I learned that I had consulting in my blood. I think it goes back to my love of problem solving (I did study engineering, after all) and my empathy for people. So, leaving Microsoft and joining Arthur Andersen was a key turning point. In 2002, our firm (Arthur Andersen) was brought down by the Enron scandal, and that was another key turning point… quite honestly, had that not occurred, I would have likely retired as an Andersen partner, and never formed my own company. The break-down of Anderson led me to Hitachi Consulting, where I was tested in new ways—and my time, research, and experience at Hitachi helped me understand that my passion was in the people arena, and that I craved working with a smaller group of similarly passionate people to build something new and different.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

My undergraduate degree is in engineering, and while I have not practiced engineering in many years, the problem solving skills I gained have been invaluable throughout my whole career. My MBA then added the business acumen I needed to survive in the world of business, especially as a strategic consultant. I’ve found the combination to these two degrees to be a powerful mix.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Only work for companies that share your core values and cultural expectations. As an individual, don’t go in thinking (unless you’re the CEO) that you can change it. I believe almost everyone learns that lesson somewhere along the way. The saddest people are those who never address the misalignment.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I hadn’t seen this quote before, but I love it! Wise words for engaging people to do great things. I often talk with my team about “our snowball”; each of us adds a layer, and together we can make a large, beautiful, complex ball of snow—if we’re smart about making the most of each other’s knowledge and strengths.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what notto do.”

Now, this is a quote I use all the time—and very few of us heed. I will admit I’ve suffered from not being clear at times about what we are not doing — and it always comes at a price. The problem of doing too much, taking on too much, asking for more from less, is rampant these days. The great leaders of our time will be those who can help their teams get focused, pick the right places to invest their efforts, connect their people by building understanding of the why of the priorities, and then clear the path for them to do their best work.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

I need to ponder this one a bit more. I think I agree in principle; however, sometimes there are some ideas that are oldies but goodies that never go out of style, or become a cliché.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Hadn’t heard this one either, but, yes, it rings true. Happy accidents can be a wonderful thing, especially if you have the wisdom to recognize them and the courage to pursue them.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

You said it, Brother! Activating strategy, as in delivering a plan, is what it is all about. I’d rather see my company (and my clients) be directionally right and hit their goals, rather than have a brilliant vision that never becomes a reality.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

The headline for this quote is, “sad but true.” Management too often gets in the way instead of helping to clear the way. Our opportunity today is in figuring out how to make it easy to get work done. In a workshop with one of my clients recently, we were talking about building high-performing teams, and one of the leaders in HR turned to me and said, “doesn’t that just mean making it easy to get things done?”. Exactly!

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended period of time? Why?

I’ve always had a keen admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt. She had such passion and smarts, and never seemed to lose her courage. I’ve always thought she would have been a wonderful person to have known.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

I believe that most resistance is a result of fear, uncertainty, and/or fatigue. Frankly, it’s unlikely you can avoid resistance, but you absolutely should aim to minimize it, both in volume and duration. This requires tackling the uncertainty and the risk head-on. Get clear on what people are fearing, what questions they need answered, etc., and address those items. That doesn’t sound too hard, right? The challenge, however, is that to effectively manage change you must address those issues at an individual level as well as an organizational level. This is where the complexity comes in, because each individual is triggered by different thing; each individual as different areas of fear and uncertainty.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

I believe cultures that allow people to show up as who they really are – even to let their freak flag fly a bit when needed—are the cultures that fuel the greatest innovation, growth, and vitality. When we feel safe and can be our authentic self, we are (generally speaking) at our best and most creative. Old industrial-era cultures shut this down, which is why so many women and other underrepresented groups choose to exit the corporate world.

Another big must for a strong workplace culture is trust. Organizations where there is trust (trust in leaders, trust in the people by the leaders, trust peer-to-peer, and trust team-to-team) create powerful cultures where amazing things can get done.

Of all the organizations with which you are most familiar, which best exemplifies those characteristics? Please explain.

PeopleFirm of course! I’ve also worked with other smaller firms and companies where you find that vibe as well (Moz, xPlane, and Port Blakely, for example). I think it gets harder to hold on to as companies grow, but it’s worth the effort to continue to strive for that authentic, supportive, and trusting environment. Many people would probably be surprised that Arthur Andersen embodied many of those elements in a strong way, although it was a big company. That culture is why we still have Andersen reunions 14 years after its demise.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

I predict that our economy will continue to be in a slow-growth mode (at best), which means that we need to understand how to operate without constant expansion and cash in the bank. And we need to set reasonable expectations on what good looks like in that environment. Today’s economic reality puts pressure on leaders and organizations, in nearly every industry, to deliver more with less. I think two things are needed to address this situation. First, in a broader sphere, I’d love to see us, as the human race, adjust our expectations and ask the “money managers” to settle for a little less while placing a greater priority on the other elements of life: community, health, our environment, etc.

Secondly, organizations won’t be able to trim their way to significant increases in value; instead they’ll need to gain strategic advantage through creative and courageous approaches. I think those creative solutions will include rethinking what management means, and taking a tough look at how we structure our organizations. Leaders will also need to be bolder with what their teams are not going to do (with a nod back to the Porter quote on strategy!).

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Tamara cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her firm’s website link

Performance Management Reboot link

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