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8 Tips to Conduct a Great Leadership Performance Review

Performance reviews provide an opportunity for meaningful discussions and actionable feedback.

The goal of performance reviews is to highlight successes, discuss areas for improvement and set a path forward for professional development.

But annual performance reviews often feel like a dreaded task for leaders as well as direct reports. Suddenly, a valuable tool that was meant to grow both individuals and the organization can become an awkward, yet mandatory, waste of time.

This post will provide practical and useful tips to help make leadership performance reviews or individual performance appraisals easier, more impactful and a more effective experience.

Challenges with performance reviews

Unfortunately, performance evaluations face many challenges that can impact the accuracy, or perceived fairness, of the process.

The recency effect can cause recent events to weigh more heavily on a leader or team member’s overall performance, rather than successes or good performances that occurred earlier in the calendar year.

Personal or cultural biases, if present, can also contribute to higher levels of distrust with the evaluation process.

And a sheer lack of preparation or engagement with the performance review process can greatly decrease the value of feedback provided.

Proper training for appraisers, including clear organizational standards, is key to ensuring the success of good performance feedback in any setting. Establishing and communicating well-defined metrics and goals for leaders and individual contributors creates a culture of transparency and clear expectations.

Individual performance reviews vs. leadership performance reviews

Individuals, and non-managers, are generally evaluated on their day-to-day objectives and performance in doing so. These measurements are generally based on how well these team members produce quality work to achieve goals, meet deadlines, incorporate feedback, and adhere to policies.

Alternatively, leadership performance reviews focus more on how effective the leadership style and soft skills are in enabling the success of their team. These performance evaluations zero in on how leadership skills and leadership presence impact team performance and overall organizational growth.

How to prepare for the performance review process

Providing clear and constructive feedback requires well organized thoughts that are supported with examples. Taking the time to plan will help you stay on track and craft more effective performance reviews overall.

Some organizations use a specific leadership performance review template for management. While this type of structure is helpful, it can also be beneficial to expand upon any existing performance management tools.

Here are some key points to prepare before conducting a leadership performance appraisal:

  • Understand the leader’s role and the expectations for their job.
  • Review the leader’s self-assessment if one was completed.
  • Make notes citing specific examples, from the entire calendar year, of how their performance rates against those expectations.
  • Identify any gaps between your performance evaluation and the leader’s self-assessment.
  • Plan for how you will address these gaps and any opportunities for improvement.
  • Develop a list of open-ended questions to ignite conversation.

8 tips for conducting a great leadership performance review

1. Align with the vision of the organization

Understand what leadership means in your organization and how it is expected to show up. Great leaders can vary in their leadership styles, yet each one can be successful.

Reflect on how this leader’s style and approach aligns with the core values, competencies and behaviors that are expected by your organization. When writing a performance review, reference the language found in company mission, vision, and value statements to highlight areas of alignment or areas for improvement.

2. Be comfortable giving meaningful feedback

Before you provide feedback, make sure you are comfortable giving it. This may take some careful planning, especially if you are delivering opportunities for improvement. Practice delivering feedback in advance and reflect how you will handle any negative response. If you find this challenging, you may benefit from working with a coach to address your difficulties, reframe your mindset, and create a plan for how to move forward.

Consider how you will structure your message – the observation you are making, the impact it has, and most importantly suggestions for actionable tasks to improve. Be direct, not vague, so there is a clear understanding of what is being communicated. Follow up after each point of feedback and ask the leader or team member what they are taking away from the discussion. Meaningful and constructive feedback should help move an individual forward whereas constructive criticism may not feel as supportive.

3. Gather feedback

Using multiple sources of information is a great way to learn the perspectives of others and get a more comprehensive picture of the leader’s performance. Leadership 360’s, client surveys and even self-assessments are common tools used by organizations to obtain feedback.

If you are using these tools in your performance review process, be sure to balance this type of feedback with objective data as well. Pulling metrics is also an important and valuable way to gather insight into the effectiveness of leadership.

4. Provide actionable feedback

Before sharing feedback, frame the discussion point with a specific example of the behavior or action. This is the best way to avoid any confusion, assumption, or inference. A simple statement that begins with something like “When you addressed Susan in our management meeting…” or “Your most recent board report…” immediately signals an actual observation.

If you are delivering feedback that centers around an opportunity for further development, follow up the example with an actionable suggestion for a way to improve or grow. Delivering actionable feedback the right way emphasizes a person’s strengths and capitalizes on growth rather than focusing on what went wrong. It is clear and direct yet geared towards helping the individual improve.

Keep in mind that actionable feedback is most effective when it’s delivered timely, but it is still considered an incredibly valuable tool in performance reviews.

5. Focus on professional development

A leadership performance review is an opportunity to use constructive feedback to coach and be an effective mentor for your leaders. Highlighting their achievements and leadership skills is a great way to help leverage their strengths for continued growth.

Share your thoughts on areas they excel in and ask how these skills align with their professional goals and career development. Offer assistance in creating SMART goals to support their professional development and lend your support and resources.

6. Make it a collaborative discussion

An effective performance appraisal creates meaningful discussions, not one-sided conversations. Prepare a list of open-ended questions in advance and regularly pause to ask for their thoughts and input.

If a self-assessment was done, this is a great opportunity to have open communication about any gaps between their thoughts and how others may perceive their style.

7. Highlight leadership skills

Highlighting the presence of leadership skills is key to a good performance leadership review. It helps to reinforce the alignment between the strengths of the leader and the vision of the organization.

Prioritizing leadership skills throughout the review process motivates a growth mindset in high performers and allows for succession planning within an organization. Depending on leadership roles, some common leadership skills to evaluate are:

  • Communication and active listening
  • Collaboration
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Emotional intelligence and self-awareness
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Conflict resolution
  • Vision and strategic thinking
  • Ethics and inclusion

Discuss which leadership skills are present and the ways to take these assets to a higher level.

8. Follow up regularly

Although the timing of annual appraisals is once a year, leadership development is a continuous process and should not be treated as a one-time event. Support and encourage your leaders’ ongoing development with consistent feedback throughout the year. Checking in on a regular cadence improves communication, builds trust, stronger relationships and cultivates a culture of openness.

Set regular check in meetings and use check-in questions that are geared towards the leader’s specific professional development goals. As you monitor their progress, keep in mind to celebrate their successes and contributions as well. Adjust goals if needed or offer different perspectives to help create alternative solutions.

Leadership performance review phrases

Performance reviews can be lengthy and finding the perfect words to concisely communicate important information is sometimes challenging.

Below are a few sample phrases to help deliver positive feedback as well as constructive feedback for areas of improvement:

Positive Performance Review Phrases

  • “Your active listening skills create a culture where everyone on your team feels heard.
  • “You articulate your thoughts clearly and effectively, which helps keep your team aligned with organizational goals.”
  • “Your decision-making abilities give your team clear direction, reduces confusion, and positively impacts time management and productivity.”
  • “Your creative problem-solving skills showcase your strategic mindset.”
  • “Your knowledge and understanding of industry trends and challenges allows us to set informed strategies.”
  • “You have demonstrated the ability to balance both quality and quantity in achieving organizational goals.”
  • “Your unique ability to provide actionable feedback to your team members has clearly helped your direct reports achieve their targets and support company goals.”

Areas for Improvement Performance Review Phrases

Note that it is more effective to include a related example of a time when you observed an opportunity for improvement when delivering this type of feedback. Be sure to follow up each of these observations with a suggested way to improve. Ask for the reviewees’ input on how they feel they can take action as well.

  • “Improving the clarity of your communication during stressful times may calm your team and provide them with well-defined direction.”
  • “While you communicate well, staying open to other perspectives may promote greater collaboration among different departments.”
  • “Your ability to provide thorough analysis is valuable and may benefit even further by balancing with quicker decision-making.”
  • “Inviting additional perspectives into your strategic planning process may yield more innovative solutions.”
  • “Regularly updating your knowledge of industry trends and challenges may help give us a more competitive advantage.”
  • “Balancing your leadership style with the learning style of your direct reports may improve your overall effectiveness.”

The important role of performance reviews

Delivering a quality and effective performance review is vital to the growth and development of team members as well as the organizations they serve. Whether you are evaluating a senior leader or individual contributor, annual appraisals offer a significant opportunity for feedback and partnership.