Talking About Performance – Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Continuing from my prior post about performance reviews…

Mr. Alberto Gonzales, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, was questioned again about the dismissals of United States Attorneys — amid a new assertion that, in effect, nine of them were let go, rather than eight as previously reported — and about his awareness of what is going on in his huge department. Moreover, Mr. Conyers said, the Bush administration’s resistance to Congressional inquiries into the matter inevitably raises the question: “Who created the list, and why?”

Mr. Conyers reiterated his question, whereupon Mr. Gonzales said that his former aide, D. Kyle Sampson, was involved in “consulting with the senior leadership in the department” and that eventually a “consensus recommendation” was reached.“O.K.,” an exasperated Mr. Conyers said. “In other words, you don’t know.”

On the contrary… I think Mr. Gonzales knows very well how the decisions were made and who made each recommendation and why. But the structure that was set up to accomplish this purge was deliberate. It was deliberately designed to eliminate the possibility of any particular person having to take responsibility for and, therefore, the consequences of the actions. The conclusion, that a “consensus recommendation “ was reached, is eerily familiar to me. It’s the same way PwC does annual performance reviews of their professionals. They have established a very elaborate, automated and heavily documented process. But, in the end, in my opinion the process is intended to allow Partners to abdicate responsibility, accountability and liability for managing, developing and, sometimes, firing professionals.

From the PwC website, a description of the way the firm would like to be:

“Coaching is a developmental partnership based on shared responsibility between coaches and coachees. It’s designed to promote and support the individuals’ professional development and personal achievement.

Our goal is to create a coaching culture, whereby coaching is an integral part of all working relationships throughout the organization. Reaching out, sharing experiences, and taking advantage of every coachable moment is a strongly encouraged part of the culture here. …”

Becoming a Partner at a public accounting firm, especially a large one, is a major professional accomplishment. It comes, usually, after many years of hard work and diligence in learning the technical skills needed to be a professional accountant and in learning the soft skills needed to manage client and staff relationships.

To become a Partner, one has to go through several steps, more or less the same at all firms (at least in the US):

-Senior Staff
-Senior Manager

Some firms, like PwC have also added a title of Director. This is an honorary title, used to accommodate experienced hires that want a title more in line with titles they had outside of the profession and for senior support and administrative staff, who are not on a Partner track but want a title that approximates those in the outside world at their level. However, in internal systems, the title is still often coded as Senior Manager, since it is no higher than client service Senior Managers but may have a different salary band assigned to it.

PwC has also added a Managing Director title, an accommodation to those who now recognize that they can not take on or do not want the responsibility for an equity partnership. In some cases, this is also meant to accommodate outside hires that come in the firms at a late stage of their career, (say after 50 years old) and do not have enough time to make it worthwhile for either themselves or the firm to benefit from a partnership status before the firm’s mandatory retirement of 60 years of age. This also accommodates the non-CPA professional who is at the career level and responsibility level of a Partner, but can not ever sign audits as a client service professional. Some firms also use the tile “Principal” to designate a non- CPA partner level professional and this can be an equity or non-equity relationship to the firm.

Again, from the PwC website:
Partner Connectivity
The firm is also taking steps to create a stronger bridge between staff and partners. To ensure that we’re listening and responding to the full spectrum of people’s needs, Relationship Partners — either a partner or a managing director — reach out to each staff member. The purpose is to get to know each individual as a person and to help them better connect with the firm. We want to build communication between our staff and the firm’s leaders to benefit both our people and the firm.

When I joined PwC as a Director in August 2005, I was assigned a “Relationship Partner” and a “Coach.” My Relationship Partner, I was told, was the one who would communicate my year end salary increase and any bonus. This partner was also intended to be someone I could go to, when needed, to support the development of other “relationships” in the firm. It sounded somewhat like boss to me, but not in a sense that this partner would manage my day to day activities. Those Partners were any number of people, based on the engagements I worked on.

I was also assigned a “Coach” . This Partner was intended, as described above, to “promote and support the individuals’ professional development and personal achievement. “ This partner would also communicate my year end performance appraisal and rating, which would be a “consensus opinion” based on consultations with other Partners and after review of my Performance Feedback Forms.

Performance Feedback Forms are electronic forms that the professionals must request be completed by anyone who has been in a position of supervision/management of them during the year. It is important to have as many forms completed to as necessary to account for all hours worked during the year. You are encouraged to also have other Partners and peers complete forms for your participation in business development efforts, internal projects, recruiting activities and other firm activities such as charitable and community initiatives. In other words, someone needs to provide feedback on all of your working hours for that year.

I was also assigned “coachees.” Since I was at a Director level, I could be a coach, guiding young professionals through the firm, even though I was new to it all myself. But I was not their boss. I also was responsible for communicating the final performance review “consensus opinion.” However, as was mentioned before, I was not aware of nor involved in any compensation decisions, including the final performance rating of the individual and I did not supervise the professional on a day to day basis. These responsibilities were reserved for Partners.

Near the end of the fiscal year, Annual Review Committees are formed. These Committees consist of local office professionals from each practice including HR professionals who develop a recommendation for the Partners for a “consensus opinion “ and a rating for every non-partner and non-Senior Manager/Director. Professionals are selected to serve on the committees that would review each professional’s performance file. For Senior Managers/Directors, the Annual Review Committees consist of only Partners. “File reviewers” compile each individual’s file, on an objective basis, from all Performance Feedback Forms and any other supporting information regarding the professionals’ performance such as utilization statistics and other testimonials that have been completed.

The “file reviewer” presents the case for the professional to the Committee like a 1st year law student presents a case in law school based on a reading of the facts of the case alone. The “file reviewer”, who is intended to be an advocate for the professional in the Annual Review Committee, making sure all data is heard and no opinions or biases are entertained that are not based on the facts contained in the written documentation. In other words, if it’s not on paper, it can not be discussed. That is what we were told.

The “file reviewers” for my two “coachees” were Directors from other cities that I had never met, who reviewed the information that had been collected for my “coachees” electronically, asked me to fill in any blanks and then presented the individual’s case, on a totally objective and anonymous basis, to an Annual Review Committee.

The “file reviewer”, however, never meets the professional in question and the professional is not supposed to know who their file reviewer is. In fact, this is forbidden. This would cause the file reviewer to lose their “objectivity.” The stated purpose of the elaborate “file reviewer” process was to provide the professional with an objective reading of his performance reviews and avoid the possibility that one single partner could poison the well for a professional if there was a personality or other conflict not having to do with performance. However, in my opinion, the purpose is instead to diffuse and disguise responsibility for the final conclusions and recommendations of the annual review and to avoid the possibility for recriminations, complaints and appeals to any specific person if the professional disagrees with the opinions that are finally delivered to him/her. The professional does not know who takes final responsibility for the bad review, bad rating or bad salary increase or whose opinions weighed most heavily.

Which brings us back to Attorney General Gonzales… I believe that their process was set up by lawyers so no one person has to take responsibility for the decisions or opinions, and in the end no one has to be vulnerable to the liability either. What happened just happened because that’s the way the “consensus opinion” developed.

In the case of PwC, I believe the Performance Process was established by their lawyers, in order to enable avoidance of responsibility, accountability and, at times, liability for career and career ending decision that are taken by the Partners.

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