Use a continuous 360° assessment and feedback process

Developing and supporting effective partners and managers is as critical to your firm's success as identifying and dealing with toxic partners and managers.

A partner/manager assessment process that is ongoing and identifies six key dimensions (people issues, work issues, teamwork, leadership, goal achievement and client feedback) can be used to differentiate performance and to establish developmental action plans. The completed assessment provides a mechanism of continual feedback for effective behavior to be strengthened and destructive behavior to be corrected.

KEEP THE FUTURE IN MIND

A 360-degree assessment and feedback process is a valuable tool if, and only if, it has a positive impact on a participant's future behavior within a firm. An effective 360-degree process for performance will:

* Outline partner/manager strengths and talents through self-assessment and upward staff, partner and/or peer assessment;

* Help partners/managers become role models for appropriately receiving and giving feedback and demonstrating how to effectively utilize feedback;

* Create partner/manager actions needed for sustaining a competitive firm in this economic crisis; and,

* Help create consistency by using a common descriptive performance language and allow for implementation of a reward process for partners/managers that effectively establishes the behavior patterns needed to sustain your firm now and in the future.

MEASURING EFFECTIVENESS

Firm leaders seem to be continually searching for a method to objectively measure partner/manager performance, and in an equitable, fair and recurrent way, differentiating partner/manager performance while giving appropriate development feedback.

A partner/manager effectiveness assessment process, such as the proprietary one we have developed at Gatto Associates, collects performance feedback from partners, managers and staff and then measures partner/manager performance for the purpose of development and to highlight effectiveness (continue these actions) and ineffectiveness (improve and enhance these actions). Through continual feedback, this process also addresses the problem of most "one and done" 360-degree processes.

A firm is a group of chosen people coming together to focus, develop, achieve and sustain a healthy organization while accomplishing business goals. Each person has a purpose and responsibilities to perform at the highest level to maintain unity and success by demonstrating right actions. Performance at the highest level of the six dimensions of partner/manager development creates consistency of measuring achievement, which in turn creates firm health.

The 360-degree feedback process includes asking questions, collecting feedback and establishing a method to measure the right firm leadership attributes, as well as appropriate actions for people to take once these attributes are individually identified and measured.

Within the leadership of the firm, there are many "nutrient people" who want to develop their skills to support the firm. Nutrient people focus on what is best for the firm, while "toxic people" focus only on themselves, or on power, territory, status or expertise. A firm is a business with people working in sync toward clearly measured goals, not simply a group of individuals selling accounting services. People in the firm can work in sync through the six dimensions that identify the actions of nutrient people. Through a feedback process designed to measure successful behaviors, individual development can be supported. People want to learn, grow and develop their potential regardless of generation and level.

"We utilize the 360-degree assessment rate performance that also has responses to open-ended questions to differentiate partner performance and give candid feedback to continually support partner development," said Scott Drake, a senior shareholder with Smith Elliott Kearns & Co., in Pennsylvania and Maryland. These behaviors focus on leadership, successful development of the next generation of partners (succession planning), firm unity, and the business success of the firm. "We have utilized the key performance indicators to measure our partner impact and value on the firm," Drake said.

To be healthy, a firm needs to have clarity of core values and innovative leaders, with partners and staff focusing their collective energies toward the success of the firm. Bob Gallagher, CPA, of R. J. Gallagher & Associates, said, "Nutrient partners can become toxic partners through years of disagreement and compensation issues, even though they are effective accountants. This is why we need to continually give performance feedback."

"A partner is not expected to excel in each of the six dimensions," said Drake. What one nutrient partner lacks, another fulfills, but the toxic partner is exposed because they do not work in concert with the other partners, nor perform at an appropriate level of performance. Nutrient partners create synergism to complete all of the dimensions within the firm. There is ebb and flow to the six dimensions established by partners' abilities and contributions to the firm. Each partner has different talents to offer in relationship to the dimensions. Thus, when partner talents are combined, the outcome is the business success of the firm. The assessment not only rates key performance indicators, it also asks for statements of supportive and corrective action for each of the 24 key performance indicators.

"Feedback using this process helps partners see through others' eyes how they are doing, which is motivating to partners wanting to grow and ensure consistency," Drake said. He also revealed that his firm uses "the six dimensions as a way to keep our partners on track and continually focused on growing." Thus, this is an ongoing process in which the informational feedback does, in fact, feed the growth and development of the firm.

MEASURING PERFORMANCE

One of the most important facets of the assessment process is the feedback phase. The feedback or (more fittingly) the feed-forward process ensures not only that nutrient partners/managers are given recognition for their contributions, but also that they have an opportunity to continually strive to enhance themselves, their departments and the firm. By building into the assessment process the continual opportunities for mentoring, the feed-forward application:

* Keeps partners/managers active in the pursuit of successful professional and personal growth;

* Challenges the partners/managers to grow and not allow themselves to become stagnant;

* Creates consistency by establishing a recognition and reward system; and,

* Ensures that partners/managers are role models in the firm and community.

To effectively give feedback, partners/managers/staff need to:

* Create a supportive and open environment;

* Utilize the input from the 360-degree process to develop an action plan;

* Guide, ask questions and challenge; and,

* Focus on professional and personal goal achievement.

The 360° Assessment There are two essential components to our 360-degree performance assessment process - the 360-degree assessment itself, and the subsequent feedback/feed-forward meetings. The 360-degree assessment, which contains both a numerical response section and a customized, open-ended narrative section related to the participant, is completed by a participant and, anonymously, by up to 10 of the participant's work associates, including partners, managers and staff members. The six dimensions measured by the instrument are:

1. People issues. Performance indicators here include the ability to teach staff, effective communication with clients and coworkers, following up what you say with actions, and establishing trust.

2. Leadership. This arena covers indicators such as acting effectively as a firm leader, representing the firm appropriately and positively, following up with staff and clients, and demonstrating integrity.

3. Work-related issues. Here, the performance indicators involve completing work in a competent and timely fashion, efficiently and effectively working with others, and following firm procedures.

4. Achievement of goals. Here, indicators focus on effective leverage of time, utilization of staff, management of work in progress, and success in practice development.

5. Teamwork. Teamwork indicators include giving appropriate feedback on engagements, accountability, effectively working with others, and encouraging others to express their opinions.

6. Clients. This involves indicators centering on appropriately meeting client needs and effectively explaining engagements.

Upon completion of the assessment, a report is generated that includes self-performance evaluation compared with associates' evaluation, numerical-based analyses and written narratives detailing the strengths and opportunities for the participant, general comments from associates, and a plan of action to enhance performance. In each of these dimensions, respondent and participant answers are compared, rendering a gap analysis between self and aggregate respondent answers. While the 360-degree report is what the participants are most eager to view, the vital component, the real worth of the 360-degree process, is yet to come.

Feedback/Feed-forward Feedback, or feed the future, is the main method that drives development. It can be used to identify what a person is doing right (continue) and actions to be enhanced - in other words, the learning actions for completing work based on the 360-degree feedback. The Gatto Feedback Process is F-O-C-U-S:

* Focus on actions - what you do;

* Opportunity for development - enhancement;

* Compassion - care and empathy;

* Unconditional acceptance of self - this is where I am; and,

* Strengths - continue the action, what I do well.

While giving feedback through F-O-C-U-S, the concept of SMART - Specific, Measurable, Action that is Realistic and Time-bound - also needs to be utilized to measure goal attainment.

Feedback should be daily, weekly, monthly and ongoing. Depending on the responses to the six dimensions, an individual action plan can be written. Developmental progress is a way to affirm skills that the partner/manager has, the ability to perform a given set of actions, and in the course of work and engagement opportunities, that person, through experience and confidence, successfully is able to assume wider responsibility.

Development can be measured toward goal achievement through the sustaining of right actions and correcting undeveloped actions during the feedback process. Feedback is extremely important to individual and firm success. Consistent feedback develops competent people who are motivated and capable of clearly expressing ideas and providing firm leadership.

The ongoing developmental process of knowing what is being done right and what needs to be enhanced is part of a life-long learning process. Kim Wines, human resources director for Smith Elliott Kearns, makes the case that, "The feedback process contributes to firmwide open communication, career development, and interaction between mentor and mentee."

It takes courage to challenge partners and managers from the focus on work product to people development. This real and continual challenge confronts each firm partner daily, but must be supported and maintained for a firm to grow and be successful.

Rex P. Gatto, Ph.D, is the founder and president of Gatto Associates LLC in Pittsburgh. Reach him at (412) 344-2277 or rex rexgatto.com.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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