Constructive Criticism? Who Wants That?

At one point in my career, many years ago, I was in charge of the Financial Services Consulting practice for KPMG in the New York office.  One year, when the annual performance evaluation forms were sent around to all partners in charge of practices, we decided it was time to try to do something better than the routine evaluation process that was handed to us.  Fortunately, my practice was large and filled with consulting professionals at every level who were smart, ambitious, and trained problem-solvers.  I pulled together a small group of them to work with me in thinking through what an effective performance evaluation process should be for our practice.  The newly designed process was labelled the Net Message process, and it was used for many years in that practice and other practices that I lead within the firm.

The Net Message process had a few design elements that made it effective in our environment.

  • Perhaps the most important design element of the process was that the evaluation was collaboratively prepared.  Every professional of a higher level that had substantial experience with a particular professional on a project during the year, provided input on that professional’s performance.  This was done for every professional in the practice, from the Analyst and Consultant levels, through all levels of Management.  Partners were handled differently, as was appropriate for that level, but input from other Partners was solicited.

  • The Net Message form consolidated the collaborative input on each professional’s strengths, potential areas for improvement, and recommended actions for improving performance.

  • The Net Message form also provided a very clear statement as to how each professional was doing against career objectives.  A professional was right on track with their career and could expect future promotions, was struggling somewhat with their performance and needed to take actions to improve performance, or was not likely to be successful in this particular consulting environment and should start looking for a position on the outside.

  • The Net Message evaluation was delivered to each professional by a small group that included at least two partners, and others of a higher level that had the most experience with the professional.

The Net Message process was an instant success, and was highly praised by the professionals as being open, clear, honest, and straightforward.  At the completion of the process, the professional felt that they had a good handle on their performance, their progression against career goals, and, where necessary, constructive criticism for improvement.  The process proved to be so effective in my practice at KPMG, that, many years later, I decided to introduce it to selected clients, and in fact, implemented it for several clients.

In a client environment, we found that the Net Message process needed to be toned down somewhat.  It was designed for a professional consulting environment that embraced “up or out” career management concepts.  The consulting professionals were all ambitious, and the culture of the practice was aggressive.   However, this was not the case in most client environments.  Many client employees reacted negatively to strong constructive criticism, regardless of how well-intentioned it was.  In general, client employees viewed constructive criticism as being criticism, first and foremost.  We solved this issue with the process by placing more emphasis on employees’ strengths and their long-term value to the organization.

After making these adjustments, the Net Message process worked well in client organizations.  It provided straightforward, clear, open communication with their employers, and that is what employees want most from a performance evaluation process.

About William M. McGee

Bill McGee is a Managing Partner with McGee Partners LLC, a boutique consulting firm located in Avon, CT. The firm specializes in consulting projects in the areas of strategic management, financial management, and business improvements. He has over thirty-five years of consulting and management experience working with clients in a variety of industries.

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3 Responses to Constructive Criticism? Who Wants That?

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