Performance Coaching at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
An interview with Jaime Gonzales – Section Head, Professional Development at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
In 2012, Jaime Gonzales attended a Conference Board seminar with the wishful title of “Reinventing Performance Management.” As the Section Head of Professional Development at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Gonzales was keen to hear from organizations that had taken a progressive approach to overhauling this industrial-era process which most practitioners agree is broken, but for which few alternatives have been put forward.
The conference, it turned out, was disappointing. Little “reinventing” was taking place and most companies were merely tweaking the traditional performance management approach. “I went looking for new ideas from other companies and, frankly, there weren’t a whole lot,” said Gonzales. Some companies had made progress, such as Juniper Networks, Adobe, and Atlassian (none of whom were at the conference), but most companies reported little more than what JPL had already undertaken: streamlining the infamous forms and tweaking the rating methodology. This really wasn’t what Gonzales was looking for. There was a strong-felt need at JPL to get people away from the process of ratings and form-filling, and engaged instead in more developmental conversations that were both valued by the team members and helped JPL raise the bar on performance.
Given the lack of examples to follow in this area, JPL would have to forge its own path. The motivation for wanting to overhaul the current process stemmed from two key drivers.
The first impetus for change was the result of a recent engagement survey. In 2012, despite the concerns of potential funding cuts at the federal level, JPL’s engagement scores remained strong. What distinguished the results were the bonds of trust that existed between managers and their direct reports. This foundation of trust was evident at all levels of the organization.
The second driver was a challenge from lab director Dr. Charles Elachi – the most senior leader at JPL – who challenged every department to tackle bureaucracy across the organization.
“We felt the one area that contributed the biggest bureaucratic headaches was the Performance Management Process. So the mantra became ‘to shift from the quantity of forms to the quality of conversation.’” said Gonzales. While these were the two immediate drivers, another longer- term factor at play for JPL was the changing demographics of the lab.
“One of the things that convinced us that this was the right direction to go in – this emphasis on performance coaching and focusing on the quality of the conversation – had some of its roots in the millennial data that has been cropping up in the last several years,” said Gonzales. “Millennials want more frequent interaction with their immediate supervisor, want more feedback about their performance, want more opportunities to discuss their career options and development. We are going to see a shift in our demographics where millennials – who represent roughly 20% of our population right now – will represent 50% of our workforce in about 5 years, and the baby boomers will effectively do the opposite – the two will flip-flop. So we want to address that expectation to not only obtain feedback but to also provide input on how one’s supervisor is doing.”
Gonzales is quick to point out that while Millennials may be a growing population and more vocal in calling for feedback on career and performance, the appetite for feedback transcends generations. The JPL engagement data indicates this is something every generation hopes for in the workplace.
The JPL Professional Development team set about moving the organization from traditional performance management to “Performance Coaching” – more frequent development conversations, both formal and informal, between managers and employees.
First: set the stage
The first step in the process was to dig deeper with managers and the leadership team. It was important to understand what the changes would mean and how they would be
It would be easy to be fooled by JPL’s culture, in which people appreciate and are quick to act on the need to document every detail and meet regulatory requirements. Gonzales elaborates: “We had roughly 99% compliance on the old process. So I can point to data to say ‘we are getting it done,’ but what was the quality of those conversations? How useful were those conversations?”
One lesson learned from the Adobe team was to invest time up-front on manager briefings and making sure everyone was clear on the intent of the effort. “With a change of this scale, setting the right context and explaining the logic for the changes is important,” said Gonzales.
A number of focus groups with managers followed. The idea of eliminating the traditional performance review documentation was, for the most part, embraced. But it also met with some uncertainty, and not from where one might expect.
“We were surprised at the hesitation from a vocal minority of managers who preferred completing a form. After all, engineers and scientists are used to measurement and documenting. Our conclusion was that if a manager wanted a form they could use one, but at the same time we were not going to mandate it.”
Finding the right partner
By early 2013, JPL had agreement and a plan on how to proceed. It was at this time that they started to look for an external partner. After a thorough evaluation process, JPL selected BlessingWhite and the coaching program “Helping Others Succeed” as the core solution to build upon.
“We settled on BlessingWhite principally because of the X model. The dual focus helped transcend this effort from a ‘feel good’ HR program to one that had an emphasis on both employee development and business purpose as well.”
Philosophically, this balance between the development of individuals and focusing on what makes the lab successful was the right balance to secure the commitment of all stakeholders.
Another key factor: the feedback tool that is part of the HOS program was manageable, and it helped make the experience individualized.
“We were not looking to run six hundred separate 360-degree feedback [evaluations]. The individualized approach to the coaching exemplified why we wanted to move to this approach: we wanted it simplified,” said Gonzales. “We wanted conversations to be more frequent and more personalized. But it wasn’t just about doing something for the employees – it was about doing something that would
also benefit the business. To make it very individualized and help managers focus on those individual conversations when they have to happen.”
Getting to work
The JPL and BlessingWhite teams first met in August of 2013 and worked together on the solution. Pilot sessions took place in September, and some tweaks were made prior to the main rollout to 600+ managers.
At the same time JPL deployed a ‘pulse survey’ to establish a benchmark on how current conversations were being received.
The first phase of the rollout was a series of manager-orientation sessions that took place in November and December of 2013. JPL ran over twenty sessions to set the scene for the actual training. “We wanted to dispel some myths,” said Gonzales, “and reinforce that this was not about increasing the workload for managers, but about taking advantage of existing formal and informal opportunities to have quality conversations. We set the expectations, provided the background, and also outlined the support that we would provide during and after the session.”
The new approach did away with all of the documentation requirements for performance management. The only remaining requirements for managers was a contractual requirement that each manager confirm that he or she had had a performance conversation with each member of their team. This became the Annual Contribution Conversation, where the discussion could range from accomplishment to
development to career interests. By the end of June over 600 managers across JPL had received the training and held such annual contribution conversations.
“But we didn’t want to send the message that these were the only conversations you were expected to have,” said Gonzales. Managers were encouraged to employ the approaches they had learned in the training to conduct both formal and informal coaching conversations.
What about the lawyers?
One might expect JPL to have received pushback from the legal team. After all, wouldn’t the documentation of performance conversations have been a foundation for any disciplinary action?
“That came up,” said Gonzales. “But we already had a process in place for documenting poor performance and corrective actions.”
“For sure, in a coaching conversation you should be discussing under-performance as necessary. But if it gets to the point where a manager needs to take some formal corrective action, we have a separate process already in place. At the end of the day, both are part of the overall performance management process.”
So what was the impact?
Using the 2013 pulse survey as a reference, the JPL team ran a second survey at the end of 2014. Gonzales was bracing for a potential dip in people’s satisfaction with the process. After all, most big change initiatives take some time to settle in. But even in this brief period between the rollout of the new process and the 2014 pulse survey, results were very promising.
In the spirit of the X model, the JPL team was interested in the impact on both employee satisfaction and individual work performance.
In 2013, 47% of JPL respondents agreed or strongly agreed
that “the coaching conversations I had with my direct supervisor in the last year contributed positively to my job performance.” By the end of 2014 that number had reached 63%.
In 2013, 53% of respondents agreed that these conversations had a positive impact on their job satisfaction. By the end of 2014 that number had risen to 62%.
“Remember one of the things that we were stressing: we wanted managers and employees to have more frequent conversations (formal or informal) about their work performance, their professional growth and their career interests,” said Gonzales.
So the JPL team was encouraged when the survey revealed that 30% of employees reported an increase in the frequency of conversations with their manager about work performance and professional growth. 25% also reported more frequent career conversations.
Overall, 68% of respondents found the conversations useful, which was consistent with the 2013 number. But when asked more specifically, 73% reported the work performance conversations to be useful, 71% reported the professional growth and development conversations to be useful, and 68% found the conversations around career interests to be useful.
So more frequent conversations were taking place and the conversations were adding value more frequently. In addition, the survey highlighted both an increase in “Quiet Hour” events (one-on-one time spent between an employee and a manager) and an increase in ad-hoc conversations taking place. 20% reported more frequent formal conversations and 32% reported more frequent informal ones.
In 2014 JPL also asked employees to rate the effectiveness of their manager in holding coaching conversations. Over 40% of respondents identified their managers as a “role model” or “superior” when it came to coaching them. Another 40% said their manager met their expectations.
Some lessons learned…
As with any new endeavor the JPL team learned a lot along the way, although there were a few regrets. Gonzales mentions a couple: “If we were to do it all over again, I would have called on senior leadership to be more involved in training and communication – I wish we had involved them more. It would have been great to have a member of the executive council kick off the training sessions as a way of [highlighting the importance of the effort], and to challenge some concerns or myths. As a stage-setter that could have been useful.”
The speed at which JPL went from initial scoping (August 2013) to briefings (winter 2013) to deploying the program (early 2014) also put a lot of pressure on the team. “I think a little breathing room would have helped,” jokes Gonzales.
Finally, the training efforts focused exclusively on managers. But given the time and resources, providing some support to the employees being coached would have been valuable.
“We didn’t have the same level of budget for employee training. This is obviously a much larger population. The best we could do was to offer a series of employee information sessions that my team and our HR business partners hosted,” said Gonzales. “It would have been helpful to have some context-setting – to give them a tool or two to be prepared to have different types of conversations with their manger or supervisor. That is where much of our energy is going to be this year.”
“We are not ready to declare all-out victory. We are very pleased with the results so far but we have a lot of work to do,” said Gonzales. “My expectation is that we will continue to move the ball forward, but I was pleased that we saw an immediate uptick in perception from the get-go.”
“We ran more focus groups in the fall [of 2014] with managers and Individual Contributors. We found both groups like the change. Managers loved that they no longer had to complete forms and could adopt a more conversational tone in these meetings. Even though they had gone through HOS, there was an interest in continuing to develop and improve as a coach.”
So JPL is creating more resources to help managers, such as an internal website for performance coaching which provides tips, tools, templates and techniques. “In 2015, we are also going to look at providing resources to employees, whether it is training or other platforms, to help prepare them for these conversations regarding their career and performance.”
The JPL team is also looking at internalizing the process further, by sharing success stories – sharing what worked and what didn’t. This may take the form of video vignettes from managers or testimonials from individual contributors.
But a key ambition is to expand coaching beyond the manager/direct-report relationship. Gonzales explains: “Whether you are an employee or a manager we want people to get feedback and coaching from any person at any time. We are a matrix organization so line employees get assigned to different programs. Getting feedback from your project leader or peers – we need this mindset and skillset to infiltrate those worlds as well. We want all employees to know that they can get feedback on things that are important to them from people who are important to their success.”
One prerequisite for success: a foundation of trust
While JPL’s transformation is a great success story, a key question remains: is this success replicable in any organization?
“When I discussed this with other companies, the big speed bump tends to be the notion of trust,” said Gonzales.
Without this foundation of trust it is hard to tell how successful the effort would have been, if the conversations would have taken place, or how effective and valued the interactions would have been. But JPL’s foundation appears to be solid. At the time we talked to Jaime Gonzales, the latest engagement results were rolling in and preliminary data indicated that trust scores were on the rise.
Today Gonzales is still attending conferences on the topic of overhauling the performance management process. But now he is no longer sitting in the audience. He is up on stage sharing JPL’s journey with other practitioners.
While many companies continue to tweak the evaluation forms or play with social-media-type approaches to getting feedback, JPL remains one of a few brave companies who dared to take performance management beyond the process. They want managers to engage in some truly purposeful and productive dialogue around developing people and delivering on the agency’s commitments to science.