Cameron Hedrick on the Importance of Courageous Conversations

Cameron Hedrick, the chief learning officer of Citi, shares what’s happening in performance management at Citi, and draws on his experience in other organizations. In this conversation he outlines:

  • Why ongoing feedback is not just about frequency of conversation.
  • The dual conversations of performance management.
  • How to help managers be courageous enough to have difficult conversations.
  • The importance of iteration, personas and examples of awesome.

Full Transcript

Michael: I’m Michael Bungay Stanier, and you’re listening to Performance Management Stories, where we find out what’s really going on in the performance management revolution by talking to senior leaders who are doing the hard work in their organization.

I’m really excited today. I’m talking to Cameron Hedrick, who is the Chief Learning Officer of Citi, so a really significant player in the financial world. We’re going to find out kind of what’s happening at Citi, but Cameron’s also going to be drawing on his experience in other organizations as well to share his best opinions around just what it takes to make performance management actually work in a big organization. Cameron, welcome. So glad to have you here.

Cameron Hedrick: Thank you. I’m very glad to be with you.

Michael: Cameron, start us off. I mean everybody’s heard of Citi, but give us a little more context about what the organization is, how big it is, how global it is, just so we have that kind of picture we can hold before we get into the details.

Cameron Hedrick: You bet, Michael. Well, Citi is a global bank, as most people know. What you might not know is we have about 210,000 people in the firm in over 160 countries. We have two big lines of business. We have a significant business-to-consumer group as well as a business-to-business or institutional banking group.

Michael: Nice.

Cameron Hedrick: Yeah. It’s a big place.

Michael: It is a big place, so it’s no small thing to think about performance management and, perhaps, evolving or changing your performance management with over 200,000 people involved. What has shifted in the last two or three years as you’ve thought about performance management?

Cameron Hedrick: Well, I think firm-wide, not only at Citi but in other places, I think the value of performance management and, specifically in our context, the quality of the conversation that a manager has with their direct report and/or we have with each other has just grown in importance, which is a great thing for us and for our industry. Specifically, and in terms of tactics, I think the focus on the quality of the conversation has gotten better. Specifically, starting to tease out, for example in our context, making sure that we have an adequate discussion about the performance relative to the goals that we set but also quality of conversation relative to the how, right, your leadership behaviors that you use to get those results.

Michael: How have you helped your managers and leaders have those conversations, because they’re good in theory, but in practice they can be a bit kind of scary for people? It’s like, “Okay, I’m actually talking about you and how you’re showing up.” What sort of support have you given them to kind of give them the tools and the courage to actually get into those type of conversations?

Cameron Hedrick: Boy, you hit it right on the head, Michael. Let’s talk about tools and courage, because how to get at both of those things are very different. On the tools piece, right, we have more pervasive 360s, right? So more peer-to-peer feedback and peer-to-manager feedback where you can just get more perspective. That’s one tool, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: Another tool, specifically on the leadership front, our very specific description of what bad, good, and great look like on the various leadership dimensions, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: A lot of people would say that this whole leadership behavior thing is too soft, it’s too subjective, and so we try to move into a space, by way of these examples, that makes it less subjective. Those are some of the tools that we’ve given.

Michael: Before you get on to courage, because I want to hear it, but with that very specific descriptions of bad, good, and great, and I love how you frame it … For lots of organizations, they would go, “Look, we’ve got those in our competencies, and they’re kind of broadly sketched out.” Are you saying kind of going beyond that level of just competency-based behavior or is it kind of at that competency level?

Cameron Hedrick: Well, it’s at that competency level. We have six leadership standards, right? They’re the types of things you would expect, right? Driving results, collaboration, that type of thing. Then we have those proficiency scales by level for each. For example, the way we say great manifests in a front-line call center rep looks like this, and the way that we see it manifest in the top of the house looks like this other thing. They’re very different manifestations. The point there is that it’s tailored by roles and, like I said, we give examples of what bad and great look like. Then, practically speaking, what that enables the manager to do is to open these documents and say, “For my direct report, I actually see and experience this person this specific way.” That’s been helpful.

Michael: One of the things I love about this is kind of the bluntness in the word bad, because sometimes people soft soap it and go, “It’s like good, and very good, and then very, very good.” But you’re going, “Look, actually, this is what non-performance actually looks like so we can actually talk about that.”

Cameron Hedrick: Well, to be fair, in the actual documents, if you were to review them … The bad was my word, but it does say it’s an ineffective to highly effective range.

Michael: There we go. Oh, there we go. That’s perfect.

Cameron Hedrick: Yeah.

Michael: Cameron, what about ratings? What role, if any, do they play, because there’s a lot of discussion about ratings? Do they work? Are they beneficial? Are they actually demotivating for people? How have you approached that within Citi?

Cameron Hedrick: Right. Well, the ratings themselves, to your point, people are experimenting with all kinds of things, from removing ratings to all other kinds of variants. For our firm, we are a meritocratic, unapologetically, firm. We want to make sure there’s plenty of transparency on how we feel about the performance of the individual, so removing ratings was never an option for us. Just by way of commentary, too, any time you have finite cost pools, which we all have, you’re going to have some kind of rating system somewhere, right?

Michael: Yeah, exactly.

Cameron Hedrick: Whether it’s apparent to the employee or not. What we’ve done, though, recently, is moved from a single overall rating to a bifurcated rating, right, where we say, “Here’s how you performed on the objective metrics we set for you at the beginning of the year and a second rating and discussion about the manner in which you achieved that,” right?

Michael: Nice.

Cameron Hedrick: To our earlier discussion, that second component, this leadership or how component is underpinned by those specific behavioral manifestations that we outlined that we just discussed a second ago.

Michael: Got it. I love how you’ve got that dual focus on outcome but also kind of process. What did you achieve, but how did you get there?

Cameron Hedrick: Michael, to your point, think what happens is it’s much easier for a manager to evaluate somebody on objective things, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: It’s easier to say, “You hit this or you didn’t hit this by X percent,” and leave it at that. By decoupling these things, we have the conditions now for a better conversation that absolutely hits those objective things, because that’s important, but can also talk about the behavioral piece, which really is about a drive-sustainable performance for our firm.

Michael: That kind of connects us back to that conversation about courage, to have that conversation, because I can point at a bit of paper going, “Look, you passed or you didn’t pass. You’re up 3%. You’re down 3%. This isn’t me telling you that. It’s the bit of paper.” But the how is much more of a me telling you how I’m experiencing you, and that’s the harder conversation to have. One thing to them the tools, and that’s great. How have you encouraged people to be courageous to have those almost kind of person-to-person conversations?

Cameron Hedrick: Yeah. We’re just at the beginning of this, so this is certainly a Citi response, but it’s also a broader response from other places I’ve been. I think we have a managerial courage issue, because it’s hard, right? We’ve all been managers. You don’t want to say, sometimes, the hard things, so how are we going to get at that is the right question. In a couple of ways, we’re starting to chip away at this.

First is that we have to reposition coaching as something positive and accretive to your life. The example that I often give is the world’s best musicians and athletes actually pay for coaching. They want the feedback because it helps them get that little tiny extra edge that pushes you into that other zone. For whatever reason, in a lot of the corporate worldwide, we don’t look at it that way. We look at it as a punitive, scary thing, so we have to reposition it.

The other thing we have to do on the manager side is reorient them and say, “Look, by giving clear and constructive and candid, radically candid, feedback, that’s a caring thing that you’re doing for a person. It’s not a bad thing. You’re helping them see things or consider things and in so doing you’re obviously propelling the corporate agenda and your agenda for it. But more importantly, you’re helping them morph and evolve into a better person.” When you can grab hold of that, things start to happen in a better way.

Michael: Yeah. You’re like, “I’m doing this because of my commitment to you not because I’m trying to punish you in some way.”

Cameron Hedrick: Spot on.

Michael: I think the other interesting challenge is also … For us anyway, we’ve been playing with this idea of framing feedback as not something that’s done to you but something that it’s your responsibility to actively go out and seek. If this is your life and your career and your path, do you want to wait until your boss plucks up the courage to have this conversation for you or do you want to find a way of more actively seeking and getting that and taking your share of responsibility for these conversations taking place?

Cameron Hedrick: Oh, that’s exactly right. That kind of ties to a more macro theme of we’re all responsible just for our own development. Becoming obsolete in 2017 is a much more realistic possibility than it was in 1960 just because of the pace of everything that’s happening around us. It’s up to you.

Michael: Yeah, exactly right. Cameron, as you look back on those last two or three years, I’ve got two questions for you. One is, of the stuff you’ve done, what are you really happy about? What’s gone particularly well and why do you think that might have been the case? But also was there something that didn’t work out as you’d hoped, places you’ve struggled a bit more to try and make changes and approach the performance management?

Cameron Hedrick: That’s a good question. Well, let me start by saying I’m happy with everything we’ve put in markets in the last year or two because we’re getting more courageous about putting things out there that are not fully baked, that we know, going out, will need to be iterated upon.

Michael: I love that. Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: Because I think a lot of organizations are paralyzed by this idea of putting something out before it’s fully ready to go, and I think that slows us down, and that’s a problem.

Michael: Brilliant.

Cameron Hedrick: With that as a backdrop, here’s what’s going well for us. One is we’re wrestling with this dual conversation of how and what in a very real tangible way. Some of it’s going great. Some of it’s not. But as I mentioned, we’re learning from it, and I appreciate that. One of the tactical errors I made in the strategy of introducing this to the organization at Citi is that I wish now I would have spent more time going directly to managers and used a lot more case studies, right, to say, create perhaps 10 different personas of direct reports and what the conversation could look like. I think I expected them to bridge too much in their heads and done differently, and I’ll do this next year, we should make that more clear for them.

Michael: I’m intrigued by just that hint of creating personas. Where I go to it, and I may be getting it completely wrong, but the sort of sense of like here are 10 different types of conversations you may end up having because these are the 10 different places the person, metaphorically, across the table from you might be in in terms of their performance and in terms of their process, of their how to get there. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about or is it something else?

Cameron Hedrick: No, I think you’re on the right wavelength. Let’s just take a polarity, right? There’s the person who walks on water, they nail all their goals, and they do it correctly. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, somebody who’s … they may-

Michael: Who’s grumpy and useless. Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: Right, exactly. It’s the stuff in the middle too, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: The people that are amazing with the production but maybe not so great on the leadership or, conversely, somebody who’s not producing but they’re doing great stuff on leadership. How do you deal with those different people? What might that conversation look like? We should wrestle with that some more and give more tools, I think, to people to deal with those different things.

Michael: Part of what I love about this, and this is be so useful for people listening is when you think about this connection back to courage and it’s like what’s getting in the way of people being courageous enough to have these conversations, my hypothesis would be, “Look, I don’t know how this is gonna play out, and I’m worried it’s just gonna end up in a kind of third circle of hell type of conversation where I’ve lost control of myself and of them and of the conversation.” What I think’s so powerful about this idea of the personas is it gives them a potential arc of a conversation, what might come up, where the resistance might be, ways they might tackle those more hot-button issues. So there’s less uncertainly, and when you have more uncertainty, you have more ability to engage.

Cameron Hedrick: That’s exactly right. To your point, right, there’s just no way to accurately predict how these are going to go. You’re going to have variances. Even if you can do a mental navigation of how it could go in your mind, you’re going to be better equipped to pull it off.

Michael: Later on today, I’m interviewing a top sports psychologist for another podcast. His whole piece is around … He doesn’t call it visualization. He calls it imagery, which is around you revert to the level of your training, so you go to kind of see that and picture the situation, and in doing that you’re able to perform at a peak level more easily and more consistently. You’re kind of pointing people towards that direction.

Cameron Hedrick: That’s right. It’s the same thing as… I think we’ve all heard about how the bobsledders they get in their head and they do the bobsled [inaudible]. It’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing, yeah.

Michael: Cameron, you’ve-

Cameron Hedrick: But I do think I am empathetic to people because it’s hard.

Michael: It is hard.

Cameron Hedrick: And it’s deep, personal. It’s big psychological thing that people have to overcome, so we just have to keep at it.

Michael: Cameron, you’ve already pointed to a few things around the change management side, the rolling out the engagement of the managers and the leaders in this conversation. What else might you have learned from the attempt to kind of roll it out because, as you said, 210,000 people, 160 countries? The complexity of rolling it out I can not even really imagine. But if there are any kind of tenets or insights or lessons you’ve learned from the change management side, what would you offer up?

Cameron Hedrick: Yeah. I’ve mentioned two of the three, right?

Michael: Yeah.

Cameron Hedrick: One is just encourage people to get … Once it’s the minimum viable product, get it out in market and give it a shot because that’s what we should do.

Michael: Yeah, brilliant.

Cameron Hedrick: Do that and get ready to learn and get ready to fail.

Michael: Right.

Cameron Hedrick: I don’t even like the word fail because that’s a weird word, but you’re going to make some mistakes, but that’s okay. The second-

Michael: I think, just to build on it quickly is… and frame it that you’re putting out an early iteration so when you do get that feedback about stuff that isn’t working as well as it might, perhaps, you’re like, “Yeah, this is exactly what we expected. Fantastic,” rather than, “Oh, my goodness. This is a terrible thing.”

Cameron Hedrick: That’s exactly right. Further to your point, Michael, I think, is ask, right? In my case, I don’t have to ask. People tell me how they feel about me. But go after it. Go ask and see and expect to get … in fact, mine hard for those things that need to be optimized. That’s important.

Michael: So, great. That’s the first one. What’s the second one?

Cameron Hedrick: The second thing is the personas.

Michael: Yes. Brilliant.

Cameron Hedrick: Get going direct to managers, giving them the other things. The third is I mentioned to you that we have these behavioral examples of what okay and awesome looks like. What I didn’t do well enough is make sure that people knew about those scales, understood how to use them. I assumed too much knowledge across our 40,000 managers on those items. So I would say, generically speaking, to all the listeners is I think we tend … at least I tend to overestimate where people are in their heads because we live this stuff every day. You’ve got to get real about where they’re at.

Michael: One of my favorite quotes is, “The problem with communication is the illusion it’s taken place.” We’re in the [inaudible]. We’re like, “No. Surely we’ve told everybody this til they’re sick to death of it.” Everybody on the other side’s going, “I have never heard this before. Why didn’t you mention it?”

Cameron Hedrick: That’s exactly right.

Michael: Cameron, we’re almost done, but I’m curious. Any final comments, any final reflections of performance management? This has been so useful so far.

Cameron Hedrick: I’ll just underscore this one more time. Having honest, caring conversations with your folks is very important. I know it’s scary, but do it. The second thing I would say to people, to managers, is the advice that you give your direct report, that’s really important, but the other big thing you can do for them is link them up with other peers and other resources that have perspectives that they’re going after. The value of management is not about how smart you are and how much you can impart as much as it is connecting people to other folks who can enrich the lives of your person, of your team. That’s a part of performance management, too, so let’s not forget that.

Michael: That’s beautiful. Cameron, this has been brilliant. The insights you’ve shared about what you’ve done as the leader has Citi has been just invaluable, so thank you so much for your time.

Cameron Hedrick: Thank you. I appreciate it. Take care.

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