Trash the Ratings

How Motorola Solutions’ Shelly Carlin crafted a performance process that favors actionable results over mindless metrics

Shelly Carlin | Motorola Solutions | Senior Vice President of Human Resources | HR Credentials: When Motorola split into two companies, Carlin used her HR expertise—forged at companies like Campbell Soup Company and Sears—to develop a culture that reflects the company’s refocused vision.

The CEO of Motorola Solutions looked at Shelly Carlin with a there-she-goes-again expression. Carlin, his senior vice president of human resources, had just suggested trashing performance ratings as if it were the panacea for all their problems. Sure, performance ratings were probably the most-hated thing at the telecom company, but was a move so bold right for the communications provider, or any company for that matter? Carlin had a hunch that it was, and decided to make the case for it.

The ratings were a troublesome remnant of a system devised for the “old Motorola,” a much larger organization whose culture was less about individualized attention and employee development and more at the mercy of buzzwords, rubrics, and standardization for standardization’s sake. There weren’t enough billable hours in a fiscal year for Carlin and her colleagues to take a personalized approach to the talent management of 51,000 employees. Then, in January of 2011, Motorola Inc. spun off its consumer cell-phone operation as Motorola Mobility LLC and changed its name to Motorola Solutions, reflecting its focus on government and enterprise customers.

Don’t Lose What Works

Shelly Carlin acknowledges that not everything about performance ratings is problematic, though they often take the focus off of key areas:

Goal Setting: The cornerstone of an effective review process, goal setting must be aligned to the company’s objectives. Ratings can prevent this by not addressing the enterprises’s core focus, thereby creating an engaged workforce working on the wrong things.

Coaching: As a rubric, ratings can inadvertently prevent a manager from personally developing team members. Metrics are meaningless if they don’t guide employees toward what the company needs them to be.

The break may have created some breathing room, but Motorola Solutions’ employees were still confined by the rigidity of a four-tiered grading scale that did little more than breed tension and plot them like points on a nebulous line of quality. The company suffered from an oversaturation of “outstanding,” “excellent,” and “valued performer” employees whose promised compensation incentives could not be met and whose  improvement was expected, but not actively fostered.

“No one was happy,” Carlin recalls. “There was a stigma associated with the ratings, and a pressure was mounting among our employees.”

Carlin decided a fundamental change was the kind of shake-up the company needed to reengage its people, but mindful of the odds against her plan, she sought some verification that it could work and had worked for someone else. “We looked around for companies that’d done anything like getting rid of the ratings,” Carlin says. “We found fewer than five, visited one, and had our aha moment.”

Carlin learned that the success of such a revolutionary move wouldn’t be guaranteed by case studies; rather, it hinged on careful consideration of Motorola’s unique history, culture, needs, and hopes for the future. When she returned to Motorola Solutions, she brought both a healthy perspective and a tentative plan. “We were, and still are, plotting new ground,” Carlin says. “Our focus became not what the rest of the world is doing, but our own employees and our own problems.”

From an HR standpoint, the context around Motorola Solutions’ challenges was determined by the antiquated technology and rigid processes that slowed it down. The old Motorola built systems that went to the moon. Complexity defined everything from the technology it engineered to its talent management. However, Motorola Solutions needed to become more flexible and willing to work in grey areas. It needed fewer rules and less bureaucracy. And managers at every level needed the authority to customize their approach.

The plan began retroactively, one year after the split, when Motorola Solutions’ executive team became the subjects of an experiment to review without ratings. Performance management was still based on strengths and weaknesses, but it became a conversation with a trainer-trainee dynamic—a departure from the parent-child relationship the ratings system fostered.

“In the old system, managers sat in judgment of another adult,” Carlin says. “By nature, that setup breeds tension. Employees won’t be open to feedback because they’ll want to defend their livelihood. We knew we would never completely eliminate the power differential in that relationship, but we wanted to encourage managers to ask questions of self-discovery. Most employees don’t come to work wanting to do a bad job. They want to contribute, advance, and grow. Managers should be all about helping them do that.”

Satisfied with the results of the test case, the leadership team asked Carlin to come up with an implementation plan for the entire company. “It sounded lovely in theory,” she says of the undertaking, but Carlin quickly realized such a dramatically different methodology and approach would require change management, beginning with the team that would execute the new system.

“The biggest resistors of change are sometimes in the HR function,” Carlin says. “We started by having an internal debate, but it was crucial to get this department aligned to the belief that we needed this as a company.”

A Global Undertaking

Motorola’s revamped performance process was a global initiative, coordinated with offices in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Process: Shelly Carlin and the HR team consulted with employee representatives in each region to ensure the measure was executed with legal due diligence.

Implementation: By making materials available in the cloud, HR leaders were able to send a unified message and answer any questions about the new review system. Managers were also given considerable latitude in implementation on the ground to make it an effective tool for their team.

The next step for Carlin was updating the infrastructure that would support the discussion-based reviews. Switching its HR management tools to two new cloud-based systems, Motorola Solutions cut through the protocol by making information readily available to employees and allowing managers to refine employee goals as often as necessary.

But, beyond the technology, little more of the transformation process was standardized. Just as Carlin studied Motorola’s history to tailor the plan, she needed to leave room for managers on the ground to be flexible as well. With global operations, the new strategy would be adopted by Motorola Solutions’  local teams in Asia, Europe, and Latin America —three very different markets with social cues and perceptions equally varied.

The key was to give managers the freedom to write their own playbooks and devote attention when and where employees need it. A manager may meet monthly with onea employee to refresh goals and gauge progress, while another may only need two conferences per year. “I don’t have a lot of heartburn if we don’t have 100 percent uniformity on who’s doing what and how,” Carlin says. “Performance management isn’t a series of checkpoints. It should be much more fluid and customized than that.” Managers received training on how to educate and motivate their employees, and the goal is to begin cultivating a crop of seasoned coaches who can pinpoint when interventions are needed.

Motorola’s split may have been the catalyst to shake up the HR function, but it could not have happened at a more critical point in the changing demographics of employment or complemented the phenomenon better. As corporate America is looking more fresh-faced than it has in decades, vested companies like the communications technology leader need to respond to fresh demands for more face time.

“Our research suggests millennials respond well to coaching and frequent communication,” says Carlin of the generation that companies with foresight have turned their attention to. “My generation responds to a hierarchical, no-news-is-good-news approach. Companies that can get ahead of that will have an advantage.”

On paper it seems Motorola Solutions has found the perfect solution to quell the complaints of its veterans while appealing to its recruits. Six months into its implementation, the system has yet to truly reveal what kind of reception it’s getting. But defining Motorola Solutions, be it through its products or its people, is a process, and one that has ultimately pushed the company out of its comfort zone in a good way. “We’re on a journey,” says Carlin, “and it’s prompted in us a willingness to challenge everything. We may not get everything right on the first try, but we’re not wasting any time.”