Simon Batters of Wise Group on the Power of Conversation
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As group manager for People and Culture at Wise Group, Simon Batters leads a diverse workforce. He’s passionate about creating workplaces that encourage happiness, well-being, purpose and creativity. At Wise Group, this meant shifting from a traditional ratings system to a process that fosters conversation and connection between leaders and teams.
In this interview, Simon reflects on:
- Choosing human connection over numbers.
- How technology can sometimes break the power of an interpersonal connection developed through conversation.
- How discussions that start with employee successes and work enjoyment make performance conversations less threatening.
- The importance of training and nurturing leaders alongside their teams.
Also mentioned in this podcast:
Michael: So this is the Performance Management Stories Podcast. You know so much is changing in the world of performance management. It’s so interesting. We read about it in the big fancy journals like Harvard Business Review and Strategy in Business, and it always sounds like kind of radical and easy when you read these articles. “Oh, they’re changing everything. They’re abandoning everything.” And if you’re like me, you start going, “Is that true?” And “Is it that easy?” And “What’s really going on?” Of course, the purpose of this podcast is to talk to people who are senior leaders in organizations and championing the change, and the rethinking of performance management in their work, and finding out what’s really going on. Not that what they’re doing is necessarily a template for all of us. I mean, there is no kind of real best practice in this. But it does help to understand the journeys other people are taking, and then saying, “So what does that tell me about my journey?”
So I get today to talk to Simon Batters. He is the Group Manager for People and Culture in the Wise Group. They are a Box of Crayons client, and I’m super excited about that. I was actually down in New Zealand just, I guess, two or three weeks ago doing some work with them, which was fabulous. Simon is a champion of, he’s passionate about creating workplaces that encourage happiness, wellbeing, purpose and creativity. And as he says himself, his mission is to inspire people to believe in possibilities so that they can thrive.
You can see that Simon and I spend a lot of time in the car, driving between the airports, agreeing violently with each other about what we’re doing in this world. And listen, he quotes this in his bio, and Simon describes it best when he says, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” So he, like I strive to be, is a champion for taking great ideas, but making them actually happen in their organization. So Simon, welcome.
Simon Batters: Thank you, Michael.
Michael: It’s nice to have you one the line. It was so good to hang out with you, and the others on the team when I was in New Zealand not that long ago.
Simon Batters: Yeah, it was a real treat for both of us it seemed, when we, like you were saying with our “violent agreements” in the car, right then we got off to a strong start, didn’t we?
Michael: Yeah, although you made me wear an All Black jersey, which for anybody who understands that I’m an Australian, it feels like a deep betrayal of something to the very pit of my soul. But that’s okay, I’m over it. Or maybe I didn’t have a soul in the first place. One of the two.
Simon Batters: Well, you’re not over it.
Michael: Hey, so tell me about the Wise Group. How big are you, where do you work, what sort of work you do, what sector are you in?
Simon Batters: Yeah well, the Wise Group has grown since 1989 to about 1,000 people across all of New Zealand. We’re pretty much from top to bottom of New Zealand, which is a bit of a geographical range. We exist to create fresh possibilities and services for the well-being of people, organizations and communities, and we work in the well-being of the mental health sector. It’s very purpose driven work, which is a real privilege. For me personally, it’s the first organization I’ve worked for in the sector after working in manufacturing and commercial for the previous 15-odd years.
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. I’m already thinking that there’s a number of kind of divisions within the Wise Group?
Simon Batters: Yeah, we kind of describe ourselves as a family of community organizations. We’re really diverse in our workforce. We’ve got people that range in areas, we do research, we do IT, we do community based care, employment services and business support services, so we’ve got a really wide range. And each one of them is their own entity, and we collectively make up the Wise Group.
Michael: Got it. Hence, your title being Group Manager, because you do work across those different entities.
Simon Batters: Yes, that’s right.
Michael: And are they all, I mean are they roughly the same size or is there a few small ones and one big one, I mean how does that kind of spin out like that?
Simon Batters: Yes, we’ve got one large one, Pathways, so head count wise, our largest by quite some way, and then we’re made up of some smaller, from 15-odd people up to 100 for some of the others, so really an eclectic mix of balance of head counts and skills and things.
Michael: When you say 15-odd people, are they really odd or is it just a turn of phrase?
Simon Batters: Yeah, it’s a turn of phrase. We’ll get some kiwi-isms through this one.
Michael: That’s perfect. So tell me how you’ve thought about performance management over the last two or three years, and whether things have shifted at all for you.
Simon Batters: We had a really large shift. It was actually about four years ago when we looked at our practices. First thing to say, probably, was that we shifted from removing ratings, which was sporadically applied across the organization. It was really easy because we had a really strong board endorsement. We subscribed to Peak Performance theory, which is written by Mike Pratt, and is really built on the foundations of positive psychology. There was always an uneasy relationship around boiling someone down to a number between one and five. But what we realized, which as quite a, I guess, free spirited organization, a lot of what we do, but we realized that we lacked some structure and some kind of empowering structure to help focus those conversations and bring about a bit of a cadence and regularity to what we were doing. So that was a really big shift for us around actually bringing in some structure, which felt a bit counter-intuitive, so get good conversations happening.
Michael: Right. Right. So did you do it all at once? Or did you go right where abandoning any ratings that might be lingering on, and were just rolling in a brand new approach?
Simon Batters: We did a bit big bang, but we did it in a volunteering way. We partnered up with an organization called Think One Team, because they had a nice, what they call a model of with it, and it’s a nice operating rhythm to it. We started by getting a group of leaders that we thought would be influential and supportive and tried with them first, and it grew really suddenly out of that, which was fantastic. Then we went all over the organization from then. I guess we had been encouraged by the behind and support that we had right from the start. We didn’t intend to sort of force feed it to people, but we got to a point when we had such a positive response to it we thought, “Right, let’s do this right across the organization.”
Michael: No ratings, but structure. What’s the structure? How does the performance management process roll through Wise Group?
Simon Batters: Yeah, with just a touch on the no- ratings for a second. I really liked something that I read a long time ago with human instincts, that really stuck in my head. And they said a system can be designed to achieve one or two outcomes, but not both. So either to deliver a performance rating, or to facilitate constructive conversations between your managers and your people. And the second really appealed to me.
Michael: Right. Okay, when human connection or a number, and you chose genuine human connection?
Simon Batters: Yeah, we chose … In hindsight, look, it sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? But we still have got a lot of challenging conversations about, “Oh, if I can’t right something, how do I address the performance?” It sounds absurd when you say it out loud now, but definitely I mean-
Michael: Not so much. I mean I think that’s a genuine anxiety. And so how do you help assess somebody’s performance if you can’t give them a number between one and five?
Simon Batters: Yeah. It’s probably into that second point. You have a conversation, don’t you, like it’s, really is, I mean … Setting a good performance structure in place is around agreeing what are the things that have the most impact? What are the things that you need to do in your role? How do we go about doing them? How do I support you? On what level are you at, and how do you think in discussing those gaps, and reinforcing that we are both in agreement? So through a structure like that, then you’re probably going to unearth what’s going well and what’s not going well, and focus on those things. So that structure and then those conversations provides plenty of opportunities to address your performance. And if you’re saving them all up until the end of the year, so you’ll not pay someone as much as someone else, I think that’s disappointing.
Michael: By the way, this is called classic Kiwi New Zealand understatement, there.
Simon Batters: So I’m not sure if I answered your original question around the sort of structure that we put in place.
Michael: Yeah, I want to come back to that, but before you do, just to dig a little deeper on this. So you’re having a conversation with somebody, and you’re doing it regularly, which is wonderful, and the two of you have a different perspective on where the gap is, or what the gap is. One person goes, “You know, you’re here and to really be at this level you need to be over here, so you’re lagging a bit behind.” And the other person goes, “I just don’t believe you. Actually, I think I’m doing fine.” How do you … What then happens? Is it like, I don’t know, do you just go and mud wrestle til the person wins? I mean, I know you Kiwis are big on sport, you’re like, “Okay, we’re just going to play kick,” and the person who kicks the ball furthest gets the win?
Simon Batters: No, we don’t sit down and arm wrestle and whoever wins, wins the conversation. I think it’s really important where, ideally, you want the other person to see what you’re saying, and to agree. That’s the ideal conversation or outcome, because then you’ve got clarity together. But sometimes you’re not going to get agreement, and it’s okay to be really specific around, “Look, I know that you don’t see what I’m saying here, and you don’t agree. But I just need to essentially draw a line in the sand and describe what you’re expecting.” This is what you’re seeing them do, and that is a bit unsatisfactory, but it’s still a far better outcome than not drawing their attention to what you see the gap to be.
Michael: So you’re seeking consensus but the manager, if you like, kind of has the final call in saying, “Okay. I hear your perspective, I see what you’re saying, and this is the call I’m making on this.”
Simon Batters: Yeah, that’s right. It’s essentially, hierarchy and status is a real thing. So sometimes it’s a … For me, if I had a disagreement with my boss around something that they saw around my performance, at the end I would accept what their view is and be working to try and turn that around or improve, because that’s just the reality of the landscape at that time. So it depends how, I guess, just how I’m going to be with it, really.
Michael: Tell me, let’s pull back a little bit. You were talking about the kind of rhythms, the cadence that you were looking to set up. How does that work?
Simon Batters: We wanted to provide enough structure to correct some irregularity, to remove the anxiety for the participants in it, around what we’re going to be talking about. So the first couple of things we did was agree on an operating rhythm, which is we started with 90 days, so what’s our plan for the next 90 days? Then go on to an annual plan. And within that, we would say, “At least monthly, but ideally fortnightly,” you sit down for a one to one. It doesn’t have to be in an hour, but 10 minutes up to an hour. It’s amazing how you can start filling that space with really, really thoughtful conversations.
Michael: And by the way, for people listening, a fortnight means two weeks. That’s an Anglicism that not everybody in North America will get.
Simon Batters: A bit of a sheltered existence down here in New Zealand?
Michael: Yeah, it’s all right.
Simon Batters: So every two weeks, ideally that’s kind of the rhythm we’d hit. Then at the end of that 90 days, a debrief. Within those structures we also had just enough questions, we think, so for example, when we’re setting the first 90 day plan we used an ADEP model, and that sounds just simply, what you need to achieve in this time. The D is development, E is enjoyment and P was partner. And I think it’s a really nice structure around for us to be successful together if we cover off those areas, then we get a really good sense of what a really good year looks like.
Michael: So A for achievement, that’s like the tasks that need to be completed?
Simon Batters: Yeah, just the goals essentially.
Michael: D for development means what’s your personal growth? What’s your learning edge?
Simon Batters: Yeah. Your one big thing with some of the language we use quite regularly, and that could be something technical, like I want to learn how to use this new recruitment system, but more often it turned into something around your big development thing. I want to be more influential, or I want to be more strategic, etcetera.
Michael: Yeah, so you use language from another thinker, kind of maybe it’s an adaptive change, maybe it’s technical change. Sometimes how do I rewire myself? What do I need to learn?
Simon Batters: Yeah.
Michael: Enjoyment is what’s going to make you happy? What’s going to feel like great work? What that lights you up?
Simon Batters: Yeah, exactly. And we also looked at sometimes it kind of gets interchanged with engagement, so what’s going to keep you engaged?
Michael: Nice. That’s great. And the partner one. What’s that question seeking to understand?
Simon Batters: It’s multi-layered in some ways, but in its purest sense, it’s how do you and I get the best out of each other? What do you need from me? And what I would like from you. It’s a real, I like the word “partner” because I think that’s sort of … My role as a leader, for example, with my people is to make sure that we’re successful, and we can’t do that if I’m dictated to them over everything. So we’ve both got real skin in the game. I’m here to be successful. And in other ways, sometimes we thought about this as well as with, what are other partnerships we really need to nurture to be successful? Both, it could be, across teams, it could be in an external stakeholder, but it just opens the door to that conversation.
Michael: Perfect. Yeah, I love that. Is this done on scraps of paper or do you use technology in some way to help facilitate this?
Simon Batters: Yeah, we’ve looked at technology a lot, and I’ve heard some other people talking about this sort of being the enemy a little bit, and actually if I had more advice, it would be to move away from technology because the power is in the conversation. I have worked in environments where we’ve used quite detailed systems, and it really breaks that interpersonal connection of when you’re having those conversations. Organizational visibility is important, so we can’t be just paper files, we have to find some way of doing it in a more sophisticated way.
Michael: Yeah, nice. In terms of lessons learned around the change management side, it’s one thing to come up with one best team and adapt, and all that. It’s another thing to get engagement with people as you roll it out. It sounds like it actually worked really well for you, but I’m curious to know what are lessons learned from that kind of roll out? That change management side of things?
Simon Batters: It’s funny how you’ll find these jump to mind more quickly than successes when you get asked that, so it’s the question, isn’t it? I’m going to fight nature and talk about successes first.
Michael: Good for you.
Simon Batters: What we did well, I think, was select a set of tools and a structure that promoted a nice sequence of things. It de-clouded a lot of the thinking and the anxiety around having to sit down and have these conversations, so that structure of the ADEP really helped where people got lots easier to talk about what makes work enjoyable and how we work together. That’s kind of a non-threatening conversation. And showed them what a de-brief was, as simple as what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, so it’s those things. That was really successful because people looked and thought, “Okay. That’s not too complex, and I can do that.”
Simon Batters: We also took a lot of time, top to bottom of the country and the organization, of running workshops. All our team did every one of them. We got an external trainer that really helped with us to kind of de-personalize some of that stuff, and be actually just a really good facilitator. And the leaders for each of those regions, to participate in them, was alongside their people. And we maintained it for a number of months and did it really sequentially so there was lots of people experiencing the same thing in slightly different stages, so there was lots of buzz and conversations happening around and after it as well.
Michael: That’s great.
Simon Batters: Yeah, so that was-
Michael: That’s what worked well. So Simon, tell me what you would have done differently.
Simon Batters: Probably, another New Zealand-ism, where we declared a tryout at the five meter line, where we didn’t maintain it in an ongoing way enough. And we probably underestimated that when people go back to their jobs, even when they’ve got a nice, simple sort of structure in mind and a great enthusiasm, that good work actually gets in the way of some of your great work, or your great work gets prioritized second to your busy, urgent good work, and sometimes we think they might be sick of hearing some of these things from us, where actually we talk it about it a lot in our little circles and our little groups and the management meetings and things. But a lot of our front line people, they were not sick of hearing about it at all. We underestimated that.
Michael: Right. You know that quote, “The problem with communication is the illusion it’s taken place.” You used the metaphor of the try at the five meter line, which is a rugby metaphor, which is like declaring the touchdown before you hit the touchdown, if you want to use North American language. I’ve heard it also called the marathon effect, which is the leaders of an organization cross the finish line before everybody else, and they go, “Oh, good. We’ve all finished the marathon.” And there’s actually still a bunch of people still running the course. It’s over when the last person crosses the finish line, and that’s a harder thing to follow up on.
Simon Batters: Yeah, that’s a perfect analogy for it actually, and probably the other thing that stands out to me, Michael, around what we could have actually spent more time with the leaders first, so more of them, so it’s great for them to experience learning alongside the team at the same time. And actually they’re all post, their training is different than just the staff who kind of participate in it together. So leading it and participating with it, there is some different emphasis, so that’s something that we are working on rectifying at the moment, actually.
Michael: Yeah, I see that. Simon, this has been a great conversation. Any kind of final comments or thoughts around the challenge of performance management?
Simon Batters: Yeah, for me it’s, drawing back to those principles at the start of your designing something to deliver a rating, to organize your pay and your reward and how to sort through your staff, or are you wanting to try and facilitate a constructive conversation? It’s really powerful and can align your people and get some clarity around what success looks like. And if you’re trying to do both at the same time, the first tends to win the most, and it really changes the balance of those conversions.
Michael: Yeah, for sure. So for people who … I’m curious about the Wise Group first. Where can they find you guys on the Web?
Simon Batters: It’s just wisegroup.co.nz and everything you know behind this is on there.
Michael: Simon, Group Manager of People and Culture of the Wise Group, this has been a great conversation so thank you.
Simon Batters: Thank you, Michael.