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Performance management is notoriously difficult to get right, but not impossible. In this series, we speak with experts to get their insights into creating an effective performance management system.

Elena Sarango-Muñiz, HR Director & Leadership Coach

Elena is a seasoned global Leadership Coach, HR Consultant, and Speaker with a true passion for assisting leaders at every level in unleashing their potential through the growth of their emotional intelligence. This journey involves aligning their values and purpose to undergo a transformation into genuine leaders who can inspire others and foster greatness within them.

Hi Elena. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Absolutely! I am a Peruvian who has been residing in Houston, Texas for over half of my life. I ventured to the United States at the age of 22 with the intention of pursuing a master’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. 

Much like the narratives of many immigrants, my journey led me to secure a position at a prestigious international hotel chain, which ultimately prompted me to establish my life here in the US. Through marrying an American and becoming a parent to a son, my connection to this land has grown stronger than my ties to Peru.

My journey initiated with a role as a Front Desk agent during overnight shifts while I was concurrently enrolled at Hilton College, a division of the University of Houston.

Reflecting, I often share with friends that this role served as my personal PhD, imbuing me with resilience, the capacity to address on-the-spot predicaments, and the aptitude to navigate an array of challenges independently. This marked my maiden foray into leadership.

Unfortunately, visa complexities led to my temporary transfer to Cancun, Mexico for a year. Upon returning to the US, an opportunity surfaced in Human Resources extended by my former HR Director, specifically as a hotel Trainer. 

This juncture signaled the inception of my HR career, a trajectory spanning more than 25 years, encompassing diverse industries and cultures. It is this very expedition that culminated in my resolution to establish a leadership coaching enterprise of my own, a realm I commenced earlier this year. Notably, coaching leaders emerged as the most gratifying aspect of my tenure in HR.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

I am 100% in agreement with this. I’ve had many amazing mentors and coaches who have guided me along the way.

This one, Marilyn, was the HR Director while I was working at the luxury hotel, who saw in me something I didn’t know even existed, my potential to be in HR. 

I had just come back from working in Mexico as a Front Desk Manager, and when she found out I was back in Houston, she contacted me and said she wanted me back in the hotel but as an HR Trainer, and this is how my life changed completely, and how I got to where I am today. 

She saw in me the ability to treat people as I want to be treated and help organizations thrive through their employees’ well-being. I will forever be thankful to her.

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Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 

My mom always taught us, her children, that there is no worse action than the one you do not take (No hay peor gestion que la que no se hace). 

Staying put, afraid of taking the next step, as scary as it might be, or doubting yourself on making a tough decision even though you know you do not have another option, is not part of the way I live my life. 

I am a risk taker, always have been, and this has put me through roads less traveled, and forced me to make tough decisions and endure painful moments, but I would have not changed this path for anything.

I am who I am, and I am where I am because I took those actions and made those tough decisions. This life lesson has made me who I am every step of the way, and now more than ever as I build my company.

Thinking back on your career, what would you tell your younger self?

I love this question! I use it in my coaching sessions because it invites such deep reflection on self. What I would tell my younger self is to trust what the universe is throwing at me, do not despair, it all will be OK in the end, and you will rise from it better and wiser. It all works out in the end.

Why is performance management so tricky to get right?

My experience has shown me that employees want and need feedback, even when it might be pleasant to hear. Getting it right builds trust between employer and employee, setting the tone for the rest of the employee’s career and therefore for the success of the organization.

To manage the performance of an employee is to guide and lead them, from the start, in a transparent and genuine way, through the unknowns of a new culture and environment, through the complexity of processes and policies, and the unpredictability of human behavior in organizations. 

This is a balancing act for managers as it requires a combination of self-awareness, risk, vulnerability, and compassion. As when I coach others, by developing oneself, you build this muscle of managing others, including their performance. 

When I see leaders afraid of addressing performance issues, I usually see a lack of self-awareness and fear of saying or doing what needs to be said and done at that specific moment.

Successful organizations consider performance management an embedded, intrinsically day-to-day fundamental element of their strategy, one conversation at a time.

Where do you see a lot of organizations go wrong with performance management?

Based on my experience, I see organizations placing performance management as a once-a-year isolated mandatory event. 

The dreaded year-end performance management session sometimes includes a scary conversation that determines raises, promotions, or perhaps the infamous PIP (performance improvement plan).

Successful organizations consider performance management an embedded, intrinsically day-to-day fundamental element of their strategy, one conversation at a time.

It’s a dynamic and engaging opportunity for genuine conversations and coaching opportunities that enrich both parties and strengthen the relationship.

Based on your experience and success, what are your top 5 tips for a successful performance management process? 

1 . Building a psychologically safe environment: this starts even before the new employee joins on their first day. When a hiring manager, recruiter or even HR employee connects with the successful candidate before their first day, the trusting relationship and safe environment are created, and the employee starts their new job enthusiastic and feeling welcomed rather than uninformed and scared.

An example would be when you are verbally offered the job by your future direct manager rather than the HR employee. This makes the relationship between manager/employee stronger from the get-go. 

My new manager in my last job sent me a text the weekend before my first day to say how excited she was to be welcoming me soon. Establishing a relationship that fosters trust and safety starts early on.

2 . Once the new employee starts, one of the first sessions with the manager should be about setting clear expectations for the role. These expectations should be not just the technical duties of the role but also the behaviors the company and manager expect from all employees. 

Sit down with the employee on their first week and go over the role duties and expectations. Explain what a successful first week looks like, how a 90 day should look like, and how a year from now success looks like in that role. Check in on a weekly/bi-weekly basis to ensure expectations are still clear and that the employee feels supported regarding those expectations.

I introduced this first-week training agenda for new employees where I would include specific people I wanted them to connect with. I would also include a “buddy” system, and daily check-in sessions at the end of each day on that first week. Lunch with the team and a brief bio intro to the entire team were shared on their first day.

3 . Provide timely and objective feedback. Employees, at all phases of their careers, want to get feedback about their performance. Depending on the situation, feedback could be given on the spot or via a scheduled meeting.

If it is done respectfully and factually, the employee would want to know if they are doing something wrong quickly. This is also the case when they’re doing something right, that is also feedback needed to reinforce the performance demonstrated.

I once gave feedback to an employee that was outdated and unverified; the employee was very upset and asked for evidence; something I could not generate at that moment. Preparing yourself for this type of conversation is key.

4 . If the performance is below expectations, documenting observations, recording specific examples, and writing comments/feedback from others is key.

This is a very important step towards objectivity and factual performance management. This keeps the process fair and removes subjectivity and bias.

The best performance improvement plans (PIP) I’ve seen in my career are those that state clearly the facts, including documentation to support them. 

One practice I recommend is to ensure that the documentation is confidential, it is recorded in a safe place no other employee has access to, and the feedback session is done in private. No one in the team should know someone is subject to a PIP.

5 . Constant communication is key. Communicating with the employees about how they are doing is a must in a successful performance management process. 

Nothing should be a surprise to the employee at the end of the yearly cycle. Regular check-ins, where respect and transparency are always present, will guarantee a smooth process. This includes regular recognition where it is earned, employees like to be acknowledged for their good work, as long as it is done consistently and fairly.

One of the best experiences I have had was with a manager who would write thank you notes, notes I still keep with me, where she would thank me for a specific role I had on a successful project, or a presentation I just had done to other employees; she kept me motivated to continue doing what I was doing, challenging me always to do better.

How do you approach performance management in your organization? Do you tie it to compensation for example?

All companies I’ve worked for have always tied compensation to performance. This is a fair way to reward good performers and to not reward those that are not performing accordingly. 

There are several ways to do this, ratings assigned to levels of performance being the most common method. Either using numbers or descriptions, the employee receives a certain percentage increase based on their overall performance rating. 

Which tools do you use for your performance management?

There are many tools out there in the market, and usually they are part of a more comprehensive HR solution. For smaller organizations, I recommend a simple word template and scoring system, although nowadays everything can be converted into an electronic and systematic process.

As long as it is objective and properly utilized by all managers.

How do you measure and improve your performance management process?

Results! If management is being fair, consistent, and has the employee’s well-being in mind, you can bet the company has, among other elements, a strong performance management process and philosophy. 

This could translate into engagement scores, turnover rates, cultural cohesiveness, productivity and, ultimately, profitability.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

It would be a dream come true if I could meet Tony Robbins, Dr Joe Dispenza or Vishen Lakhiani. In no particular order!

Thank you, Elena! How can our readers further follow your work?

I am always active in LinkedIn and Instagram

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.