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Transforming Across Cultures: Performance Management as a Use Case for What Can Go Wrong and How to Get It Right

May 30, 2024

Executives in regional and global roles will almost inevitably encounter a situation that requires substantial transformation spanning diverse cultures and business units. When done well, these endeavors can deliver significant returns to the bottom line and for the reputation of those leading the change. But they’re also fraught with complexities and challenges, and the journey is anything but straightforward.

Consider, for example, the practice of talent performance management—an area of strategic importance for every organization and, evidently, one overdue for improvement according to employees and human resources (HR) professionals alike. The latest Gallup survey reveals that only 2% of U.S.-based chief human resources officers (CHROs) think their performance management system works. And if my observations with American business leaders managing overseas operations are any indication, performance management programs developed in the United States can prove even more challenging to implement in other markets.

What lessons can we take from this use case that might guide the planning and execution of even larger or more comprehensive business transformations?

Anticipate Cultural Nuances. Every change project is guided by beliefs and values, oriented towards enabling new ways of thinking or behaving. As such, it is crucial that change leaders acknowledge their underlying assumptions and understand how these might differ from customs, communication styles and expectations in other markets. For instance, a performance management system may need to consider both high-context communications in Asia and the more direct style of feedback in the United States.

Remain Flexible to Feedback. While maintaining focus on their strategic goals, effective change leaders are adaptive about the process, ready to modify the tactical plans as needed. This includes being open to—and even proactively seeking—feedback from local teams, then integrating their insights into the transformation process. Such an approach not only fosters inclusivity, a priority value for contemporary performance management, but also ensures that changes are sustainable and effective across different markets and business units.

Empower Change Advocates. Given the variability in assumptions, values and expectations across their global organizations, effective change leaders pre-plan a program of communications (and in many cases, formal trainings) to explain the purpose, process, and benefits of a transformation. Depending on the scale and diversity of interests, these leaders also work with influencers in each market and/or business unit to tailor and carry forward that narrative frequently and consistently. When introducing performance management improvements, as with many other key initiatives, middle managers can prove powerful champions for change.

Use Tech to Support Change. Leveraging technology in change projects can be double-edged. On the one hand, digital tools can standardize processes while allowing for customization to meet unique use cases or needs in different parts of the business. At the same time, change leaders must ensure that tech is understood as an enabler of change; it should not be perceived as the change in itself. This is a perennial challenge for performance management, which is too easily confused with the human resources information system (HRIS) tool that supports goal setting, development progress, feedback, etc.

Carry Forward Lessons Learned. Each multi-market transformation project reveals organization-specific insights that effective leaders can apply to future change planning and implementation. When advising improvements to an organization’s performance management practices, we often recommend a post-project assessment to document what went well, which risks and opportunities emerged, how the plans evolved to culture and feedback and how levels of support and customization varied across the organization. Broad sharing of these results encourages accountability and identifies best practices for other complex, multi-market or cross-functional projects.

As evidenced by the case of improving performance management, the principles of effective change management are not bound by borders. To execute a successful transformation on a global or regional scale, leaders must not only plan but also listen and localize, adapt to feedback and partner at scale. Likewise, the judicious deployment of tech to support, not lead, the change and the proper documentation of lessons learned can help sustain the change for the long term and guide future change projects in your organization.

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