Some managers see the annual performance review as a necessary evil. The employees being reviewed sometimes see it as even worse and, for many of them, it’s the year’s most stressful workplace event. It shouldn’t be this way.

You can make the performance review a powerful tool for improving the workforce’s productivity and furthering the careers of the employees being reviewed. The key to doing this is to put as much attention on planning the future as you do on evaluating the past.

Here are some keys to planning a development program for employees you review to help them build on strengths and correct weaknesses identified in the review.

Help them see the future

Some employees want to lead, while others want to develop a support-staff skill. Help employees determine where their interests lie and put them on a track to achieve their goals. Ditch the one-size-fits-all development plan.

Get them out of their silos

Is the employee learning anything new in the existing job? A promotion may not be possible, but there are other ways to broaden a manager’s capabilities. Look for opportunities to give employees stretch assignments — projects that bring them out of their comfort zone and make them face new challenges.

Explore ways to develop two managers at the same time by having them share their jobs. Check out possibilities for putting the employees on interdisciplinary teams. Look into whether you can rotate the employees into other units in the company or even to the staff of a supplier. Let them “shadow” other employees. Take them to a management meeting. Send them to conferences. Assign them reading lists. Give them subscriptions to business media. Encourage them to join same-function online groups.

Be certain that the managers on a fast track aren’t promoted before they’ve finished their most important projects and learned from the results. Don’t move them through jobs so quickly that they accomplish what’s easy and fast rather than what takes serious problem-solving.

Capitalize on in-house skills-development offerings

Your company might be providing development opportunities you don’t know about. For example, many major businesses offer college tuition reimbursement but it’s often not publicized. Learn from your HR and training and development people what’s available. Employee learning programs no longer take place only in the classroom. Increasingly they’re virtual, making it possible for people to take part even when working in remote locations — anyplace where there’s an Internet connection.

Scan the horizon for external skills-development opportunities

Some 6,000 companies offer short courses taking from half a day to five days that teach a range of skills. For example, our sister company, Logical Operations, offers 4,000 courses, including courses on information systems security, Salesforce.com, and Google AdWords. There are courses available to plug any skills gap.

The nation’s universities offer a range of free MOOC (massive open online course) programs. Among the most popular overview curses are “Introduction to Microeconomics,” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; “Economics of Money and Banking,”: from Coursera/Columbia; “An Introduction to Financial Accounting,” from Coursera/Wharton; “An Introduction to Marketing,” also from Coursera/Wharton; and “Artificial Intelligence,” from Udacity.

Many courses teach new ways to perform a job. Make certain that the employees’ managers will support these new methods. The managers also should encourage the employees to use the learned skills, perhaps with incentives for their application, and to use them right away before they revert to the old ways of doing the job.

Make mentoring meaningful

Many mentoring programs are informal affairs that leave both the mentor and mentee dissatisfied. Make the program meaningful by carefully delineating what each person’s responsibilities are to the other. In a truly effective mentoring program, the mentor:

  • Keeps the mentee current on what’s happening in the company and in its competitive environment.
  • Sets concrete, metrics-centered goals — ambitious but achievable ones.
  • Provides input for the employee’s performance review.
  • Showcases the mentee’s accomplishments to upper management.
  • Is available for coaching when the employee needs help. (Coaching doesn’t mean solving problems; it means helping the employee think them through.)
  • Identifies all opportunities for development, those that exist in-house as well as others from outside.

Help the manager, help the business

Don’t view the performance review as an event. Make it the beginning of a far-reaching effort to help the employee become a more valuable contributor toward meeting the company’s goals and also further the employee’s career.

Bill Rosenthal is chief executive of Communispond, which has helped more than 700,000 managers communicate with clarity and power. It has served more than 350 of the Fortune 500 companies since its founding 43 years ago. Go to the company’s website for free access to white papers, articles, and videos on all aspects of communications and selling, to sign up to receive free e-newsletters and to learn the schedule of upcoming open-enrollment courses. Contact the author.

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