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Performance Consulting: A Classic Revisited


Wed Aug 05 2015

Performance Consulting: A Classic Revisited-f55ad8d9f6081155ffe655479467df7b2c4b74db5a1e8119cd85944e57ac0e87

The 20th anniversary, third edition of Performance Consulting by Dana G. Robinson, James C. Robinson, Jack J. Phillips, Patricia Pulliam Phillips, and Dick Handshaw has recently been published. ATD’s Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice interviewed Dana Robinson about some of the changes and challenges in performance consulting covered in the revised and updated edition of this classic book. 

Q: Tell us what you mean by performance consulting, both the process and the mental model. 


A: I define performance consulting as a strategic process that produces business results by maximizing the performance of people in organizations. Performance consulting is results-focused and is solution-neutral until we have determined any reasons for the gaps that we have in business and performance results. Performance consulting is a nine-step process that explains the “how,” and the mental model is the “what” we are focused on to accomplish. 

I view the mental model as a map in your head. It’s the way we organize information. It’s going to influence the goals we set. It’s also going to direct the process we use to get to those goals. I firmly believe until we change our mental model, we will not change our on-the-job performance. This mental model is about identifying business results and the human performance needed to achieve those results. 

We also need to determine the individual and organizational solutions. Therefore, as performance consultants, we are defining and aligning four needs: business, performance, individual, and organizational capabilities. 

Q: Why must learning executives tie L&D and HR solutions to an organization’s business goals? 

A: Any organization—whether it’s profit, not-for-profit, or public—has a mission and a purpose for why it exists. That mission is not to provide HR and learning solutions; it is to achieve other goals. By definition, those who choose to work in the HR and talent development in an organization are choosing to be a support to the organization. We help and enable it to achieve results. If we can’t link what we do to what the organization needs to accomplish, we are irrelevant. This is because a jump-to-solution focus gets us in trouble. 


Implementing solutions requires an investment of human resources, time, money, and effort to design and implement that solution. Then six months later, we find there is limited impact or results. We want to avoid that, so until we align what we do to the results of the business, we are essentially an appendage. 

In the 20 years since we first published our book, one disappointment is that people in HR still have limited business acumen. I am a businessperson who focuses on the human side of business, but I’m a businessperson first. I don’t think this mindset is common in our field. 

Q: How can learning executives work with management to identify the performance required to achieve business goals? 

A: Performance consultants need to ask thought-provoking and powerful questions. When we are in a consulting role, those with whom we consult are influenced more by what we ask than what we tell. One of the ways we engage management to want to identify the required performance is to ask questions they want answered. 

If a manager is having challenges in achieving revenue and profitability, we might ask the question: “What must an account rep do more, better, and differently, if you’re going to achieve these goals.” Often a client might say, “I’m not really sure, but that’s a good question.” 


Powerful questions have two characteristics. They’re open-ended, and they support the logic determining what should be, what is, and why we have a gap between those two. Questions are designed to find out what human performance is required to achieve business results, what performance is now, and why there is this gap. 

Performance consultants also need to be solution-neutral. One example is when a client says, “I want to talk about a training program for customer call center reps. We have an increase in customer dissatisfaction, and I need help in how we manage those problems.” In this case, the client has a business problem and has jumped to a solution called “training.” 

We want to push back on that solution without creating defensiveness in the client. A couple of questions we might ask are: “What have you observed call center reps doing that leads you to believe they need training?” and “If we deliver a developmental experience to the reps, can you think of reasons they still might not perform the way you need them to?” By asking such questions, we define what people must do more, better, or differently to achieve the goals the leader has just described, as well as point out barriers to that desired performance. 

Q: Why is this important? 

A: We are enablers who support the organization so it can achieve its business goals. Where we add immeasurable value is by translating business objectives into human performance requirements. Typically, defining performance requirements and barriers to performance is not what managers do. It may even be something they lack the capability to do. This is a capability of performance consultants. 

Additionally, taking this results-focused and solution-neutral approach helps prevent a lot of investment in solutions that lead to no sustained value. We need to be accountable for delivering solutions that will yield impact that is sustained over time. 

Organizations are dynamic. Leaders change and move into other positions. Different leaders bring different priorities and points of view. The whole global marketplace, in which most organizations are operating, moves at tremendous speed. As a performance consultant, my goal is to partner with clients to both react to and anticipate these changes, and to identify and implement solutions that will ensure the organization will succeed despite change and challenges. 

Of course, the organization has to reinforce actions we have taken. If I am partnered with a client, and we’ve made an impact, but I start to see some barriers making it more and more difficult for that change to be sustained, it’s my job to go back to that client to say, “Here’s what I observe: Let’s talk about what we need to do to take corrective actions.” 

Q: How can a performance consultant assist management in taking the actions needed for performance to change? 

A: First, a performance consultant must keep needed business results front and center. They are a goal shared with the manager. Additionally, it must be a goal in which the manager has an emotional investment. It’s not about doing work just to change performance: We’re ultimately doing work to support the business. 

Secondly, we must develop strong partnerships with managers so our input is solicited and valued. When describing relationships I use a three-legged-stool analogy. We need access (they will meet with us), credibility (they value our contribution), and trust (they believe us). As consultants, we don’t make things happen, we influence things to happen. So investing in building relationships with clients is also a key to supporting managers in achieving their goals. 

Credibility also requires we have a deep knowledge of the business-of-the-business. By that, I mean understanding business plans or models at a generic level, including the strategic planning process used. Regardless of the type of organization I support, I must understand how revenue is generated, the significant lines of expense to be managed, and the key metrics used to measure success. 

I should be able to read both an operating statement and an annual plan. When I first meet with a client, I begin by asking questions about the organization’s business plan, competitive threats, opportunities, and marketplace issues. I ask questions about those issues because generically they are always important in any organization. 

Q: How can the results from performance consulting initiatives be measured and why is that important? 

A: Measurement is important because of the old adage, “What gets measured gets done.” If we monitor results, we’ll be serious about insuring we get some. As a talent professional, I’m saying to the manager I’m working with, “I share accountability with you for results,” a critical principal for forging strong partnerships. When you measure, you determine what results you have, and also know where you didn’t make your goal. Without guessing, you can plan the corrective action because you have the data. 

Measurement of results from performance consulting initiatives can be aligned to the levels of evaluation that Jack and Patti Phillips describe in our book. We can measure five things:

  • Level 1: Have employees responded positively to the performance consulting initiative?

  • Level 2: Has the capability of individuals and the organization improved since the solutions were implemented?

  • Level 3: Has the on-the-job behavior (performance) of people been enhanced?

  • Level 4:What has the impact been to the business results we were focused on?

  • Level 5: What has been the return-on-investment we made in this performance consulting initiative? 

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add? 

A: I feel this is such an exciting time to be in this field. We are able to access leaders in systems that are not as hierarchical as they used to be, as well as partner with leaders who understand that talent is our most competitive advantage. My hat is off to the next generation in the talent field who have so much opportunity to make a difference in organizational performance. To them, I say “Go for it!”

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