The Power of Performance Profiling

Eight good reasons to concentrate on results

2001 Volume 4 Issue 1

Improve evaluation and hiring practices by emphasizing results. Click here for a Performance Profile Worksheet.


Activity without direction or purpose is simply motion. No more. No less. Traditional job descriptions focus on activity. It is far better to throw out your activity-based job descriptions and replace them with performance profiles that focus on results – not activity.

This call for performance profiling goes out to all organizations wanting to improve their results by better defining the work that needs to be done. It is useful for organizations in any stage – from entrepreneurial ventures to large, hierarchical organizations. Performance profiling can even be used to improve innovation and cross-functional teamwork. This is a proven way to enhance outcome metrics like sales and profitability. If your organization does not have a formal index of its various positions, the first step in building a performance-based organization can be to adapt the powerful performance profile process, from top to bottom.

This article will outline the components of a performance profile, identify the powerful benefits of having them developed for all positions within your organization, and review the steps involved in developing an actual performance profile.

What is a Performance Profile?

A performance profile is a short index (one to three pages) of what it takes to be a high performer in a specific job or position. It is different from a traditional job description in that it emphasizes key results or outcomes and not simply activities.

A performance profile for a sales clerk, for example, might focus on the goal of customer satisfaction. A clerk who interacts with customers in a helpful and courteous manner demonstrates results-driven action compared with one who simply fumbles through each transaction.

Five areas are included in a complete profile:

  1. Key Results – Identify the key business results or outcomes associated with the particular job or position.
  2. Key Actions – Identify the key actions that are necessary to drive those key results.
  3. People Skills – Skills necessary for success, such as persuasion, coaching, negotiating, public speaking.
  4. Technical Skills – Skills necessary to be successful, such as equipment operation, computer capabilities.
  5. Experience and Education – Including areas of expertise and educational achievement.

Performance profiles create a foundation upon which an employee can build a record of measurable success. Powerful benefits can be realized using this performance management tool.

Benefits of Performance Profiling

I have seen managers in client organizations apply this process across a variety of work settings for all types of jobs, at all organizational levels – from CEO to janitor. Through performance profiling, these managers have helped their people focus on the most important things that these individuals can directly influence in their respective positions. Eight important benefits to completing performance profiles for all positions within an organization have emerged:

  1. Avoids mistaking motion for action. By defining key results for all positions, and identifying the key actions that drive them, you are clearly connecting specific actions with specific outcomes. People become focused on what they are supposed to accomplish rather than simply engaging in unfocused motion.
  2. Supports knowledge-based organizations. This orientation can especially benefit knowledge-based organizations striving to create a learning-oriented culture that focuses their intellectual capital on measurable value creation. The human capital valuation process can be effectively anchored by performance profiles that link knowledge building action to important key result areas such as product innovation and effective cross-functional collaboration.
  3. Facilitates positive exchange around challenging performance areas. Performance profiling is an opportunity for a manager to proactively work with his or her people to identify the essence of their work. This mutual review and collaborative effort works especially well in technology-based organizations where key actions and associated results are more difficult to define. The delivery of new products, for example, is often influenced by a variety of actions that are dependent on creativity. Innovation, a key ingredient in our increasingly knowledge-based workplace, needs to be defined, measured, and managed. You can begin this process through performance profiling. For example, innovation can be translated into “having X% of all revenues per year come from new or innovative products.” 3M uses this metric and puts its annual revenue target from new products at 30 percent.
  4. Can help to avoid the courthouse. Clear performance expectations are an effective defensive against wrongful termination claims. A performance profile makes your expectations explicit. It provides clarity and specificity, allowing you and your people to accurately document what is expected of them in a specific position.
  5. Improves selection decisions. With a performance profile, you can formulate specific questions to ask a job applicant, or performance activities you will require them to complete during the selection process. Your questions and activities need to be targeted to discover whether the candidate matches the performance profile for the specific position, allowing you to “weed out” applicants who lack the qualifications for a position.
  6. Improves fairness of performance evaluation. When there are clear performance expectations, surprises are reduced during evaluation sessions. It is clear whether the person achieved the specified key results. Performance based observations about specific actions outweigh “gut feel” comments based on subjective perceptions.
  7. Improves training, development and coaching efforts. Individuals’ developmental needs can be more easily identified using a performance profile. In turn, areas to pinpoint for improvement are clearer.
  8. Can be used as a tool in “pay for performance” compensation programs. Defining key results or performance outcomes can help in determining formulas for pay for performance programs.

Without clear key result areas, pay for performance schemes can be ambiguous and should be discouraged. With this powerful package of benefits in mind, let’s review the steps involved in developing a performance profile.

Developing A Performance Profile

Developing a performance profile should be a highly interactive systematic process. The process can be broken down into five steps.

Step 1: Defining Key Results

Each profile begins with the definition of the key results or outcomes required for this position. Ideally, the list will consist of one to five key results. When finalizing key results for a specific profile, you may consider referencing any of a variety of useful publications on effective performance measurement. As you work to identify the key result areas, I recommend the following four processes:

  1. Brainstorm as many potential outcomes or key results as you can for the particular position. Ask yourself, “If I were outsourcing this position, what would I expect this person to deliver in order for me to retain them?”
  2. Focus on those outcomes that are most important for the person to achieve. The individual must be in a position to heavily influence these outcomes.
  3. Reduce your list to one to five most important Key Result Areas.
  4. Convert key result areas to performance expectations (outcome objectives) by assigning numbers and time frameworks whenever possible. Although some key result areas do not lend themselves to clear quantification, most areas will be measurable.

Richard S. Sloma’s book, “How to Measure Managerial Performance,” provides a comprehensive listing of outcome measures for 14 functional business areas. The process of performance measurement is also described in practical terms in, “Performance Scorecards: Measuring the Right Things in the Real World,” by Richard Chang and Mark Morgan.

Step 2: Determining Key Actions

All key results need to be driven by specific key actions, which guide the incumbent toward achieving those results. Each key result should have one to six key actions – the “hows” that drive that key result. These actions are the critical things that need to be done to increase the chances of achieving the key result.

In determining the key actions, think about what things the person can do to drive the key results. Also, apply the 80/20 rule when considering potential key actions that drive a particular key result, i.e. 80% of the results are produced by 20% of the actions. Document these 20% as key actions on your performance profile.

Step 3: Determining People Skills

The people skills that influence key actions need to be identified and listed on the performance profile. People skills refer to those skills that correlate with a person being able to effectively execute the key actions listed on the profile. When determining people skills, I recommend the following three processes:

  1. Brainstorm all the possible people skills that correlate to each of the key actions. A variety of commercial behavioral assessment instruments are available to help you pinpoint specific people skills. (See, e.g., Saville & Holdsworth; 1996; Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ), Boston: Saville & Holdsworth).
  2. Finalize your index of people skills to a list of 10 to 15 skills.
  3. Determine any “must haves” and highlight them on your list.

Step 4: Identifying Technical Skills

In addition to people skills, the technical skills that correlate with taking key actions need to be listed on the performance profile. Focus on those technical skills that correlate highly with being able to effectively accomplish the key actions listed. There are usually fewer technical skills listed on a profile than people skills (i.e., one to ten). To determine the technical skills required, I suggest using the following process:

  1. Brainstorm the possible technical skills needed after reviewing the key actions listed for the job.
  2. Consult and/or observe experts to help you focus on the essential skills and specify your precise requirements.
  3. Finalize the technical skills list, citing those most important to success.
  4. Determine the “must haves” and denote them by highlighting them on your list.

Step 5: Determining Experience and Education/Training Requirements

Consider your minimum experience and education/training requirements. How many times do you want the person to have worked through the experience cycle in a specific position? Reviewing and reflecting on the work of past and present high performers can help you in making these decisions. The experience and education requirements become most important when you are using a performance profile to aid in making selection decisions. This step requires you to specify the education/training needed as well as the minimum years of experience needed in a specific work environment.

Performance Profile Applications

Once you have completed a performance profile, you will be able to apply it to all parts of the performance-people cycle in your organization. Performance profiling can be used to make better selection decisions, performance coach and evaluate personnel. The five content areas of your profile can be used to write specific recruitment ads and selection interview questions and formulate specific performance activities.

You can also use the profile to help coach and evaluate performance of existing employees. After developing a profile with a person, together you can review their performance in executing key actions and in delivering key results. In fact, the identified key results and their associated key actions can become the basis for performance evaluation and coaching. I routinely convert performance profiles into evaluation forms that become the focal point for performance review discussions.

Summing It Up

Performance profiling will bring greater performance focus to your organization. It is simple and practical. The emphasis is on having your people focus on action that directly impacts the desired key results. It does not mistake motion for action, or activity for results. This simple yet powerful performance management tool links key results with key actions and helps you and your people focus on the technical skills needed to do the job. I encourage you to use it! It will pay big dividends for you and your organization.

Call To Action: A Work Application Assignment

Complete a full performance profile on your own current position. Also, using the 5-step approach outlined in this article, complete full profiles for all positions that report to you in collaboration with the person occupying the specific position being profiled. Expect a performance profile to take approximately two hours to complete.

About the Author(s)

Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.

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