How I Learned to Love KPIs

Earlier this year, my company began to apply metrics to analyze the performance of its employees. They called it KPI, or key personal indicators. It was our Human Resource department’s way of welcoming us to the organization’s new upper management team. It was highly scientific.

A standardized self-test form was e-blasted to all the targeted parties…two or three times I think. After the third query, I realized it wasn’t an optional exercise, so I relented and opened the file and was stupefied as I scanned the questions. I hadn’t been so personally grilled since filling out an e-Harmony application.

I guess they had to establish a personality baseline before getting into the nitty-gritty business questions. So I raced through the opening sections. My favorite color is blue. I am a dog person, not a cat person. If I was in a lifeboat that had room for only five survivors and a cute little child swam up to the craft asking for refuge, would you sacrifice your seat? I had to think about that one. Did they want the truth or an empathetic cop out answer? Did I want my new bosses to perceive me as a pragmatist or as Dr. Josef Mengele?

Once it moved on to the meat of the assessment dealing with understanding team dynamics, motivating people, communicating, strategic thinking and the like, it became a lot more palatable. I still don’t get the relevance of the dog-cat question. I’m just thinking it was something to help the new HR guy pair us all up at the company picnic.

Managers talk a lot about employee performance. There’s constant pressure to achieve performance targets, to reach higher performance levels, and to ensure that people’s work supports and furthers the organization’s goals. KPIs are created based on business objectives. A business objective is an executive statement of direction in support of a corporate strategy. The business objective is a high-level goal that is quantifiable, measurable and results-oriented. And the most common way to measure that business objective is translated into a KPI.

KPI metrics ask the key question: “How well is an employee applying his or her current skills, and to what extent is he or she achieving the outcomes desired?”

The answer has traditionally been found in the performance evaluation process, where managers look for hard data to tell how well an employee has performed his or her duties. As a security director assessing metrics of your staff, you need to make sure that they are not only working hard, but that they are working on goals that will advance the organization’s mission. You’ve heard it before — alignment.

This is where KPIs play a crucial role when applied at the organizational, departmental and individual levels. At an organizational level, a KPI is a quantifiable metric that reflects how well an organization is achieving its stated goals and objectives. At the departmental level, it can show how focused team members are to the mission statement. And at the personal level, KPIs can help management identify emerging organizational leaders who ascend beyond the path of telling their team what to do, instead showing them the way then inspiring them to follow it.

Therein lays one of the goals of building KPIs into your management structure — cultivating the business leaders of tomorrow for your department and perhaps your organization as a whole. Experience has taught most successful executives that there is all too often a wide gap between a competent manager and an inspiring leader.

“A leader is a visionary, someone who can drive strategy and who understands the levers of power in the corporation, and someone who can clearly articulate his or her vision,” says Jerry Brennan, whose security management recruiting firm Security Management Resources, has been aligning leaders and organizations for decades. “There’s a lot of marketing involved in that. A manager has to think strategically as well, but there you’re dealing with people leadership, results and personal leadership, effective delegation, rewarding performance, developing employees.”

Brennan adds that many executive positions today ask for a combination of leadership and management skills, but it is important for the security professional to clearly understand the differences between them.

Because management skill sets are so broad, it is tempting to settle into a managerial comfort zone that you have emulated or are already comfortable with. However, for that evolution from manager to inspirational leader to happen, it is wise to analyze your skills in all areas of management, then challenge yourself to improve in each one.