Zenyatta and her incredible story have all the makings of a great Hollywood movie. An unlikely heroine competing in a male dominated world seeks to find her place and then becomes the sport’s top performer – a champion, breaking previous records and pushing the bar higher than ever before.

While this is a great horse racing story, about the greatest Thoroughbred mare in horse racing history, there are also performance management lessons here for every business leader who wants to engage their employees and continue to raise the bar on performance.

Now, you may be asking yourself what horse racing, and specifically Zenyatta, has to do with performance management, your business and your employees. Well, it’s about striving for excellence.

What is Performance Management?

Performance management is an ongoing strategic process designed to support organizational accomplishment by constantly raising the bar – not just a onetime event (one race if you will) where an employee outperforms their co-worker. No, it’s much more than that. It’s raising the bar on performance through performance planning – aligning employee goals to organizational objectives to ensure employees are working and accomplishing what they’re supposed to be accomplishing.  Performance management continuously monitor’s employee performance, comparing it to the organizational goals and making necessary adjustments as needed throughout the year to continue raising the bar and driving even higher levels of performance.

Why Performance Management?

Three main objectives are driving the more toward performance management:

1.       Quality

2.       Appraisal Issues

3.       Strategic Planning

Let’s look at each of these drivers:

1.       Quality – Many organizations have implemented Total Quality Management (TQM) principles adapted from the teachings of Deming. As you may recall, Deming believed that employee performance was more a function of training, communication, tools and supervision than lack of motivation.  Performance management shifts the focus from problems to continuous feedback, and if necessary management system changes (training, incentives, procedures, etc.) to improve performance.

2.       Appraisal Issues Research has shown that performance appraisals are fraught with problems, at best they create unnecessary tension, at worst they are counterproductive. Most performance appraisals occur 1 – 2 times per year – if there is a problem or the business rationale shifts, what good does it do to wait 6 or 12 months to do something about it? The shift to performance management is about providing continuous feedback in a just in time manner.

3.       Strategic Planning – Strategic planning is about more than just designing good strategies – it’s about getting employees to execute those strategies and move the organization forward.  Leaders must actually compare business results with performance forecasts to ensure that the strategic plan is being executed. This begins with communicating to employees what their goals are and how they relate to the company’s goals. Then leaders must ensure employee receive continuous feedback on their performance to those goals, taking corrective action as necessary.

Performance management is about strategically mapping organizational success, raising the performance bar, and engaging employees to reach higher than they thought possible. Zenyatta not only raised the bar for thoroughbred mares, she raised the bar on overall horse-racing performance.

Although Zenyatta didn’t meet her stretch goal (to win all 20 races and go undefeated), by setting that big, audacious hairy goal, she accomplished far more than would have been possible if no goals were set. And that’s the reality, organizations that set and strive to reach stretch goals move their organizations to the next breakthrough, while those that don’t set stretch goals, tend to wallow around looking for meaning and purpose.

Zenyatta didn’t lose Saturday – on the contrary everyone came out a winner (her owners, Blame’s owners, their horse racing organizations and the industry) because she dared to go where no other Thoroughbred mare had dared. And that’s what happens in performance organizations, performance continues to rise as engaged employees strive for higher levels of performance excellence. Performance management – lessons from a race horse…