Fuelling people performance

In this myGrapevine magazine exclusive interview, Surinder Birdi, Ford’s HR Director, talks about why communication and motivation play a big role in performance management...

Words by Kieran Howells

Performance management is the process of ensuring that individual contribution on the part of each worker aligns with the desired output of the collective team or whole company. It’s an HR-led initiative that, when utilised properly, should form the basis of employee development and improvement. It’s a multifaceted tool in HR’s remit, that not only ensures that each individual employee is motivated, and feels that they’re progressing in their career, but also unifies teams under collective goals, and even promotes better wellbeing. When done well, data has highlighted the positive impact that performance management can have. Take manager-led support for example. McKinsey data stated that, when workers feel that their managers are supporting their performance, over 60% report feeling more motivated, willing and able to perform better at work. This also has a knock-on effect on the overall profitability of organisations. In fact, those that invest in regular performance management see an average of 27% higher profits, and 38% higher productivity, as noted in the same study.


However, many companies are seemingly struggling with the process of carrying out good performance management, the basis of which is ensuring that workers fully understand the goals they are aiming towards. In fact, Clearcompany research found that only around 50% of the workforce feel as though they understand the expectations that their company has of them. In addition, data from workplace analysts the VIA Institute estimated that, based on its research, a massive 68% of managers are doing a poor job of motivating employees in performance management meetings. It’s apparent from these statistics that HR and line managers that actively utilise performance management need better solutions for improving the processes within their own companies.

"I wouldn't want to work for an organisation that I didn’t feel was giving back and doing the right thing"

A smooth performance management ride

One company that appears to have created a successful approach to performance management, is the automobile manufacturer, Ford. The company, which employs over 200,000 people worldwide, around 11,000 of whom are UK-based, was recently identified as one of the ‘Best Places to Work in the UK’ in Glassdoor’s 2022 Employees’ Choice Awards. The awards, which are voted for by employees, ‘recognise the businesses that are reimagining the employee experience’ – an element of successful company culture that goes hand-in-hand with the sense of purpose and motivation that good performance management delivers.

In an exclusive interview with myGrapevine magazine, Surinder Birdi, Ford’s UK-based HR Director, said that this accolade had everything to do with the company’s view of performance management which he believes has helped Ford become the only automotive company in the UK to be recognised. Speaking on the award, and the fact that Ford’s employees entered the company on their own accord, he said: “It’s something that we’re very proud of, but it’s not something that we’d actively go out and seek. Instead, it’s vindication of some of the things that we’ve done internally. Our drives to upskill employees, our dedication to diversity, the way we’ve looked after people. It’s important that we carry on in that journey, not because we want the external recognition, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the attitude that has empowered our people to strive to achieve great things.”


Surinder Birdi

HR Director


Surinder believes that the award is evidence that Ford is an HR-centric company – an element he is adamant is essential if performance management is to be truly effective, as buy-in is needed from all leaders and line managers. “[At] Ford, HR is an essential function. It’s the function that drives the business forward. It’s really important that, as an organisation, we unleash the capability of our employees, our leaders, our teams,” he says. “We need our managers to be totally confident in making these meaningful conversations happen.” Data has pointed towards the difference that performance management can make in unleashing this capability, as Surinder alludes to. When employees feel that their manager is helping to build their skills, productivity increases by a total of 36%, according to McKinsey research. Surinder adds that, whilst managers are the people on the front-line, implementing performance management, the onus is on HR to ensure that they have the tools to do this. “The HR function has a really strong role in making sure we develop people in the right way and that we empower our people and leaders. We must all be moving in the right direction together. HR has an important voice, so that’s really important that we work together with these people – it’s about delivering real results.”

Ford fact file

The company’s headquarters are in Dearborn, Michigan, United States

It was founded on June 16, 1903 by Henry Ford

Ford introduced some of the earliest iterations of the ‘moving assembly line’ method of manufacturing

The company is the fifth largest automotive manufacturer in the world

The very first Ford sold was to Dr. Pfennig in 1903, for a grand total of £625 ($850)

Ford is the second largest family-owned company in the world, behind only Walmart.

Convertible communication

Naturally, in order to be able to deliver these results, any company looking to create a unified workforce must ensure that each employee understands the important part that they play in the organisation. Good performance management doesn’t just mean giving each employee KPIs to work towards. It means ensuring that they see their place in the collective journey of improvement that their company is on. Within Ford, Surinder believes that being one unified company with shared goals is essential. He says: “Being aligned on the shape of that journey, on how we’re going to get our people to where we want them to be – that hand-in-hand view of development and performance management – is the key. Again, we can’t force people to want to improve. We’ve crafted a culture where assessment and improvement are positive forces for personal development.” However, he believes that there is a vital element that many other companies are getting wrong.


The fundamental key here, which many other businesses miss, Surinder states, is not just what is communicated, but how it’s communicated. Simply telling an employee they need to improve, he says, is potentially damaging, rather than helpful. He explains: “Performance management isn’t a generic one-size-fits-all approach. You have to see each person as the individual that they are. Obviously, that makes the relationship between manager and team member really important and we strive to give managers all the support that they need to ensure that this process isn’t a negative one.” A wealth of data backs up his thinking; Clearcompany data found that 86% of employees believe the fundamental issue with their company’s performance management initiatives is their manager’s ability to communicate. Only 25% of employees leave these meetings feeling like the conversation was ‘constructive’ – something which could have wider implications on the business.

It’s therefore important, according to Surinder, that all managers tasked with carrying out performance management understand a key ethos, which should shape these conversations. “No one is born with all the skills they need,” he says. As such, performance reviews aren’t about highlighting flaws, but discussing mutually how individual skills could be developed and supported. “We don’t expect people to come into Ford and automatically be fantastic, so why would we choose to make the conversation critical? We want to empower people, and give them the tools that they need to develop,” he notes, emphasising the importance of performance management in taking employees on this journey of education and improvement.

"We encourage our line managers to be constantly thinking about what good for each person looks like"

Revving up positive reinforcement

Instead of focusing on flaws, Ford’s conversations around development and improvement are solidified by the positives; what skills people have excelled with, rather than where they are lacking. This allows the conversation to progress into how they can use this knowledge elsewhere. “If a worker forgets what they’ve done well, then you may find that they’ve lost their motivation to improve. Instead, we focus on what they do well, and then look at how they can use that knowledge to bolster them in other areas. ‘You’ve done this well, but how can you take this success and apply it to other areas?’ for example.”

Charting Surinder’s career in HR

Surinder first joined Ford in 2001. In this time, he’s held HR positions in its UK transport operations team, it’s Dagenham engine plant, it’s credit team and it’s European marketing, sales and service team, among others.

Speaking on his journey within the firm, he says: “Each one of my roles have been very different, and there has been a different challenge.

“But, the theme that has run through all of those roles is improving the business, and improving the working lives of our people.

“Ford is a trusted organisation. We have a long history of stability, structure and we’ve always been at the forefront of ensuring that we’re making the right choices for our people.

“We want people to be with Ford for their entire careers. We want them to feel like Ford is supporting them and helping them to develop,” he adds.

However, Surinder does note that another key element has the ability to define the success or failure of performance management – frequency. Creating a productive dialogue between line manager, HR and the employee necessitates constant communication, he says. This doesn’t have to be formal, but instead should largely take the form of frequent check-ins. “We massively value constant communication whether you’re working remotely on in-person,” he notes. While this may be the case at Ford, it appears to be far from the experience lived by most employees in a general sense. In fact, according to data from Deloitte, over 50% of workers can expect just one to three performance management check-ins per year. For Ford, this is extremely important. He adds: “Constant dialogue between manager and employee is essential if this is going to work. We need to hear what our people think is going well, and what they think is going not-so-well. There needs to be strong feedback, and therefore we encourage our line managers to be constantly thinking about what good for each person looks like.” And whilst communication, and its frequency, is reportedly essential if performance management is going to be successful, businesses have had many hurdles to overcome in this area over the past two years.


Refuelling remote workers

The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, made the process of managing performance more challenging. Ford is at its roots a vehicle manufacturing company, and therefore not all employees – especially those responsible for building vehicles, for example – were able to move to remote working in the throes of the rolling lockdown periods. Yet, Surinder believes that technology can largely bridge the communication issues that having a locationally divided workforce creates. He continues: “Covid-19 caused massive change. We’re so used to coming to the office and seeing each other regularly. Instead, we now communicate via screens. I think that managing performance well given this change, is about understanding what the limits and what the benefits are.

“For example,” he says, “many people have found huge benefit in working remotely. But we know now that the time managers and employees spend physically in each other’s company is valuable time in a different way. So, how do we use that time? The best thing we can do is to connect, to spend time collaborating. Performance management can be just as effective, but we have to see the tools we now have for what they are, and use them to our best advantage. For place-dependant workers, it’s about supporting them as much as possible. Communication can’t and won’t break down,” Surinder states adamantly.

"We focus on what they do well, and then look at how they can use that knowledge to bolster them in other areas"


Driving future success

But, despite Ford’s apparent success in performance management and in its internal culture as a whole, Surinder is open about the fact that the company is still on a journey, which will continue to develop. The fundamental building blocks of its performance management process; positive reinforcement; acute attention to the manager-employee dynamic; constant communication; and a culture of acceptance, appear to have grounded the process in success. This is especially evident now, with the company celebrating the win of an employee-endorsed accolade like the ‘Great Place to Work’ status. Surinder is adamant that it has no intention to rest on its laurels after the win. “We’re not there yet fully. In a sense we’ll never be there,” he says, noting that the award has only spurred him on to continue to improve every aspect of the HR function. “We want to continue to develop and improve working life, so we don’t have all the answers. What we do have to do is take stock, continually assess our processes and above all - carry on listening to our employees,” he concludes.

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