Evaluating Stage Managers: 5 Tips For Giving Performance Reviews
By Anna Robb
There is much debate in many companies, entertainment or otherwise as to whether performance evaluations are a waste of time. For the theatrical and live entertainment environment, mostly constructed by short-term gigs and freelance work they are not a common occurrence. Most people know they have done a good job when they get hired for the next gig. Matthew Stern explains this in his article, Performance Reviews for Stage Managers and Freelancers? He offers practical ways to incorporate feedback into the freelance world to better yourself and, if you have people in your charge, your team.
Unlike the freelance world, in long running resident shows, performance reviews are a lot more common. As a person who has headed up a 9-person stage management team for 7 years on a resident show, I believe them to be well worth the time. Not only because feedback is worthwhile and beneficial to the employee but because evaluating a person’s role in the company helps the manager and the employee assess whether they are on the same page.
Now, one could argue that you can do this on a day to day basis and not need a formal assessment form and a private meeting, and some managers could. However, I found when running one of the biggest shows in the world, that my team of stage managers were like ships in the night.
We were spread across the theatre running trainings, building show line-ups, writing schedules, dealing with technical issues, re-writing prompt scripts, safety protocol or standard operating procedures or servicing the artistic and technical departments with their needs.
A casual chat in the office was rare and if someone was idle for 5 minutes, it was prime time to allow them to rest, eat, or take a social media cruise on their laptop for some “me” time. It was not the environment to bring up a casual performance chat.
Scheduling performance reviews ensured that I would take an hour with a fellow stage manager to sit together to discuss work and life. Often the insight gained in this time benefited me, the manager, far more than the employee. I discovered where they desired growth, if they were too challenged or not challenged enough, if they were thinking of moving on from the show, etc. Post review period, I could plan the department’s next 6 -12 months based on the information I received. I could see the areas where we were strong and the areas of the department being neglected.
I can’t pretend I was always great at writing performance reviews, but one thing I love about being a manager of stage managers, is that they hold you to very high standards. They challenge, they push and they demand. They are leaders themselves, so to lead a bunch of leaders is well, tough… But I am thankful, because the people that walked through my department over those 7 years pushed me to be the person I am today.
Here are 5 things I think managers should consider when undertaking a performance review process:
1. No Surprises.
Nothing in the review should come as a surprise to the employee. Don’t go around behaving as if everything is perfect with your employee and then nail them in the review. A good relationship is open and transparent and the employee should not be surprised by the review’s content.
2. Reviews are a two-way street.
You need to give the employee the opportunity to give you feedback on your role so you can learn how to be a better manager and leader. Ask them what you could do better. Ask them if they feel they are getting enough support. Encourage them to communicate what they like and dislike about the department and its operation. This often opens a platform for their suggestions. If their ideas are great, then use them. If their ideas have already been considered and rejected, you have the time to explain your rationale and choices, one on one. This is a much better dynamic and environment than shooting down a person’s ideas in a team meeting.
3. Employee versus department needs.
Make the review about going over the last review’s objectives. Identify which ones were not achieved and lay practical steps to achieving the next steps in an employee’s progression. Create some more milestones together. Believe me, most good full-time employees expect to grow and that growth to be supported by their manager. If you don’t have an action plan for their growth, they will not stay.
There is a catch however. Individual growth and serving the department have to go hand in hand. You cannot pander to every employee’s growth goals without serving the department first and foremost. And the employee needs to understand that their growth has to fit in with the needs and requirements of the team as a whole. As a manager, it is your role to explain that context to them. Get them to see and understand all the angles and aspects you need to consider. Sometimes, despite explanation you will still be blindsided by those serving themselves first.
I had one stage manager who wished to call the show despite the fact that I knew she would leave within the year. I was in a very tight position, show caller wise. I proposed to have her call the show on the condition that she would stay a certain amount of time with the department. This would ensure that the 3-month training that it took to get her in the booth calling would be worth the team and department’s time to support. She agreed. After calling the show 10 times (approximately 3 weeks instead of the planned 4 months), this employee handed in her resignation letter. Calling was her goal and she had no intention of serving the department with its needs.
Side note: At the time I was upset with her, but ultimately, I realized this was my fault. I should have interviewed her more thoroughly before hiring her. If I had been better at this, I would have seen these traits in the interview and I would not have hired her. Ultimately as a manager, every person you bring on board is your responsibility and if they screw up or fail to be a team player, the first thing you need to do before pointing the finger is ask yourself, what did I do to contribute to this mistake?
4. Don’t shy away from the difficult.
Some people don’t like feedback or constructive criticism. Don’t dance around these people. Avoiding conflict and disagreements is the worst way to deal with a difficult employee. On a short-term gig, you can suck it up and think…. Oh well, in 3 months, that person won’t be my problem. You can let it slide. On a long running show, there’s nowhere to go. You deal with issues or those issues become a cancer that spreads through the team and has potential to destroy it.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was to stare at potential conflict straight in the face and deal with it directly the moment I discovered it. To do this well, you need to be solid in yourself, your beliefs and your philosophy on how the team should be run.
5. Prepare carefully.
Spend time on preparing the evaluation forms for each of your employees. Don’t rush this process. How easy or hard it is for you to fill out the form for each employee tells a lot about your relationship with them. How much you second guess the notes you put in there may mean you haven’t been as transparent with the employee as you would like to be. Or perhaps you have a difficult employee that doesn’t take constructive criticism well. All these are triggers for you to identify and solve. Dive in and keep seeking to work through these issues one by one by one.
Don’t strive for the perfect team though, it doesn’t exist. Managing is a constant job that doesn’t end, especially on a long-term show. You have to allow people to have their bad days, their grumpy days and the days they totally f&%k it up. As their manager, you need to create a safe space for them to rise and fall and make sure they know that despite their flaws that you will always, always have their back. And keep that promise.
Long term stage management roles in resident shows benefit greatly from performance reviews and the more you do them, the easier it gets. Many stage managers have not received reviews before arriving to a resident show so the process can be quite intimidating for them at first. Start gently if you are introducing the process to an established team or a new member. Once you have established a good employee/employer relationship, then you can set the bar for each employee and ask them to meet it.
Use performance reviews to set the stage for how you want the department to run, how each person fits into the team and their roles and responsibilities within it. Use it as a communication tool, a platform for discussion and mostly for you to get to know your team personally and professionally so you can manage them effectively. Good luck!
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