QUESTION: Why Won’t Leaders Own the KPI System?

by Stacey Barr |

Brett, a Performance Manager in a large public sector organisation, asks “What do I do to get the Executive leadership team to take ownership of the agency’s performance management system?”

It’s sad but true that many leaders of our organisations simply don’t embrace performance measurement.

hear no, see no, speak no evil

The unintended consequences of rewarding executives based on KPIs are the same as the consequences of measuring people (something I totally oppose).

Leaders fear KPIs too.

They fear looking bad, fear not getting that bonus, fear being sacked, fear missing out on the next upward step in their career. And all this fear leads to insidious performance management behaviours.

The figures get managed, not performance. They measure only the “good news” things. They focus on actions rather than outcomes.

The leadership team of a local government organisation only wants to measure things that show how great the council serves its community. That leadership team is flying blind, because they’re looking at the pretty view and not at the looming storm clouds.

Usually the people who see this problem are in positions where they cannot affect it. They appreciate that performance measurement is about feedback, learning and continuous improvement. But they have to do what they’re told.

The Strategic Planning Manager in the same local government organisation is absolutely committed to continuous improvement, but he’s constantly befuddled by the silly KPIs his leadership team keep asking for.

So what can you do?

How can you get the senior leadership team to take ownership of the performance management system?

ripples on water

The truth is, not much. You have as your obstacles their fears about KPIs, their arrogance that they already know everything there is to know about KPIs, and their short-term focus on getting positive results quickly.

So putting forward a logical case for KPIs isn’t going to work in situations like this.

I don’t believe it’s a problem you can address directly. But you are still part of the system, and as such, your actions do have an effect in that system. Like tossing small pebbles into a pond, the ripples can still reach far.

So what kinds of pebbles can cause the right ripples?

Questions are one of the most powerful tools that we have for influencing others. Don’t try and influence beliefs, attitudes or behaviours, though. The kind of influence that will send the ripples the farthest are questions that raise awareness.

man walking over pebbles on a beach

Awareness that KPIs don’t all have to be reported upward and outward – that they can simply be feedback for internal use. Awareness that by measuring something that’s bad now, and fixing it, means they’ll have a real good news story in the future. Awareness that it’s more heroic to fix a problem than to deny that there are any. Awareness of what performance measurement truly is.

And even if you fail to influence the current leaders, you can still influence the future leaders with questions that raise their awareness, too.

Awareness of what they would do differently, when they become the future leaders. Awareness that they can use their own KPIs to drive real improvement in their own parts of the organisation. Awareness that they can ask awareness-raising questions of their current leaders too.

A change of behaviours only comes after a change in beliefs and attitudes. A change in beliefs and attitudes only comes after a change in awareness. That’s why you need to start with awareness.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, your successes and failures, in attempting to get senior leaders to champion proper performance measurement. Comments, anyone?

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  1. Sander de Bruijn says:


    in the large public organisation I work (a Federald Public Service of Finance), we are confronted with the same issue. Although a rather good and stable system of KPI’s and performance measurement exists, it is difficult to persuade the top management of its use and added value. Much rather the top management focuses on short term projects which give quick results instead of analyzing upcoming problems. On top of that, there is a huge potential in the existing KPI’s as they measure results on different levels of the organisation and also betwee similar divisions across the country. This makes it possible to do a lot of usefull benchmarking. It seems that the benchmarking did attract the attention of the topmanagement so by not limiting the use of KPI’s to just reporting results to the management, we use them to improve results in specific divisions through benchmarking and benchlearning.
    I therefore believe that the use of KPI’s is not limited to one thing. It is also true what Stacey sais, that if management does not want to embrace the system, there is very little you can do about it. The only way to influence them is by offering the top management something they want (but for example haven’t thought of yet) through the use of KPI’s and the performance measurement. In this way it can also help improving “the image” of KPI’s. Basically KPI’s will eventually show for themselves that they are usefull and have to be embraced, also by the top leaders.

    ps/I apologize for my English since it is not my native tongue..

  2. Ulfried says:

    Hi Tracey, kind of amazed at the international relevance of your story…small country like Namibia (south western Africa) has similar scenarios. I’ve been working with your case in-hand! So thanks for posting – great. I don’t like to sound ‘wise’, but I do believe you’re spot on with the awareness raising route (only effective way for adult development). Like very much how you have illustrated/spelt out ways of doing it practically.
    I’m encouraged and inspired to adjust my facilitation emphases! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Stacey Barr says:

    Sander – you did a great job articulating your point in English! I love what you said about “improving the image of KPIs”. Small steps where we show managers insights and useful knowledge from using KPIs (such as in Smart Charts) can be just the right pebbles to drop into the pond.

  4. Stacey Barr says:

    Ulfried, yes, I am often amazed too at how universal our struggles with performance measurement are. I am fortunate to meet people from all around the world and never yet have I come across a “unique” challenge to KPIs. I’m glad you shared your story, it’s important that we all realise we’re not alone.

  5. Stacey Barr says:

    One of my clients, Anne, emailed me today and said this (shared at her request):

    “While our organisation is actually obsessed with KPIs at the moment, they have little idea how to do it properly. We have a huge ‘bank’ of KPIs, none of which are particularly meaningful, & people work on them in isolation.

    In our Branch, there isn’t the capacity to create a ‘Measures Team due to workloads…and there is no mandate from management to do so anyway. These days we seem to need a mandate from management to do anything, so I guess working on management allowing such teams to form is the first step.

    Given that takes time, my more immediate concern is how to get buy-in from others in the team to work together on this – given there is no-one for a ‘Measures Team’ as such.”

    Anne, you’re a trooper. The ideas that immediately came to my mind about starting to nurture the buy-in is that you simply start by allocating 15 minutes (or whatever time you can) each day to do one thing toward developing KPIs for your branch. I’ve learned my own time management practices from the likes of David Allen, Timothy Ferriss and Brian Tracy. And something that comes up consistently is the power of small steps coupled with sharp focus.

    In those 15 minute daily sessions, you could:

    1) Come up with one well-worded result for a branch Results Map (in a week you could have a good draft Results Map).

    2) Complete one step of the PuMP Measure Design template for a result.

    3) Get the data together for a KPI/measure into a spreadsheet.

    4) Create a Smart Chart for one KPI/measure.

    5) Show the chart to one other person and get their reactions.


    As you take each step, the logical next step may reveal itself to you. So I guess it means starting on SOMETHING, and being consistent about keeping on going.

  6. Lars G Mattsson says:

    Australia, Namibia or Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. One of the reasons why I wrote my book “Winning Goals” (in Swedish so far) was the discovery of managers ignorance about goals, measurement and performance. The believe that they know everything but in fact there is a huge chasm between their actual knowledge and the required knowledge to properly take responsibility for performance management. Despite the lack of knowledge, my experience is also that there are other reasons like “fear of failure”, they have the idea that performance management is HR:s responsibility,

  7. Chheang Phea says:

    I am from Cambodia. Thank you very much to Stacey who initiate the great tool of KPIs pages for all of us to share experiences and challenges of our implementing the performance management process in practical ways. Riverkids are facing to challenges to cop with staff performance and KPIs measurement too.
    Please share us your great experience how to handle it in the better way.

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