Metrics: TheLanguage ofBusiness

Metrics for HR and Leadership Development

By Joel Shapiro, Ph.D.


The Case for Metrics

The complexity of business today requires that we not only track traditional financial and accounting type metrics, but also an extremely broad and balanced range of business drivers including customer satisfaction, employee engagement, adherence to core values, and so on.  At an absolute minimum, concrete metrics are crucial for job clarity, performance management, and organizational alignment.

Metrics may not be the heart, soul, or body of business, but they are the language of business, and if you want to play in that space, you have to learn the language.

What are metrics?

Metrics are signs, indicators, or measures of success that make specific and concrete our:

  1. ultimate objectives: how far, how high, how fast we need to go;
  2. progress to plan: direction we are moving and distance from the goal line; and
  3. goal achievement: knowing when we have finished, when it’s done.


Paradigm Shift

All too often in the past, HR managers would “sell” their ready-made programs to executives and line managers. We see much more clearly now that the purpose of Human Resource Management is not the consumption of our fabulous content or the size of our course catalogue, but rather helping teams and businesses achieve their objectives and enhance their sustainability, viability, and long term success.

This paradigm shift brings about an important and parallel revolution in metrics. Instead of trying to find appropriate metrics for our pre-set menu of programs, we can design our programs and metrics around real life business challenges and opportunities.

There are many different and legitimate reasons for kicking off a new round of LD programs, and the primary metrics for those programs should flow directly from those reasons, i.e., from your primary objectives. Consider the following possibilitiesLet’s apply this principle to leadership development (LD), since executives tend to see this area in particular as such an insurmountable challenge.

  1. We need to prepare the next generation of leaders to take over from our retiring boomers.
  2. We need leaders to open up new markets and run new businesses for us.
  3. We need more initiative and leadership at all levels of the organization.
  4. We need more bench strength for our linchpin positions (best talent where it counts most).
  5. We need to adapt to specific changes in technology or the marketplace.
  6. We want to use LD and career management to retain our high potential leaders.
  7. We need to build teamwork and a common vision across the organization.
  8. Integrity problems are starting to affect customer satisfaction and retention.
  9. We need to increase employee engagement and productivity across the organization.
  10. We need our leaders to be far more efficient and effective at leading change.
  11. We need to accelerate organizational learning to stay ahead of the curve.
  12. We need to create a culture of customer focus to maintain our lead in the market.

These are all important issues and, of course, no one works on all of them at the same time. The most important lessons for us here are these:

  1. These are very different objectives, and each one yields a very different set of metrics.
  2. Let our primary set of metrics for LD come from what we most want to achieve.

It all starts with identifying your primary objectives, and ensuring that they are relevant to your organization’s unique vision, strategy, and values—your organization’s most important challenges and opportunities.

Everything else flows from your objectives. In other words, your desired outcomes determine your program metrics, content, delivery format, participant list, timing, budget, etc.

Initial needs assessment will not only explore the unique needs or your organization, but will also explore the role and potential benefits of LD: Why LD here and now; what for (to what end); what are our priorities, primary objectives, desired outcomes; what do we really want to see change; and, conversely, what would happen if we neglected LD over the next few years?

The advantage of this paradigm shift is that your metrics will be more concrete, more tightly aligned with your primary objectives, and much easier to audit with respect to strategic alignment, progress to plan, and goal achievement.


Generating Concrete Metrics

We can often generate concrete metrics for “soft” (qualitative) issues with behavioural descriptors. These descriptors serve both as models of desired behaviour and concrete, observable measures of success. A good metrics tool, however, should help us generate both quantitative and qualitative metrics.

A handy technique for brainstorming concrete metrics is to start by completing this guiding statement with respect to a particular project, program, or service. After identifying your primary objectives, complete the following:

  • “We will know we have been successful or are making progress when…”, and conversely,
  • “We will know we are back sliding or derailing when…”

The guiding statement can easily be customized for any situation. To return to the LD example: We will know we have better leaders when…; we will know our leaders are improving when…; we will know better leadership is making a positive impact when…; and conversely, we will know our leaders are derailing, back sliding, doing a bad job, or are not good enough when…

This guiding statement forces you to think about what kind of leaders you want and need; what good leadership means in your organization; what kinds of results good leaders produce; how good leaders behave; what kinds of challenges and headaches generally fade away when leadership is strong; and what we should look for in terms of performance and results, behaviour, attitudes, retention, stakeholder feedback, and so on.

A word on process: after brainstorming a generous list of possible metrics, prioritize the list to identify the most appropriate, relevant, important, and useful metrics for your project, program, or service.



The power of HRM and Training & Development, when done well, is that they generate far more results than can be, and need to be, accounted for. A small handful of deliverables, even mere secondary ones, can often more than justify the value of your initial investment in a new program or service.

If you can nail down what you want to achieve, you can design more targeted and meaningful programs. These will, in turn, generate concrete metrics that will help you better establish where the goal line is, monitor progress to plan, sustain your focus, and assess the impact and value of your work for your team and organization.


Earlier version published in HR Voice, HRMA, Issue: 1, Vol.: 4 (January 03, 2008).

Image: Pierre Vivant, “Traffic Light Tree.”

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