Cancer Research UK

Our Challenge


Manager: Can I have a word with you? I need to give you some feedback on your performance.

Employee: Why, what have I done wrong?

Two lines in and already we’re in a tricky conversation, with uncomfortable feelings kicking in. In most organisations, conversations about performance - whether informal or part of a formal PDR process - bring up many emotions, and few of them positive. Yet, if handled well, they have the potential to really accelerate engagement, motivation and performance, both for the individuals involved and the wider organisation.

In September 2012, Cancer Research UK launched its new brand identity externally with the vision of bringing forward the day when all cancers are cured. They recognise that to realise this vision requires outstanding performance across the whole organisation. This made it vital that all managers are able to have truly courageous performance conversations with their direct reports. As in all organisations, they need to stretch and motivate those who are already doing a great job and meeting or exceeding expectations, as well as addressing any concerns, ensuring that they:

Managers at all levels in CR-UK were really committed to having good quality performance conversations with their team members. However, a recurring characteristic was one of tentativeness and caution in many of the conversations, often stemming from the manager not wanting to upset or demotivate someone who was working hard but not necessarily as effectively as they might.

In line with their bold vision and new brand identity, CR-UK wanted a learning event that was completely fresh and different from what managers had experienced before - the focus was to be more on building confidence, commitment and courage than on pure skills development.

They chose to partner with Maynard Leigh Associates to design and deliver some exciting, entertaining and engaging two and a half hour events that blended sketches, open discussion, and highly topical forum theatre scenarios to stimulate managers at all levels to:

The project was managed by Amy Shepherd, CR-UK’s Learning and Development Manager. Amy told us, “Maynard Leigh’s unique approach to learning, combined with their theatrical expertise and in-depth knowledge of our culture, meant they were the perfect choice for creating this event.”

The events were run at Maynard Leigh’s studio space, and the managers who attended were universally positive about both the format and the content.

Elizabeth Sideris, Executive Director of HR at Cancer Research UK, said “I attended one of the events with a range of Directors and Heads and thought it was really effective. The forum theatre was incredibly insightful, enabling our people to really get involved in how they would approach the conversation, but without putting them on the spot. Maynard Leigh have provided invaluable insight and perspective and have enabled managers from across the organisation to feel more confident in having truly courageous performance conversations”.

Amy captured people’s learning points and solutions to many of the common barriers managers were facing to having great performance conversations, from which she created a learning resource on CR-UK’s intranet. She also followed up with managers in the weeks and months after they attended the events and was delighted to find how much people had taken away, both in terms of renewed motivation and practical tools that they were applying. The reflections below were typical of the managers’ responses:

Some months later when follow-up sessions were announced to the network of managers who had originally attended, they were booked out within two days.

Both the Learning and Development team at CR-UK and Maynard Leigh project team relished the creative collaboration involved in developing and delivering the events. But perhaps the last word is best left to one of the managers who attended:

"Without doubt this was the most enjoyable training session I have ever had – the interactive theatre, open and welcoming facilitators and warm atmosphere allowed real discussion without judgement and inspired me to go away and act upon it."

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