Pray to the perf gods or else

First quarter of 2019. That magical post-holiday time filled with the freshness and delight of a brand new year. The personal resolutions. The company goals. The exciting product launches ahead…

And then it hits you.

UGH, it’s PERF SEASON.

That dreaded time in tech companies when you stop building so everyone can go through the anguish and annoyance of annual performance reviews.

If you lead a team, you know what I’m talking about…

  • The reams of HR process (which somehow change every damn year)
  • The clunky perf tools from what feels like web 1.0 (who makes this stuff?)
  • The hours consumed by writing and consolidating feedback
  • The herculean effort required to get your best people recognized
  • The reality that none if it helps you manage performance and outcomes

And on the other side of the equation for individuals it’s not much better…

  • The lack of transparency and forward context on how perf decisions work
  • The oh-shit moment when you realize your manager probably has NO idea what you do or how you do it cause you are on a matrixed team
  • The getting dinged for the thing you didn’t know you are measured on
  • The post reorg or post new-boss-just-got-here-and-doesn’t-know-zilch trap
  • The black box nature of compensation and promotion decisions in general

I feel you.

To be clear, good things DO come from perf season — recognition, praise, money, promotion, etc. When you’re a people leader, it feels AWESOME to recognize the hard work and impact of your team, to advance their careers and to make employees feel valued.

But here’s the thing. The conventional perf review process isn’t designed for the dynamic organizations we have in tech.

The idea that you could rely on a once-a-year review process in organizations that morph every 3–6 months, even go through entire company life stages in 12–18 months, well it just doesn’t make sense.

Startups know this and end up avoiding formal performance reviews for too long, which isn’t great either.

Here’s what most HR-designed perf processes miss completely, and where you can shine as a Tech people leader to gracefully navigate the system you’ve got:

  1. Break down the black box. Teach your team how the perf process actually works at your company. How are performance reviews structured? What are all the sources of information used to assess performance? What do you experience as a manager? What steps do you go through in representing the team? How are decisions made? What do you have control over vs. not? This should happen months in advance, not the week before perf starts. There’s a big information asymmetry between what HR typically shares with ICs vs. managers. The more your team understands the perf process, the easier it is to set and manage their expectations, and to co-own the results of that process. Transparency builds trust. If the process is fair, there should be nothing to hide.
  2. Performance management starts on day 1, not day 365. As soon as you hire or take on a new person to your team, that’s the time to create transparency and intention around how you’ll measure performance. What results matter? How will you assess? How will the company measure them? They deserve to know, so don’t skimp on the onboarding conversation. No one should be surprised by this months later in a formal review. For super dynamic companies, you really do need to spell this out. It may not be obvious, especially to a new hire. It may also change. But if you start at the same place it’s easier to adapt along the way.
  3. Facilitate continuous self-reflection and learning for your team. Use 1–1s, monthly or quarterly reviews, post-sprint look-backs, whatever works with the natural cadence of your team but find that space every 4–6 weeks to check-in and talk about development. What can that person do to get better, achieve higher skill level, keep up with the growth curve of the company, etc? While most feedback should be real-time, there’s also a ton value in manager feedback and self-reflection after a longer arc of work (a quarter is about as long as people can recall what they did and how they did it enough to reflect). The practical upside is if you do this consistently, then the annual perf process is a lot less scary and onerous for everyone. The progression is much easier to see and track.
  4. Open yourself to manager feedback. Feedback is a two-way street but most perf processes are designed in such a way that its way too intimidating for the individual to give the manager candid, honest feedback during that time (after all, they hold the power to your comp, promotion, progression). I’ve seen plenty of HR training for Managers on how give feedback, but not to solicit or receive it. In the perf cycle time crunch, the individual → manager feedback loop often gets skipped. Don’t let that happen. Make sure your team knows you’re always open to feedback, and honor it during the perf cycle. Level the playing field for people who work with you and for you by giving them the airtime to share their observations and suggestions with you. It sends a powerful message that everyone is expected to be climbing a learning curve, no matter the seniority or title, which builds a learning culture.

You’re probably thinking this is obvious stuff. It may be. It should be.

So why hasn’t someone built a great product to facilitate performance management for fast-moving teams and organizations?

I have no idea, but tell me if you see it. I’d love to use it!

(tweet or comment below)

Thirsty for knowledge, big on impact. Glass 3/4 Full. COO & Biz Dev Exec. Rival, Uber, Twitter alum, angel investor, advisor @January_VC

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