performance reviews

Performance reviews - are you missing a big opportunity?

It’s performance review time.

Some of you have already started, others are just getting into it.

As leaders, we know how important performance reviews are.

We also know how many other things we’ve got going on right now.

New projects, company events, hiring, firing, bonuses, and everything else.

It’s easy to mail it in a little on your performance reviews.  

Save a little time, cut a few corners … I’ve done it.

But then, one year, something happened that changed me forever.

I received the most thoughtful and detailed performance review I’d ever had. And I vowed never to shortchange my team members again.

The impact it had on me. I cannot overstate it.

Once you’ve received a performance review of this caliber, I promise you’ll never mail it in again.

Today I’m going to share how the best managers in the world do their performance reviews.

Like so many of my blogs this one starts with something I did very poorly for a long time.

As much as I have always taken pride in giving direct and honest feedback to my team members, for a long time I did not embrace the formal performance review process like I should have.

I told myself the feedback I was giving in work reviews and 1-1s was enough. I reasoned that the concept of an annual performance review was an antiquated practice. It was designed to prop up inferior managers, not great ones like me … right? The truth is, while there are elements of this reasoning that are correct, I was missing a massive opportunity by not fully embracing the annual performance review cycle.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that while I was busy crowning myself the king of all managers, the real leaders were taking advantage of the performance review cycle to make a profound impact on their teams. They could see what I could not – that this once-a-year moment actually meant something to their staff. It could (and should) be used to develop and motivate team members in a way regular daily feedback could not.

It wasn’t until I received my first truly thoughtful performance review that I had my wake-up call. And I’m sad to say it occurred very late in my career. The review itself was a game changer for me. I felt respected, listened to, and motivated as I left the call. It wasn’t 100% positive either, there were plenty of things in there for me to improve upon. But I glided out of that meeting ready to take on the world – clear about what needed to be done more, done better, how it all related to what the company was trying to do, and how it related to my personal career goals. It was a transformative experience for me that probably cost my manager two hours of preparation time. And while that may sound a little longer than you typically spend prepping for a single performance review, I can’t overstate the impact it had on me.

Here are five tips I learned about giving great performance reviews from the best review I’ve ever received.

1. Put your full heart and effort into it

This may seem obvious, but frankly I don’t see many managers putting their full effort into performance reviews. I don’t see thoughtful observations and deep feedback. I see box checking, clichéd feedback, and little else.

I see a lot of reviews that completely ignore the first part of the year because the manager simply isn’t thinking about those projects anymore. I see reviews that never touch on the career aspirations of the team member.

What I see are all symptoms of the same problem – managers just don’t put enough care into their performance reviews. As leaders we need to appreciate the review is the culmination of a year of work, it deserves our respect and attention.

My advice to managers is to allocate two hours in preparation for each review. I keep folders for each team members where I store little nuggets throughout the year, so I don’t forget them when review time comes around. I store points about projects, presentations, career conversations, anything that is review-worthy. With this collection already in place, the actual process of preparing a thoughtful review isn’t very painful at all.

2. Prepare the review in writing

I’m sure your company has a system for doing performance reviews. A portal or spreadsheet or something where all managers record their reviews. This is table stakes stuff – we all need to do it, but it’s not enough. I can assure you the best leaders don’t confine themselves to the standard corporate review template – they do much more.

My advice to managers is to write each team member a letter. Or at the very least, put a thoughtful performance review in writing. Spend time on it. Demonstrate how much their work has meant to you, and how invested you are in helping them grow and improve. Go deep, give examples, show them you’re paying attention, and that their work is so important you took the time to write about it. This approach is as important to under performers as it is for high achievers – take the time, write the letter, make it count. Be as thoughtful in your criticism as you are in your praise.

3. Listen first, share second

Once you’ve spent a couple hours writing a thoughtful review for your team member, it’s time to put it on the shelf and listen. The temptation, after spending time writing, is to drop the document on the table and have your team member read it. That’s a mistake and a missed opportunity.

If you share your review before hearing your team member’s self-evaluation, you eliminate your chance to see if you’re on the same page. If you go first, they will adapt to what you have said. You’ll never know if you were aligned or not on how they’re doing, where things can improve etc.

My advice to managers is to start every performance review by listening. Ask your team member to walk you through the year, what she was proud of, where things could have been better, how his career is going, what the future looks like. Listen first, then share. It will be revealing to both of you if you have assessed things differently. It will be satisfying and motivating if you’ve assessed things the same way. In either case, listening first leaves you in a stronger position to build from.

4. Use the review to build momentum in a specific direction

We don’t do performance reviews in a vacuum. There is always some direction the employee is heading. There is always something we’re pushing towards – positive or negative. If you want your team member to improve in some key areas, this is your chance to reinforce it. If you want to reward your team member with more responsibility, this is also a great place to start. And if, on the other hand, you have lost confidence in your team member, this is where you can advance the ball towards a resolution. Because the annual performance review process is formal and documented, it’s a critical piece in building a case for promotion or termination.

I should be clear that I would never advocate to wait until performance review time to make changes to your team. I’m just saying you MUST use the performance review process to advance promotions and termination processes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with a manager a month or two after the annual review process only to hear they’ve decided it’s time to terminate someone. Unfortunately, they neglected to give documented critical feedback at review time. It’s the first question your HR team is going to ask when you come to them trying to promote or fire someone outside of the normal cycle.

5. Tie everything back to personal career goals

Last, and probably most important, is to tie the performance review back to the team member’s own career goals. Is there a promotion they’re shooting for? A development milestone? A chance to lead? Whatever their personal career goals are, you must tie your feedback to them or you’re just wasting your time. These are the things that motivate people – not the superficial goals the company assigns.

My consistent advice to managers is to have regular career conversations with each employee. Once a quarter at least. That way you can frame your annual performance review around these goals. The review becomes personal, it becomes about helping the individual achieve things that mean something to them. When tied to attaining personal career goals, feedback is motivating instead of deflating. It is how you can be critical and supportive at the same time. In my management career there was very little more important than drawing this connection and using it as a tool for development and motivation.

To all of you doing performance reviews this month, good luck! I hope these tips are as helpful to you as they were to me.

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