Date: December 13, 2009

Author: JT

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How To Conduct Performance Reviews

sxc - Tape Measure - 653305_79599609 As someone consistently striving to be a top performer, my performance review experiences have generally been good.  They’re normally delivered well-past a HR-dictated deadline and contain few surprises.  And, unfortunately, they’re also often not worth the effort required.

This is probably part of why the review process is so dreaded.  Fundamentally it comes down to a manager being engaged and setting aside adequate time.  Time, unfortunately, is a major issue.  The larger your staff, the larger a block of time that’s required, bolted onto days, weeks already jammed full.  Reviews are often like the English lit papers you wrote in college or high school—the less time you put into them, the shallower they were, and it was apparent to whomever read it.

If I have only one piece of advice for managers, be engaged and set aside plenty of time to do it right.

Overall, most reviews in my life have been ‘average.’  A decent attempt was made, some more engaging than others, but few contributed much of value.  To this day, only one example clearly stands out in my mind.  One manager, Don Strimbu, clearly put significant effort into what turned out to be his last review of me  He had clearly reviewed the input and references I had provided him.  The thought and energy he put into the review was immediately evident.  Not only did we discuss the highs and lows of the year, but also constructive guidance for the next year.  It was the singularly most productive review cycle I have yet experienced.  And, it had direct impact on how I decided to do performance reviews of my own teams thereafter.

My approach starts with staying aware of the timeline.  Just like a term paper, the more work I can do earlier in the term, the easier it is to meet the deadline.  Within 24 hours of receiving HR’s timeline, I send out a request to staff asking for their input, including the key contacts they want me to talk to.  The request includes a due date, along with about 5 bullets identifying key areas I’m interested in.

Don’t keep it all internal. If staff work with vendors or customers, encourage external inputs too!

Only allow about 10 business days for all initial input.  While more will trickle in over time, anyone eager to provide quality constructive input will do so as soon as they’re able.

With input in hand, including a mix of my own notes (archived email’s invaluable), I block out time on the calendar to begin contemplating and crafting the reviews.  Yes, it’s obvious to any experienced manager.  But it bears repeating:  It’s important to actually block the time off your calendar, close the office door and get with it.  By actually scheduling the time, it gives you a fighting chance of staying with your original timeline.

In the end, delivering a review is fairly straight-forward.  We both know why we’re here, we already know each other well, so just get to it:). Overly nice small talk only serves to heighten anxiety.

My preference is to work through the review a section at a time, narrative first (with the year’s highlights), numerical ranking if there is one, and how to achieve the next higher level value.

The critiquing portion…is by far the most important, most impactful.

If I have done it correctly, the tone of the narrative and the highlights I’ve selected, will naturally flow into the related ranking for that section.  For instance, if the tone of the section is positive, there’re plenty of positive highlights, the expectation has been set for a strong ranking.  Whatever the number actually is, if the preceding dialogue is done effectively, the number will not be a surprise—almost anticlimactic.    Even in worst case scenarios, this approach can help remove intense emotion from the process.

For most organizations, HR requires some form of numerical ranking, section by section, and overall.  Employees and manager (hey, we’re employees too) alike, appreciate nice words, but we all want to see the number above the signature line.  And, this is where most reviews ultimately fail the person being reviewed.  It boils down to a number and, if less that the best value possible, contains no guidance on how to get there.  Section by section, as I provide the ranking value, I continue with, “…here’s what I believe you need to do, to achieve the next higher ranking level.”

  • Get started ASAP
  • Allow adequate time to gather inputs
  • Dedicate enough time to do it right
  • Stay aware of the overall timeline
  • Provide guidance for how to achieve a higher ranking

The basic approach seems to work well.  The best feedback is when you’re own subordinate managers tell you they’ve decided to adopt the same approach toward their staff reviews.

Worst Review Ever

There are times you scratch you head and wonder.  My worst review ever, is the one that never even happened. A month behind HR’s timeline for turning in reviews and my own hadn’t even been started.  Previously my manager had asked me for guidance on doing reviews.  Since he professed boldly to have managed organizations with 100s of people in them, I figured he was looking for how to do them here, at ‘this’ organization.  I emailed him a template and worked on providing my own inputs.

After weeks of chasing him for a date to sit down, we finally did.  It started off really well.  He had flown in the night before and I made sure to get in early, arriving 7a.  Whenever we met, he would call me on his way in from the hotel and we’d go from there.  8:30, I get a call from a conference room, “Where are you…?”  Joy, this was already showing promise.  After waiting for him to finish phone calls, we finally got started another 20 minutes or so later.  Shaking hands, we sat down in the conference room he’d commandeered for his stay.

Opening his laptop, he turned to me and said, “Where do we start?”

I’m sure my brow furrowed. It was a trick question, right?  As the manager, leading the activity, he should be telling me where he wants to start.  Better yet, just get started. “What do you mean?” I asked.  He, quite literally, had sat down in front of me with his laptop, launched Word, and was sitting there with a blank page in front of him asking again, “Where do we start?”  The rest of the meeting was about as productive as at the start.  I ended up being the one to end the meeting.  We never did get around to doing a proper review.  Not only did I not receive feedback for the year’s performance, I had to terminate my own review.

A performance review can an incredibly productive activity…  But it depends on the leader, the manager, putting forward the raw effort required to make it successful.

Don, my hat’s still off to you!

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