Getting performance reviews right starts with clarity about the goals

Am I the only manager who has  struggled with performance reviews? I remember one particularly dramatic mess up: my first annual review for Koby Menachemi, who at the time was our CTO and VP R&D. Koby is a remarkable person. He has exceptional personal qualities. He was totally dedicated to Seeking Alpha (he slept in the office for weeks to get a major release out on time), had built a superb team, and had achieved a ton for the company. Yet my annual review succeeded in thoroughly demotivating him. Aaaaagh!

Mess ups like that clarified for me what I should not try to achieve with a performance review:

  • Not for setting goals – goal setting and tracking is too important to be left to a periodic review.
  • Not for reporting on progress – people should have clear metrics which they track themselves, so their achievements should be obvious without a review.
  • Not for warning about underperformance – if someone is underperforming, you should tell them immediately and not wait for a review.
  • Not for discussion of a person’s weaknesses and how to fix them – people can rarely fix their key weaknesses, so focusing on them is demoralizing.

So with the reviews I’m about to do now, I have different goals:

  1. Listen. Ask broader questions than you get to ask in the course of a normal day’s work.
  2. Congratulate. Step back, view the big picture, and congratulate someone for what they’ve achieved.
  3. Focus. Once someone has chosen which company to work for, only one thing determines their success. In a review discussion, can you find ways to increase that?

Based on those goals, here are the questions I just asked people to answer before writing a review of them and sitting down to discuss.

How would you feel if you were asked to write a self-evaluation like this?

Here are the questions I just sent to my direct reports as the first stage of their mid-year review:

  1. What’s the thing you’re best at? How much of your time is spent on it?
  2. Name one thing you don’t enjoy that you’re spending significant time on. How can we eliminate the need for you to do it?
  3. What is your most important work goal, and how should you / we re-organize your time to better achieve it?
  4. Which person in the company do you most enjoy collaborating with? Please give one or two examples of what’s come out of that. What would enable you to spend more time working with that person?
  5. As your manager, how can I make you more successful?
  6. What specific areas of feedback or advice would you like from me?
  7. What’s the one piece of advice you can give me?

These questions are based on a single over-riding goal: leverage what the person loves doing, and avoid trying to fix their weaknesses (which doesn’t work, and is demotivating).

How would you feel if you were asked these questions  in a review? Can you suggest any improvements?