Three Axioms Engineering Managers should use for Meaningful Performance Reviews

Oren Ellenbogen
May 4, 2016 · 5 min read
photo credit: aigle_dore

For many years, I felt that my Performance Reviews were a set of observations around execution tactics: writing production-grade code, planning a project, risk management, architecture and design, following the plan, using the right abstraction for communicating information etc. Mastering those aspects are important, and something that you should definitely start with, but it has a decreased marginal benefit.

I felt that most of these tactics were based on looking at past behaviors, thinking how to optimize them rather than utilizing core strength of each individual and then taking into account existing patterns.

This marginal benefit becomes 10% the second you start leading experienced engineers. You can help them polish, but you won’t get them to a whole new level. Why? It’s pretty simple actually:

Great people, those you’re constantly trying to retain or hire, will learn and grow regardless of you or your company. The question then becomes are you going to help them catapult their career by 10% or by X10?

This is exactly the gist of a meaningful Performance Review: We have to be as strategic and passionate about helping others to grow as we are about the product we build.

Switching gears

To shift my mindset, I was looking for anchors to rely on as I wanted to make sure that at the end of our Performance Review, each and every member of my team would be excited for what’s to come. I wanted to close my eyes and imagine them in 6 months, being able to proudly say they’ve learned meaningful lessons that they will take with them as they move forward in their careers.

Every time I start a Performance Review session with a teammate, I remind myself and them of the following 3 axioms that should set the tone for the rest of the conversation:

  1. You can work anywhere you’d like, I acknowledge the fact that I’m not doing you any favors.
  2. If it wasn’t me, I know that you’d be working with a great leader.
  3. If it wasn’t in this company, I know that you’d be part of something big and meaningful.

Saying that, I’ve got no excuse to settle for the 10% gain. It turns out that saying it out loud makes it clear for them that they don’t have an excuse either. We are both committed to do our best with our time together.

People on my team already know this opening as they’ve heard it a few times before. I still repeat it every single time. They should know I gave it a lot of thought, and that I’m grateful to be part of their journey as much as they are of mine.

A mindset that leads to deliberate self-exploration

The goals you set with your teammates for the next 6 months have to move the needle in their career. Here are questions that I’ve found valuable in helping me to ignore my recency bias and focus on their growth:

You can work anywhere you’d like, I acknowledge the fact that I’m not doing you any favors

  • What are they exceptionally great at?
  • [1] Are they aware of it? Did I explicitly tell them that?
  • [2] Is there a way to make it more visible to the rest of the team and organization?
  • [3] Can they use it to teach others to gain more credit within the company?
  • [4] Can they use it to teach others to gain more credit outside of the company, and improve their personal brand?
  • Which areas do they need to improve to be more valuable to the team?
  • [1] Are they building relationships with their peers?
  • [2] How can we get their peers to consult with them more regularly?
  • Which areas do they need to improve to be more valuable to the company?
  • [1] Is it around technical areas?
  • [2] Is it about using the right abstraction when communicating risk, design or project status?
  • [3] Is it around leading and owning bigger features or domains (including project management aspects)?
  • Which areas do they need to improve to be more valuable to the market?
  • [1] How are they learning about new technologies and approaches outside of day-to-day tasks?
  • [2] Do they have healthy habits when it comes to the way they learn? (e.g. go deeper than “usage level”, so you could know when to use the tool and not only how to use it)
  • [3] Do they keep track of the latest trends in our industry?
  • [4] Are they becoming better as teachers?

If it wasn’t me, I know that you’d be working for a great leader

  • What can I do as their direct manager to help them grow that they wouldn’t get somewhere else?
  • [1] What’s my “unfair advantage”? (Technical skills / Project Management skills / People skills / Hiring skills etc.)
  • [2] Is it clear to them?
  • [3] Are they interested in learning? Did you verify it with them or is it an implicit understanding?
  • [4] How can I teach that? How would the first “lesson” look? How would an “advanced” lesson look?
  • [5] Can I provide context or perspective that I believe is unique?
  • Which books or blog posts are interesting for them (remember past talks over lunch)?
  • [1] Can I give them a great book (or two) to read?
  • [2] Can I make an introduction to someone who can teach them more about this topic?
  • [3] Can they make it their strength? If so, what would that look like? How would they use it?

If it wasn’t in this company, I know that you’d be part of something big and meaningful.

  • What can the company give them to help them grow that they wouldn’t get somewhere else?
  • [1] What’s our “unfair advantage” as a company?
  • [2] In our current phase as a company, are there interesting opportunities to try out new skills?
  • [3] Can the company provide context that most companies simply don’t share? (e.g. equity education, explain strategic moves done by the company, open up our finances etc.)
  • [4] Can the founders provide context or perspective that is unique? (i.e. answering difficult questions)
  • [5] Are we a good “school” for learning how to build a successful company?

If Performance Reviews are a way to mark a checkbox on your organization’s checklist then I believe this is a Process Theater, where we are both forced to play in a game we hate.

Instead: Going in, make sure that your time together during the Performance Review is your best effort to X10 their career. This will require a lot of preparation and thought on your side, but the only reason for applying any process is if it makes a positive, meaningful, long-lasting difference.

p.s. did you check my latest side-projects?
1. SoftwareLeadWeekly — a free weekly email, for busy people who care about people, culture and leadership.
2. Leading Snowflakes — The Engineering Manager Handbook: practical tools and techniques for programmers who want to lead.

Oren Ellenbogen

Written by

VP Engineering @ Forter, Curate awesomeness @ http://softwareleadweekly.com , Author of http://leadingsnowflakes.com