Difficult Conversations: Setting up a Feedback and Development Program

A blueprint for growing startups.

As I described in How to Scale: 4 Different Phases in a Startup’s Life, as your company grows larger than ca. 10 employees you will likely implement some form of feedback and development program.

Employee feedback is at the center of personal and professional growth. Developing a culture of feedback is hard, messy, rarely quantifiable, seldom 100% fair, but critically important. Too many managers don’t provide enough feedback, and when they do, they either make it too negative or are too vague while trying to keep it positive.

Good feedback helps employees grow and addresses shortcomings. And it helps a startup manager level-up a team. When done badly feedback is ineffective, demoralizing and harmful.

In this post, I would like to propose a blueprint for a feedback and development program. I based this blueprint on my experience at Wooga and Hitmeister. I hope you take what you like, and leave the rest.


On the menu for today:

  1. Onboarding Process
  2. Ongoing Feedback
  3. Calibration Meetings
  4. Executive Feedback
  5. Employee Engagement

1. Onboarding Process

Onboarding starts before your new hire joins. It involves getting their workplace set-up, paperwork signed and letting your team know they’re getting a new member. A smooth onboarding process helps a new person assimilate and feel welcome.

As you scale you will have bad hires. As much effort as you put into perfecting your hiring process, mistakes happen. People have good (or bad) days when they interview. Or the newbie’s full personality only comes out after they have been on the job for a full week (or at the Christmas party). The fault could also lie with the company. Unclear job descriptions, misaligned expectations etc. happen. The longer someone who is not a perfect fit is in the company, the more painful, expensive and disruptive it is to separate from them.

To manage against probation period issues I use the following milestones for onboarding. HR should track as they happen. Ideally through an automated tool, or else Google Docs are your friend.

The milestones:

  • Week 1: Tasks & obstacles. Very little work happens in week 1 anyway. On the first Friday, sit down, ask for first impressions. Is the new hire setup, is the team supportive, are intros missing etc. Don’t give feedback, listen and learn.
  • Week 2: Second Friday, repeat the above. Maybe some of the exciting newness has worn off.
  • Week 6: First actual review, four weeks later. Your new hire should be spinning up now.
  • Week 16: At least in Germany a six month probation period is typical. After four months push a manager to make a very clear “hire or fire” decision. At one point we even discussed terminating by default, to make the gravity of the situation clear. Doing this after four months gives you enough time to do one round of iterations and then decide.

At Wooga we’d sometimes end the probationary period early, bringing someone on permanently. It’s a great motivational tool and allows employees to relax, especially if their visa is tied to their job. Oh, and it’s free.


2. Ongoing Feedback

One of the things I’ve learned from leading and being around HR teams is that fairness and consistency are very important. Your ongoing feedback process should recognize and appreciate successes. While supporting continuous learning and development. And sometimes, lead to separation.

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

I established a bi-annual rhythm for reviews in my teams. Given how time-consuming collecting and giving good feedback is, I broke it down into two “sizes”, which alternate.

Small: Feedback from the manager only (who can, of course, get input from others). More of a general checkup, than a formal review.

Big: Collect input from 5–8 people, in a peer-review format. The manager chooses some reviewers, the employee chooses others.

The structure of the peer-review varied pretty widely across Wooga. We had built our own system for feedback, based on Google Docs. Managers could decide which template for feedback to use (or design their own). Some managers, including me, preferred a simple good, bad and improvement plan approach with just a few questions. Others built more extensive sheets including quantified attributes (aligned to company values). I think the design of the feedback template is less important than the thought that goes into the content.

After the peer reviewers entered their reviews in individual docs a script aggregated the results into one overview. This was then discussed with the employee. The overview sheet also contained previous feedback to track progress over time.

Employee Development

In my experience, I’ve found it is useful to make employee development the employee’s responsibility. As a manager, it is always really hard to figure out how to develop someone. And you end up with the typical SQL training, public speaking or barista classes (OK maybe not those).

I like asking employees to come up with concrete development goals before the feedback talk. They know best what is missing and how to improve themselves. Is it training? Is it classes? Is it a different role? Is it an internship in a different team? You may be surprised.

Compensation Sucks

I haven’t found a good way when to handle compensation. There are two schools of thought here. One group says to tie it to the review, the other says to keep it separate. Tying it to the review on the one hand obviously makes sense, as the salary discussion is highly dependent on performance. Separating the two allows you to have a more frank discussion with the employee. That person isn’t fighting for a raise but can honestly talk about deficits and anything else they’d like to address. In my view the reality is that you still need to tie it to a review. So that then leads to the question: how do you set compensation?

In a very new company you’re giving out random raises based on whatever comes to mind. They may be calibrated to market, but generally it’s more like here’s 200 euros more per month, that’s all we can afford.

At some point it can be helpful to start using banding to set these salaries. So Junior Engineer Step 1, 2, 3, Engineer Step 1, 2, 3 etc. However, banding has a huge con. While the HR team is happy because they have an Excel system which is presumably “fair”, it can lead to underpaying your stars. Sometimes you have those people who are spectacularly good. You should then be “unfair” in your pay (and ignore HR).

Banding works well when you have a relatively large number of people doing similar work and the performance is comparable. For example, it can be very effective with your customer care team.


3. Calibration Meetings

Calibration meetings are a concept I shamelessly ripped off from Google. Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules, which describes Google HR, is a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Interestingly enough managers are not held accountable for the quality of their feedback. It’s a 1:1 private meeting. And there’s a weird power dynamic at play, there could be favoritism etc.

One way to help ensure fairness in the feedback process is to introduce calibration meetings. Before giving feedback, the team leads sit down together and discuss the feedback they will give their employees. We did this on a quarterly basis in batches, 15 minutes per employee is generally enough.

What I found with calibration meetings is that:

  1. There is more accountability for managers to give good feedback.
  2. You have checks and balances.
  3. All team leads are aware of who the high performers and the strugglers are. High performers can be further developed, while sometimes creative solutions can be found when things aren’t going well.

One other concept I copied from Google was their grading (which we only used for the calibration meetings). It’s tricky but good, read the book.


4. Executive Feedback

Don’t forget to review your C-Suite! This is delicate, but it’s not like this group is infallible.

When you start introducing executive feedback it needs to be:

  1. External otherwise there’s always question marks. Most likely this means using a professional, e.g. a coach. Or maybe an investor or a mentor.
  2. Trusted — obviously.
  3. From a person knowledgable about the business. I’ve received feedback in the past from coaches with a psychological background and generally didn’t find it too helpful. The feedback tends to focus on behavioral aspects, and not on results.

I found these feedback sessions very helpful (if quite emotional at times).


5. Employee Engagement

And finally, measuring the business’s pulse gets harder as you scale. As the CEO you tend to get problems, isolated incidents, and hearsay. Plus a vocal minority.

One outstanding tool we introduced is called Peakon (I should get a commission). Peakon collects employee sentiment, using smart questionnaires. It produces great results because it allows you to drill down across multiple criteria. Managers can analyze happiness levels for a specific team. But also e.g. female employees, cohorts of new hires or workers with more than three years of service.

I’m sure you could get the same results using other tools, but I’m a fan….


Effective Feedback and Development

So, to wrap things up we covered the following topics:

  1. Onboarding Process. Setup a process for critically evaluating all new hires.
  2. Ongoing Feedback. Make it happen regularly.
  3. Calibration Meetings. Keep feedback fair.
  4. Executive Feedback. Don’t forget the C-Suite.
  5. Employee Engagement. Slice and dice employee satisfaction.

That’s all folks!


If you liked this post please click (and hold) the 👏 button below! And follow me on Medium — Jan Miczaika.

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