A Different Approach To Performance Reviews
I’ve always hated highly structured performance reviews. They feel forced and artificial, and I often feel like some of the questions don’t really apply. While I understand the need to make performance reviews standardized for legal reasons, so you can feel like you judge everyone fairly and consistently, I think it’s a cop out. People are different, and you owe it to them to give them a performance review that is helpful, not one that minimizes your legal liability.
During my 12 years as a CEO, I came up with this series of questions as a simple way to have a dialogue about performance. I sent this out to my direct reports and gave them a week to send back answers, then we discussed them.
Much of being a CEO is about the science of human performance — how to get the best out of people. Sometimes, the best tool for that isn’t feedback, it’s just to focus their attention on things that matter. Below is my list of questions, with some commentary about why I chose each one and what I looked for in the answers.
- What 3 things that you did this year are you most proud of?
This is the standard piece of a performance review about what you did well. I try to ask it in a way though, that gets at what someone thinks their best accomplishments were, and not judge them directly against a pre-ordained plan. While plans are important, people can also hide behind them and use them to justify doing the wrong thing for the company. So better to have a more open conversation about accomplishments.
2. What are two things that you learned that made you better at your job?
The best people learn and grow — a lot, even when they are very senior people or top performers. When someone can’t answer this question very well, it’s a bad sign. It’s also interesting to see if people choose hard skills (e.g. I learned node.js) vs soft skills (e.g. I learned to manage my time better).
3. What is the biggest mistake you made this past year?
People hate this one. They hate it. And that is exactly why I put it on here. I want to work with people who own their mistakes, and I want to build a culture where people are comfortable talking about their failures. If someone says they don’t know what to put for this one, it is a very bad sign. To build an innovative culture you need people trying things, which means lots of mistakes and failures.
4. Give an example of something you did that somehow made your teammates better.
Performance reviews tend to be all about individual performance, but I always judge people on whether or not they are a fit as a team. This focuses their attention on their team, and on being a good team player. Since it is one of the review questions, they know it is an important thing they are being evaluated on. Most people do poorly on this their first year, and then are in tune with how important it is to make the team better their second year.
5. What is something you really want to improve on in the next year, and why did you choose that specific thing?
This is really about self-awareness and how much they understand their job, the skills required to do it well, and their own match with those skills.
6. Why do you think you are good fit at this company, and for this role?
The purpose of this question is to keep people honest. If they struggle answering the other questions, which are clearly important things, but answer this one by saying they are a great fit, it makes it a very easy discussion to point out they aren’t a great fit given how they are being judged, based on their previous answers. That can open up a really interesting discussion.
It also enlightens you as to how they think about work culture. Sometimes people say they are a great cultural fit and list examples of things, and you have that “that’s our culture?” moment, and you know as a CEO you haven’t been communicating well about what is important.
7. What could I do, or change (about work, about myself, etc) to help you work better next year?
A boss is always partially responsible for the performance of any subordinate. People are motivated in different ways. Some people need a hug and others need a smack. Some need to be challenged and some need to be coddled.
If you tell someone “I don’t think you have the skills to do that,” some people sigh and say “you’re right” and feel bad about themselves, and others say “you are wrong, I’ll show you” and get motivated. You have to manage different people in different ways. This gives the employee a chance to give you feedback on how you are doing, and what you could do to help them perform better.
My last year as a CEO, for example, someone told me “Rob, you really need to communicate better about whether or not you are attending a meeting. People may prep differently or run the meeting differently if you are there, and you often accept meeting invites and don’t show up, and we sit there wondering if you are coming or not, and whether we should wait, or get started.”
8. If you were CEO of this company, what one thing would you pay more attention to that you think is currently not getting enough focus or attention?
This question is here because it is really difficult to get feedback from employees on what to change about the company. Everyone wants to give the CEO good news. No one likes to walk in and say “all this stuff is wrong.” And it’s terribly dangerous as a CEO not to know what is going wrong. People try to hide stuff from you because they want to make you happy. This question gives people the freedom to speak their mind about what they would change. It can lead to some very interesting discussions and insights.
The way I used this is, I never graded someone on a numerical scale. I never used a list of under/over performing. I never compared them at their annual review against their KPIs — that was more a quarterly discussion. This annual review template was designed to get them focused on the things that I want them to focus on, and to have a discussion. I usually read it in advance and scribbled some notes, and then let them explain their answers and asked probing questions.
Some employees loved it and some hated it. But it worked for me. I am publishing it here because I think it can be helpful for those of you who want to try something different. If you use it, like it, hate it, have feedback, or questions, please drop me an email.