Performance Reviews That Do Not Suck



I recently completed my end of year personal feedback process. I have long been an advocate of collecting personal feedback because I try to live my life as a process of continuous improvement. How can I improve if I don’t know where I am weak?

I find it surprising how few people solicit feedback and how few startups have an employee review process. I suspect that performance reviews remind everyone too much of large companies, so they avoid them like the plague. It’s a shame since early stage companies need employee feedback more than anyone else. In fact, regular performance reviews early in the life of your company can build a culture of continuous improvement as the company grows.

The key is making it easy.

How to make reviews painless

Most people hate performance review processes for a few reasons:

  1. They take too long to complete.
  2. They hate hearing bad things about themselves.
  3. They hate saying bad things about others.
  4. They don’t think they add any value.

All of which are likely true for most processes. However, over the years I’ve found a simple process that is easy and most people find very useful.

Step 1. The Two Threes

Both the reviewer (usually the boss) and the person being reviewed (reviewee) prepare beforehand. They both assemble a list of the three top strengths of the reviewee and the three top areas for improvement. Note that this means the reviewee is completing a self-assessment while the reviewer performs a third party assessment.

It is important to identify specific examples that involve the identified strengths and weaknesses so that there can be useful discussion later. In fact, the more detail the better.

Step 2. The Review

The actual review should be an in person meeting at a casual setting. The person being reviewed should go over their list of three things they think they do well. Then the reviewer should go over their list of three things the person does well and discussion should ensue. The person being reviewed then should go over the three things they want to improve. Finally, the reviewer should go over the three things they think the person should improve. For all areas of improvement, there should be discussion of practical steps that can be taken.

The order is important since you want to start with the positives, which will put everyone at ease. It is also important that the reviewee goes first because their review is the hardest and the most likely to be biased by the other.

The focus should be on the differences. Do both people identify the same strengths and weaknesses? In many cases, it is the differences in the lists where the most interesting insights arise.

Step 3. The Plan

It’s then up to the person being reviewed to decide what to do with the feedback. Most people will assemble a set of goals to tackle the areas of improvement that became clear through the discussion. It becomes a great way to set goals for yourself and check in on them during the next review. Whatever they decide, you cannot force someone to improve. If they choose to disregard the feedback, you’ll know because the same three areas of improvement will appear next time.

For bonus points, you can collect similar lists of three strengths and three weaknesses for someone from other members of the team and assemble it into anonymous feedback for the reviewee. That is called a 360 degree review since you get feedback from all sides.

What I like about this style of review is that you can do it as often as you like since it does not take very long. While people think of performance reviews as an annual activity, I find that six months is as long as you want to wait between them – especially at a fast paced startup.

Okay, what about your review?

To prove that I don’t just blog about these things, I want to share the feedback I received this year. I had to modify the process above for 2014 since I haven’t had a full time job for most of the year. Instead, I reached out to all the companies, founders and firms I advise/mentor/coach and asked them these three questions:

  1. What was the most helpful thing I did for you in 2015? (Feel free to say nothing)
    2. What did I not do for you in 2015 that would have been the biggest help?
    3. What is the most important thing I can do to help you in 2016?

The feedback was fairly consistent and is summarized below:

  1. What was the most helpful thing I did for you in 2015? (Feel free to say ‘nothing’)

I asked hard strategic questions that helped keep the founders focused on the big picture instead of getting lost in the details.

  1. What did I not do for you in 2015 that would have been the biggest help?

I did not provide enough introductions to potential customers and investors.

  1. What is the most important thing I can do to help you in 2016?

Continue to ask hard questions and provide more customer introductions.

This provides a straightforward personal improvement plan for 2016. I will find ways to help the companies I work with source customers and investors.

So, what is your feedback from 2014?

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by AJC1.

About the author: Sean Byrnes

Sean is the founder of Flurry, the leader in advertising and analytics services for mobile applications. He is currently an advisor, mentor and angel investor in the San Francisco bay area. You can read more of his advice and thoughts on building businesses on Sean On Startups and his personal website.

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