Writing a Performance Review: Part Two

I blogged recently on the topic of annual employee performance reviews. This post continues the story and discusses what I’ve learnt about writing performance reviews.

The Basics of a Review

As I discussed last time, the reviews I deliver typically include a few elements:

  • Sharing company-specific performance ratings
  • Explaining what went well
  • Explaining what didn’t go well
  • Sharing expectations of the employee as the manager

Structuring a Review

I write reviews in paragraph form and hand over a printed copy. I follow up with an electronic copy.

I’ve experimented with several different approaches, and have settled on the following general structure:

  • One paragraph summary of the review: I thank the person for their contributions, communicate the company performance rating, and outline the structure of the document. It’s a good idea to disclose the rating early in the document, it gets key information out of the way and allows the person to focus on really reading the rest of the document
  • A section that describes “what went well”: A series of paragraphs that explain the person’s contributions, why they were valuable, and any suggestions you might have as to how they could be even better. I’m typically reflecting on the goals we agreed when I’m writing this section, as well as reflecting on what I’ve seen, heard, and feedback I’ve received; I discussed last time the topic of how to solicit feedback
  • A section that describes “what didn’t go well”: Same deal, but this time focusing on where there are problems, why they are problems, and what you’d like to see done differently
  • A section that describes “areas for focus”: A few, specific things you’d like to see that are areas for growth. I’m often writing things about future challenges I see in the person’s career, and new skills or competencies that need to developed
  • A one paragraph summary and conclusion

I strive to be balanced. I work hard to ensure that neither the “what went well” or the “what didn’t go well” sections dominate. It doesn’t matter whether the overall performance was outstanding or below expectations, there are always constructive, useful things you can say about performance. My observation is that most people want to hear where they can improve and what they can do better.

My typical reviews are around two pages in length. I’ve received much shorter reviews that were valuable and longer ones that weren’t. I’m not sure length matters — but substance does.

Reviews are important. They’re often tied to financial rewards, they’re written (and so they have gravitas), and they’re usually part of a formal process. It’s therefore important to write down honest, important, business relevant feedback.

Many managers struggle with being transparently honest in reviews. It’s hard to be critical, it’s hard to confront performance issues, and it’s hard to tell someone great that they can be better. As a manager, it’s your obligation. It’s a topic for another time, but this process becomes much easier if you’re honest in every 1:1 about how you see the performance of your employees — the review should never be a surprise.

An Example Summary

Here’s an example of the opening section that I might write:

Sam, thank you for contributions in 2012. I have rated you as <performance rating>.
You made positive contributions to building our next generation platform, hiring and leading the enablement team, and developing your skills in software engineering management. Well done! You did not deliver the new enablement engine on time, have not partnered successfully as we need to with the product team, and you need to continue to grow your presentation skills.

That’s it. A short, to-the-point summary of the document. It doesn’t have to include everything you discuss later — just the key points that you want to highlight, and those that were critical to your decision on the performance rating.

An Example What Went Well Section

I start my “What Went Well” section, imaginatively, with the heading: What Went Well.

I write a few paragraphs, at least as many as the highlights I’ve picked out in the summary section I discussed above. Each of the paragraphs explains what I think and why, and likely includes quotes from others (that I gathered through the feedback process) that support what I want to say. When I’m writing this section, I’m looking at the feedback I gathered from the person’s peers, reports, and other key people that the person interacts with. I’m also thinking about goals and results.

Here’s an example:

Project Alpha exceeded its goal of increasing the business by 3.5% in Europe. Several folks commented on this including examples such as “Thanks Sam for driving the European business, it’s been a pleasure partnering with you” and “You’ve really turned around the story in Portugal, you should feel proud”. It was exciting to see you delivering for Europe, particularly given the language complexities. In particular, it was good to see the successes in translation and price normalization. You also shipped some great work in North America (but missed the goal, that’s discussed later in this review).

Here’s another example:

You’ve made excellent progress on communication and meeting skills. We talked in our review last year about being more concise, letting others communicate, and letting others drive meetings. I can see great progress here – thanks for taking this feedback and working on it. People are noticing too: “I enjoyed working with Sam this year, he’s really developed into a solid communicator”.

An Example What Didn’t Go Well Section

Call me imaginative: I start this section with the heading “What Didn’t Go Well”. It’s ok to call a spade a spade, but you could also use a euphemism if you like such as “Opportunities for Improvement”.

I use the same structure and format as the “What Went Well” section. Paragraphs. One per major point. At least as many as the summary points I made in the introduction.

Here’s an example:

We have had great discussions last year about updating the headcount spreadsheets in a timely fashion, and you reflected in your self-assessment that you’re not doing this. I’d suggest you focus on time management and prioritization — I will support you in developing these skills, including helping you find the right courses you can take. I expect that this is the last year we’ll be having this discussion, and that we will have solved this problem before our next review.

And one more:

I saw development in your ability to think strategically this year, but you can continue to grow in this area. A few people reflected in their feedback to me that you could have taken on more strategic initiatives, or ran with some of the more challenging problems that you saw.  In many of the meetings you’re in, you seeing technical problems that remain unsolved and that you could play a part in driving. You should focus on driving one or two strategic, significant changes this year.

Both of these examples end with a clear call to action and clear expectations. Be clear about what it is you want to see happen.

Areas of Focus

My areas of focus section (titled “Areas of Focus” in my reviews) lists things that I think the person should focus on. They’re not necessarily weaknesses, they’re more often areas where I think the person will need to develop or focus for the future. It’s my advice section.

Here’s an example:

  • Continue to focus on presenting material at the right level for the right audience
  • Many folks worry about your work/life balance (and the example it sets for others)
  • Hire folks who complement your skills

The conclusion

I keep this short. I emphasize the key points, and wrap up with best wishes for the next year. Here’s an example:

You will have a challenging year in 2013, Sam. But I am confident you will do great in the new team, new role, and with your new challenges. Stay focused on strategic thinking! Good luck!

See you next week!

2 thoughts on “Writing a Performance Review: Part Two

  1. Pingback: Writing a Performance Review: Part One | Hugh E. Williams

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