Optimizing Team Performance - A Fresh Approach to Employee Reviews

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Startup software companies are often known for their meteoric growth. As the products mature and new markets open, new clients bring new demands. Social media channels have revolutionized brand exposure. Angel investors press for revenue growth which, in turn, creates support staffing demands. These stress and growth points are most severe in companies from 20-200 employees. New organizations frequently feel pressured to press inexperienced people into management roles for which they are ill-suited or at best poorly trained. Building strong managers, and teams of employees is often neglected due to the demands that come with the growth curve.

Regardless of the industry, and regardless of the organizational size the effectiveness of performance reviews is dependent on key staff hiring and effective leadership development. Larger organizations formalize the process with a program that can seem forced and impersonal. Small organizations have so much happening daily that the formality of reviews gets buried under the endless demands of the day. Wherever you find yourself I would invite you to consider a simple exercise that may bring a fresh approach to your performance reviews.

The exercise is designed to help you gain clarity, engagement, and partnership with your team members.

As a leadership coach, I'm constantly encouraging my clients to adopt a discipline of regular communication. Clarity requires work!  The more complex the task, the more challenging it is to gain a clear objective. The discipline of communicating is critical to creating clear expectations for both the manager and the team member.  It is essential that you and your team are working towards the same outcomes.

One discipline I am personally developing is keeping clear notes documenting coaching meetings. These notes capture pressing issues, questions, insights, and action steps. When I share these notes  only a month later, I often hear, "Wow, that was only last month." Our work initiatives move and change constantly and with great speed to meet the demands of the week, month, or quarter. Stand up meetings are helpful to bridge the communication gap and keep the team informed of various activities. Still, even these meetings tend to be tactical lacking a strategic focus.

Whether you are in an executive role, a middle manager, or are in your first management role, I'd encourage you to consider the following discipline into your next performance reviews.  Schedule the time at least a week in advance with the expectation that they come prepared to answers three questions.

  1. What are your role(s) and responsibilities?

  2. What are the top 5 initiatives or projects you're working on? Rank by importance.

  3. How would you rate your performance? A+, A, B, C or F.

As they prepare, so you will you. Answer the same questions in writing. It's an engagement exercise for both the team member and the manager. When you do, you may identify risks in areas where you are not aligned with your employee. It's also an ownership exercise. You will see what responsibility your team member is taking for their work or not. Then, a discussion will give an indication of any gaps. It may show you some things going on with your team that had escaped your attention. It will also point out areas needing the team member’s attention or what additional assistance may be required.

  • A+ is exceeding expectations like getting extra credit in school.

  • A is excellent work and well-done!

  • B is room for focused improvement.

  • C is Change! It's average performance which is likely borrowing resources from the team and organization.

  • F is the failure to understand what's required or nonperformance.

*This review process is an adaption from Ken Blanchard’s book One Minute Manager.

From here the partnership builds by creating a baseline to strengthen your communication. It's the process of defining then refining roles and responsibilities. You might have 4 out of 5 aligned, but it would not be unusual for one or two areas that will need some clarification. Finally, the grading. How are you doing? It's a time of affirmation and feedback for their performance. Most people tend to be hard on themselves giving conservative scores. Here is an opportunity for you to build them up! Then, there may include one or two areas that are challenges or a gap in expectations to clarify for mutual understanding.

Your organization may have formal performance reviews connecting with HRIS (Human Resources Information Systems) for raises and bonuses, and LMS (Learning Management Systems) for development, and career planning. You may be a start-up hiring your first employee or you may be a first line manager assigned your first direct reports. Wherever you are today, it's your team! Your team member will make you or break your growth. I’d encourage you to integrate this exercise into your next performance review. You will optimize your team's clarity, engagement, and partnership.

As a bonus, here are three questions for optimizing your one-on-one and/or teams meetings.  You can ask casually, at the start of your weekly meetings, or your performance review...

  1. What's going well in your work? - Giving Appreciation
  2. What additional support/resources do you need to be even more successful in your work? - Providing Support
  3. What's one improvement we could implement that could make a difference in our organization? - Encouraging Innovation

Once you put this motion, I would love to hear how the exercise has worked for you and your team!