The Best Performance Reviews Are Not Reviews At All

Every year you go through it: the dreaded performance review. What’s in store for you this year? A raise? A promotion? What does your boss really think of you? How will rate versus your peers?

Good performance reviews are not performance reviews at all. They are a continuation of the ongoing conversation between you and your manager. Consequently, this post is also about good management techniques.

Every company handles reviews differently, and most companies don’t handle them well. Let me give you an example of how to do it well and how to do it poorly.

Once upon a time, I worked for a company that was the poster child for how not to handle reviews.

I was running a division of this company, and it was a total turnaround situation. A lot of surgery was required to get the division moving in the right direction.

When review time rolled around, I had been there for 6 months, enough time to identify what to fix and start fixing things, but not enough time to fix everything. What was my review about? What I inherited, not what I had done.

CEO: “Brett, revenue is down year to year.”

Me: “Yes, you’re correct. The good news is that we are ahead of the plan we agreed to.”

CEO: “It’s your fault revenue is down. Revenue should always be up.”

And on it went.

That’s not a review, that’s a mugging. Sadly, many of your performance reviews are more assault and battery than constructive.

Let’s look at the flipside, my relationship with Ziya Boyacigiller*, the gentleman who hired me years ago at Maxim. Every day working for Ziya was a constant performance review. By that, I mean there was constant feedback back and forth between the two of us. He would tell me what I was doing well and what I wasn’t doing well when it happened. We had a great relationship.

We would go to lunch when it came time for my review. The lunch was all about two colleagues talking about what we needed to do together to succeed over the next year. The review itself was a formality because we both knew where I stood.

There were no surprises, and there was no fear.

Obviously, this is an ideal situation, but you can learn from it. Here’s how:

As a manager:

You need to communicate and offer immediate feedback. Your job as a manager is to communicate, teach, mentor, and help your team. Part of that job is giving feedback to your team, even negative feedback, immediately. Feedback given well after the fact requires the employee to try and recall the matters you’re giving feedback about, and they’ll always do that imperfectly (as will you).

Tell the truth, don’t pull your punches or sugarcoat your message. Your team will appreciate the honesty. Honesty doesn’t require being destructive or cruel. Rather, honest feedback – delivered diplomatically – creates respect for you while motivating your employee to grow and improve. Let someone know if they are screwing up and why they are screwing up. And when you catch someone doing things well, don’t wait until review time; give positive feedback immediately. By the way, a bonus tip: find a reason to compliment each employee in a manner they couldn’t possibly have expected. You’d be amazed at the effect being blindsided by a compliment will have.

Ziya did this with me, and he built loyalty and trust.

As an employee:

Communicate with your boss, especially when there are problems. Ziya knew I had his back because I told him about all problems when they happened. You never want to blindside your boss. BTW, this holds at any level, even when you are CEO. The key to working with your board is to never surprise them. I had face-to-face meetings with every board member and investor before every board meeting. There is going to be good news and bad news at every meeting, so why try and hide the bad? You want to view your board, or boss, as a partner, not a superior.

Tell the truth carefully. Even if you have a great relationship with your boss, like I did with Ziya, you want to be careful. By careful, I don’t mean hiding the truth. I do mean you want to tell your boss or board things they need to know in a way they need to hear it. For example, you don’t need to waste the board’s time with minor personnel issues unless they are on your staff. You need to immediately tell your board, or your boss, if a direct report quits.

Don’t waste time with minutiae. This is really important as you advance in your career. As CEO, I would communicate big picture issues, but not waste time on minute details because the board doesn’t care. For example, our sales VP would review the large opportunities we were tracking, but not waste the board’s time with small opportunities that didn’t move the needle.

What if I’m in a situation where honest communication will get me fired?

I think we both know the answer. You need muster the courage to move on. You are in a situation where you are at your boss’ mercy, and that’s not a good way to live, particularly since your boss’ mercy is guaranteed not to last past the time when the boss needs to sacrifice you for her or his own benefit.

That’s all for now,


* Sadly, Ziya passed away last week at far too young an age. I will miss my friend and mentor a ton. (You might also take this as a reminder to you to get back in touch with any of your mentor(s) and express your gratitude)