Weeknote: Performance review

Last week I had my performance review, and for the first time I actually enjoyed it and was grateful for the conversation we had.

Until recently I would have described the performance review or annual review as the yearly awkward moment to talk with your manager about your achievements and skills.

When I worked at smaller companies, there wasn’t really a process, it was just a discussion based on impressions and opinions, a retrospective on what had happened. Sometimes it was an opportunity to set yourself learning objectives, but it wasn’t really helpful in making me think about myself. 

In my last job, the annual review looked at your objectives (that you had set yourself) and depending on how well you achieved them, you got a specific mark. As product manager that was often a bit difficult , as the success of your product and your objectives may depend on all sorts of circumstances outside of your control. Most importantly, it also never really gave me an indication as to how I could personally grow. 

I want to emphasize that this isn’t a stab at my previous managers, who helped me in many other ways. I firmly believe that they were not given the right tools to do performance reviews well. 

What specific process are we talking about?

I attribute the fact that this year’s experience was much more positive to the process set within Ubisoft, and to my manager who knows (and has learnt) how to have these meaningful conversations.

You’re evaluated against attributes defined by Ubisoft HR. They include your job competencies, how well you achieved your objectives, your leadership and your collaboration skills. I don’t think it matters whether these are the best attributes, but what’s important is that they look at your individual performance from different angles. 

This is what happens in practice:

  1. Line report or manager seeks feedback from closest colleagues
  2. The manager sets a mark against each attribute
  3. The HR Business Partner meets with the manager to discuss each of the marks and act as calibrator to challenge your marks (and in practice they don’t consistently challenge downwards, as you may cynically assume)
  4. Ahead of performance review, both the line report and manager add comments against each attribute in our performance tool – these comments are only shared the day of the review. The manager’s comments will include the mark as well as quotes from colleagues’ feedback.
  5. During the review, both discuss what they have written, talking strengths and opportunities for growth.

(There is also an element of performance-based salary, but I’ve left that out, as it wasn’t what made the process so different.)

Why was it better this time?

I tried to figure out what made the process so much better, and I have boiled it down to the following factors (which are somewhat difficult to emulate at an individual level, and mainly come under the organisational processes):

  1. Individual performance and competencies are evaluated, not objectives. This allows a tailored conversation on skills and self-discovery, not one focused on external factors versus personal input.
  2. The organisation trains their managers:
    1. There’s a 5-day management training for all new managers 
    2. Prior to the review, lots of drop in sessions with HR are available
  3. The manager is forced to spend considerable time to reflect on their line reports’ performance
    1. They have to justify each mark to the HR Business Partner who will ask probing questions
    2. They have to add comments against each attribute into the internal tool
  4. The line report also has to reflect on each attribute (and can’t just show up) because they too have to add their comments in the tool

Nothing I have written here is particularly revolutionary. Yet, this well-executed performance process made a real difference to me.

It helps me be a better manager

I directly manage 6 product managers and I now feel much more confident about having the performance conversation with them. In retrospect, I cringe at performance reviews I have held in the past. I’m grateful for having experienced this process, which will change how I do them from now on.

In preparation for my team’s performance reviews I’m also reading Petra Wille’s Strong Product People, which is about managing and helping Product Managers grow. I’m only halfway through but I’ve already drawn lots of useful things from thinking about my team’s development.


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