13 mins

‘But I thought I was getting promoted this cycle. Getting a “meets expectations” is a surprise, and honestly, a disappointment.’

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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This is what one of my first direct reports said to me about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve learned a lot and made performance feedback a cornerstone of my approach to building and leading high-performing teams.

Humans are intrinsically motivated to excel when presented with a good mix of competence, autonomy, and purpose in their role. In my previous article, we discussed the performance cycle and its importance, and dived into its first phase: writing impactful self-evaluations and giving effective peer (or 360) feedback.

In this follow-up, we’ll cover your role as an engineering manager or an organizational leader in this high-leverage process. We’ll focus on the next two phases: writing manager evaluations and leading cross-team calibrations, and finally, having the feedback conversations to help close the loop.

Manager evaluation

At this stage of the performance review, you, as a manager, evaluate the work of every direct report. This stage ends in an outcome for every report in terms of:

  • A performance designation. Different companies implement these in their own ways, for example, a weighted 3-3-3 (9-point scale) across certain dimensions, or a 1-5 rating (5 = Greatly exceeds expectations, 4 = Exceeds expectations, 3 = Successfully meets, 2 = Partially meets, 1 = Does not meet); or 
  • A promotion

In ‘pay-for-performance’ systems, these outcomes then directly feed into reward, recognition, and compensation reviews. Your effectiveness, for the most part, comes from setting the stage for it. Let’s take a look at how we can do this.

Onboard with structure and intent

For onboarding new senior engineers or managers, I like to leverage the 90-day template, broken down into a 30-60-90 goal-driven format, which focuses on learning, discovery, relationship-building, and impact. At Stripe, we also assign a spin-up buddy who helps support the ramp-up, providing a safe space for the new hire to ask questions and build their mental model of the team and org culture. Here’s some exceptional advice from Kevin Stewart on how to onboard early-career engineers remotely, as it is most relevant in our current world. 

Drive clarity and alignment by setting early expectations

Anchor expectations around the individual’s role and level, their career aspirations, the team/business needs, and against the company’s engineering career path framework. For example, an engineer with two-to-five years of experience needs to be able to operate independently with little oversight, vs. a staff engineer who is expected to navigate both ambiguity and organizational complexity.

Ensure that for every engineer, especially your URMs (underrepresented minorities), the share of ‘stretch opportunities’ is well balanced. The idea behind these is to open up access to opportunities equitably and synergistically with an individual’s career growth.

Look forward to the period of the performance review, ensuring that no one on the team is getting spread too thinly across various initiatives that dilute their impact. For each individual, pick one or two top wins that they’d like to achieve over the next half in the form of key results or success metrics. For example, a staff+ engineer focused on extensive user cohort analysis to identify strategic future investments, might also need to balance for technical impact given a company’s career framework. So, top wins might look like:

  1. Delivering an in-depth user analysis and recommendation for shaping the team’s roadmap over the next 12-18 months; or 
  2. Supporting and mentoring Jane to ship project X which helps improve our security posture by eliminating threat vector Y.

Provide ongoing mentoring, coaching, and feedback with radical candor

Follow the rule of ‘no surprises’ to ensure that the evaluation itself is dedicated to reinforcing wins and charting a shared understanding of focus areas. Going back to the quotation at the beginning of the article, clearly, my report was expecting that their work and impact were in line with being promoted, whereas I considered them meeting expectations at their existing level. I should have proactively shared my assessment of their abilities and impact to avoid them being surprised.

Every employee deserves to know, ‘Where am I at?’, ‘Where am I going?’, ‘How do I get there?’, and ‘What do I need to do more or less of? Is there an opportunity for me to course-correct?’. Leverage regular 1:1s, or the preferred medium of feedback, to call out what’s working well and what needs to change, early and often. Here’s a very useful template by Lara Hogan on providing feedback.

Extend sponsorship to your URMs

Representation matters, and tech is far from diverse. A crucial component to retention and growth is developing senior leaders and supporting them by opening up access. Women, especially, are over-mentored and under-sponsored. As a manager, find sponsors for folks on your team who are high-performing, and are exhibiting solid potential.  If you’re an organizational leader, refresh your ‘recall list’ of folks you can tap into when new, challenging projects pop up. 

Play the long game

Leverage tools and templates for ongoing performance conversations, either in the form of long-range career plans, or if setting them up for an uplevel, through a heatmap exercise that tracks their readiness for the next level. For example, a senior individual contributor looking to become a staff engineer might be ‘green’ for technical expertise and project management, but ‘yellow’ or ‘orange’ for mentoring and bringing others along.

I do these monthly for new engineers or managers, and at a six-to-eight week (or at least quarterly) cadence for mid-senior reports (staff+ engineer or engineering manager). If you are nominating a mid-senior report for an uplevel, proactively reach out to other peer managers and/or your manager. The idea is to help calibrate the report through their lens, for impact and scope of work. If you’ve received feedback about the candidate, please share it duly to help them course-correct and alter their plans, as needed.

Writing evaluations of your direct reports

Make space

This is the single most important thing you can do to help grow your team, which, in turn, helps grow the organization and the business. Clean up your calendar; make time and mental space for this work to help evaluate each individual fairly, objectively, and equitably.

Gather data

Collect all the information about their impact over the period under review: ongoing notes from shared 1:1 docs, feedback provided by peers or stakeholders along the way, shipped emails, etc. Ask them to share their own brag documents, so you can build a mental model of the individual’s contributions across multiple dimensions.

Evaluate impact

Provide tangible examples of how their work impacted the team or the business. List out key projects or deliverables shipped, or metrics moved. Contextualize the impact against the scope and complexity of the work.

Highlight key strengths or traits they demonstrated, for example, ‘Jane took on a complex cross-functional project spanning four teams, and was responsible for a,b,c outcomes. With their project management, we successfully shipped all deliverables on time and received a 90% net promoter score.’

For uplevel nominations, highlight the consistency with which the candidate has demonstrated operating effectively at the next level. For example, for staff+ engineering roles, most organizations expect six-to-ten months of sustained impact and influence. Please remember to, again, check your biases; it is well-studied that men get promoted for potential but women for past performance.

Identify focus areas

When discussing areas of development, remind yourself of the various unconscious biases. Be objective in stating facts, focusing on patterns and not one-offs (unless extremely egregious in terms of violating the company’s code-of-conduct). Do a word check (using a tool like Textio or Gender Decoder) in the review to confirm that you aren’t using any stereotypical adjectives or traits.

Recognize the glue work

The unspoken bug squasher, the volunteer who always signs up for the graveyard on-call shift, the individual contributor who stepped in to help manage a derailed project: these valuable actions don’t typically get the folks who perform them promoted. Find a way of communicating the impact of these engineers and their glue work to the broader org – especially in the next phase.

Nominate a performance designation or uplevel

Evaluate your report with a thorough, objective lens based on all the information, and assign a draft performance designation. If nominating them for a promotion, provide due justification on why you believe they meet the required company criteria for the next level.

This phase ends with you evaluating each of your reports. After this, many organizations – especially ones which support internal mobility heavily across engineering – run the calibration process. The idea of a calibration is to ensure that different engineering teams are evaluating impact and performance consistently and in line with the business objectives.

Calibration

A calibration is a meeting where different engineers in the same or similar roles are evaluated across teams by their respective managers. These are typically run by the organizational leader who leads a certain function or broad area within engineering. The outcome from these meetings is a ‘Yes/No’ in terms of the manager’s recommendation toward the engineer’s designation and uplevel. The decisions from these meetings then get ratified at the leadership level (depending on the size of your company).

For new managers (new to the role or to the organization), it provides a very useful way to align their own expectations, and consequently provide meaningful, actionable feedback back to their reports.

It also provides visibility into the challenges faced by different engineering teams, and can be a good forum for managers and leaders to evaluate individual impact in light of those adversities. For example, an engineer on Team A delivered latency improvement by 30% vs. Team B who had to keep the lights on for critical infrastructure as the business scaled while responding to incidents.

This meeting does have challenges, especially as the size and shape of the engineering organization scales. To have objective, fact-based conversations, and make effective uplevel and designation decisions, it becomes imperative to determine how to design these. I’ve seen companies that entirely skip this stage; I highly recommend not doing so.

Calibrations are where the organizational culture comes to the forefront, in what we incentivize and disincentivize, what we reward, or what we under-appreciate. For organizational leaders who are the last voice in the room, here is where we can amplify an engineering culture of fairness, transparency, and consistency that is in line with your values, vision, and mission.

If you’re an organizational leader, you can prepare for these meetings by:

  • Identifying a consistent format across your engineering organization by working with your HRBPs (HR Business Partners);
  • Running pre-calibrations to give your engineering managers a safe space to mock-prep presenting their team. Remember to call out biases, subjectivity, or inconsistencies – for example, a new engineering manager who isn’t well-calibrated on the overall expectations might lean toward being too liberal, or another might be too strict; and
  • Remembering that it is your role and responsibility to recognize impactful work and create systemic fairness. This is one of the few hills I will die on. I also like to spot-check the distribution of promotions and designations, with a lens of diversity and representation. If it doesn’t meet your goals, work with your engineering managers to fix that for future cycles.

If you’re a line manager, prepare for calibrations with a focus on impact, not just on ‘what was done’, but ‘what impact did it have?’ Remember that the folks reading this will have no more than two minutes to scan through the entire doc, and will have little-to-no context about the technical details of the work, so be able to represent it in terms of value to the org or the business and the scope/complexity of the work. Finally, remember that you need to strike a good balance between being an advocate for your team and representing the engineering expectations across the board.

For ‘pay-for-performance’ systems, this then triggers the compensation review stage which determines raises in base salary, equity, or other compensation levers as a result of the performance evaluations. 

Feedback communication

You’ve done all the work, this is about bringing it home! This is where all the systems truly converge. At this stage, the manager provides the outcome of the evaluation to every individual on their team, through 1:1s. For every individual:

  • Share the ‘result’. Depending on the rating of the overall process, share the outcome of the decision in terms of the designation and/or promotion. Ask if the report is aware of how the performance review process works; if not, spend a few minutes describing in detail;
  • Recognize and celebrate wins. Call out the top two-to-three impactful wins for which you’re grateful for, highlighting the impact to your report’s users, the team, or the business;
  • Communicate peer, manager, and organizational feedback. Reinforce your report’s strengths, discuss the areas of focus, and gear the conversation toward the future. Encourage questions and listen. Ask your report to reflect what they heard back to you to avoid any misinterpretation; and
  • Sow the seeds, look beyond, and gear up for what’s to come. Create a plan together on how to leverage their strengths, identify stretch opportunities, and create a support structure for things they need to improve. Anchor the plan for what’s ahead in terms of the team’s roadmap, challenges, and opportunities, in line with the business needs. 

Things to remember:

  • Send the evaluation over email to them, prior to the conversation. This will give them time to digest the information, and form thoughts and opinions in a safe setting;
  • Be unfailingly kind. Performance review season is fraught with anxiety and fear. You are not just a manager, you’re also their boss. As a manager sharing a performance evaluation, be aware of the power imbalance in the conversation and be kind and thoughtful; and  
  • Practice reflective listening and empathy. Your tone, your voice, and the words you choose matter.

Quite recently at one such feedback conversation, having applied this playbook, I was sharing with my report how they’d been promoted to a staff engineer. They responded with ‘I moved my family across countries to get a chance to work with you. Looking back, that was the best decision of my life. I learned a lot along the way, through your timely feedback, and that has positively changed my career’.

Conclusion

Performance cycles can be either stress-boosters or fertile environments to exhibit, nurture, and embrace growth. It depends a lot on how we set the stage for it over the course of the half and year. 

While evaluating and calibrating your team:

  • Drive clarity and alignment by setting early expectations. What does the career framework expect for the role and level? What are your report’s career aspirations? What impact does the team roadmap and business need?
  • Provide ongoing, timely, actionable feedback through mentorship and coaching. What should you be doing more or less of for your role and level? What’s working well and what needs to improve? 
  • Create access or leverage through stretch opportunities and relevant sponsorship. What project, scope, or role will stretch your report? Which doors need to be opened up for them? Who can you connect them to?
  • Facilitate a fair, consistent, and inclusive performance review process. What behaviors do you want to exemplify? What traits do you want to weed out? What consistency do you want to drive across teams in your engineering organization for systemic fairness?

While having the feedback conversations:

  • Be specific. Provide examples of tangible impact and concrete areas of growth where they can take meaningful action;
  • Be unfailingly kind. Trust that the recipient is looking to grow and give them the opportunity to receive your gift of feedback; and
  • Look ahead. Make a plan together for the subsequent review period.

When we step back, we can see that navigating performance reviews requires understanding the systems of systems: the factors and the frameworks that can help foster growth and learning. As an engineering leader, supporting yourself, your peers, and your team effectively through these provides you the highest leverage for building, empowering, and growing high-performing teams.