Performance management is broadly used as a way to plan, review, and reward people for their contributions. For folks who are unfamiliar about how the process looks like in late-stage tech companies, it usually consists of:
Aligning expectations. In most circumstances there are company-wide expectations, such as criteria which dictates what’s expected behaviour and scope for a specific seniority level, and also role-specific expectations such as what is expected from the person within their context whether it’s their team or organisation. People should know what’s expected from them, and the manager’s role and responsibility is to provide as much clarity as possible to what the expectations are.
Continuously provide support and feedback. People should have the right support channels to seek feedback, give feedback and realign expectations, and this is usually done through different cadences, such as 1:1s on a weekly basis and plan/goal reviews on a monthly basis. Some companies also have mid-cycle check-ins, which are the mid-point of a planning cycle, with more formal feedback. The manager’s role in this is providing the right level of support or direction given expectations for the role.
Recognise and reward. At the end of each cycle, people should be rewarded and recognised for their achievements. Different companies will also have their own intricacies, but it is usually a combination of extra compensation (through salary raises, equity refreshers, bonuses) and more scope and responsibility (title/promotions, taking on a new role within the team, and so forth). The manager’s responsibility is articulate the report’s outcomes in an unbiased, fairly, factual way.
While “performance management” implies control, and managers have their fair share of responsibility over a report’s success in their role, for the vast majority of the time, I think it is beneficial to approach it as an enablement function rather than a controlling one. To explain further, I’ll break performance targets into two buckets:
- Seeking growth. Usually people will be testing the waters for next level work (e.g. think senior to staff, where the work changes fundamentally) or broadening skills on another sub-discipline (e.g. from backend engineering to ML engineering). Fundamentally consists of helping them spot the right opportunities, matching them to mentors, and the single aspect which is of a controlling nature is managing risk (e.g. making sure you’re not setting them up for failure at the next performance evaluation). A good point to “control” is whilst aligning expectations for the cycle by defining exit strategies in case things don’t pan out as expected.
- Seeking stability. Stability assumes that the person is peforming at their current level and they wish to continue so for which ever reason. It’s fairly normal that for a myriad of reasons people seek stability rather than growth. Focus might be elsewhere on their personal lives, or simply they like things as they are. Most companies will have what they call “terminal” levels, which means there’s no pressure of progression. Fundamentally an enablement role, as their manager.
On a growth trajectory
This is usually the case for folks who are seeking a learning opportunity. This could be testing the waters with work from the next level (e.g. senior to staff promotions) or moving disciplines (e.g. from backend engineering to ML engineering). The process above could look like something like this:
- Expectation alignment: What good looks like, considering this will be a stretch. Any concerns with demostrating performance at the current level by the end of the performance evaluation cycle, and if so, how to derisk the plan. When to switch gears and how to do it in the least disruptive way possible
For folks in a growth trajectory, dynamics usually entail finding the right opportunity, and matching people to the opportunities they need to grow. Managers have all the tooling needed to support tha
When not meeting expectations
When incentives are aligned between the aspirations of a report and the role at hand, enabling high performance is much more straightforward. Managers have all the tooling needed to make the person succeed:
mentorship: matching them to work they like: executive coaching, learning & development:
A resourceful manager will find the right opportunity to the report. But when what “right” means becomes fuzzy, it gets trickier.
The not so happy path
It’s not uncommon that manager and report will have misaligned incentives. What I mean by that is that what’s “right” for the role at hand is not what’s “right” for the IC. So assume the IC meets the bar for the level. Although very frequently growth feedback from peers, partners and etc leads you that report X needs to get better at Y. Report X disagrees and believes this is not an area of interest.
In such circumstances, applying “control” you’re left with two bad options: bending the role to fit the person in, or bending the person to fit into the role. This is where the enablement framing helps the most, because it’s where it can be the most powerful thing for both the role and for the person.
For the person: Exporting talent: a high performing engineer in another team is better outcome than a low performing engineer in your team for the business. As a manager you’re expected to get the best outcomes for the business. I’ve seen engineers move internally and getting promoted in the next cycle because they were fundamentally ready, and engineers be pushed out because they didn’t want to develop their skillset in the direction the specific team needed. Undoubtely the former situation is preferred
- Carving out the right growth path, in their own eyes: people should have agency over their careers.
For the role:
- Swimming against the current: If there’s resistance to develop a skill you start impacting the team’s functioning (e.g. partners will become pissed, the engineer will start)
- Understanding better what’s the capability gap in the team for that role. If you have a clear growth direction that a person doesn’t want to take, who else could pick that up? And if not available internally, what would you seek externally?
Enabling, rather than managing
Back to both scenarios: if IC/manager are aligned, you’re basically enabling them to do what they need to do. For misaligned incentives, you don’t “control” or “manage” it. It’s much more productive to “enable” it.
Things you do control (when incentives are aligned)
Things you enable