Monthly Archives: December 2014

Performance Reviews That Don’t Suck

I recently completed my end of year personal feedback process. I have long been an advocate of collecting personal feedback as I try to live my life as a process of continuous improvement. How can I improve if I don’t know where I am weak?

I find it surprising how few people solicit feedback and how few startups have an employee review process. I suspect that “performance reviews” remind everyone too much of large companies so they avoid them like the plague. It’s a shame, since early stage companies need employee feedback more that anyone else. In fact, doing regular performance reviews early in the life of your company can build a culture of continuous improvement that will be an asset when you grow.

The key is making it easy.

How to make reviews painless

Most people hate performance review processes for a few reasons:

  1. They take too long to complete.
  2. They hate hearing bad things about themselves.
  3. They hate saying bad things about others.
  4. They don’t think they add any value.

All of which are likely true for most processes. However, over the years I’ve found a simple process that is easy and most people find very useful.

Step 1. The Two Threes

Both the reviewer (usually the boss) and the person being reviewed (reviewee) prepare beforehand. They both assemble a list of the three top strengths of the reviewee, and the three top areas for improvement (weaknesses). Note that this means the reviewee is completing a self-assessment while the reviewer is doing a third party assessment.

It is important to identify specific examples that involve the identified strengths and weaknesses so that there can be useful discussion later. In fact, the more detail the better.

Step 2. The Review

The actual review should be an in person meeting at a casual setting (not a windowless room). The person being reviewed should go over their list of three things they think they do well and both people should discuss them. Then the reviewer should go over their list of three things the person does well and more discussion should ensue. The person being reviewed then should go over the three things they want to improve. Finally, the reviewer should go over the three things they think the person should improve. For all areas of improvement, there should be discussion of practical steps that can be taken.

The order is important since you want to start with the positives, which will put everyone at ease. It is also important that the reviewee goes first because their review is the hardest, and the most likely to be biased by the other.

The focus should be on the differences. Do both people identify the same strengths and weaknesses? Very rarely. In many cases, it is the differences in the lists where the most interesting insights come about.

Step 3. The Plan

It’s then up to the person being reviewed to decide what to do with the feedback. Most people will assemble a set of goals to tackle the areas of improvement that became clear through the discussion. It becomes a great way to set goals for yourself and check in on them during the next review. Whatever they decide, you cannot force someone to improve. If they choose to disregard the feedback, you’ll know because the same three areas of improvement will appear next time.

For bonus points, you can collect similar lists of 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses for someone from other members of the team and assemble it into anonymous feedback for the reviewee. That is called a 360 degree review since you get feedback from all sides.

What I like about this style of review is that you can do it as often as you like since it does not take very long. While people think of performance reviews as an annual activity, I find that six months is as long as you want to wait between them – especially at a fast paced startup.

Okay, what about your review?

To prove that I don’t just blog about these things, I wanted to share the feedback I received this year. I had to modify the process above for 2014 since I haven’t had a full time job for most of the year. Instead, I reached out to all the companies, founders and firms I advise/mentor/coach and asked them these three questions:

1. What was the most helpful thing I did for you in 2014? (Feel free to say ‘nothing’)
2. What did I not do for you in 2014 that would have been the biggest help?
3. What is the most important thing I can do to help you in 2015?

The feedback was fairly consistent and is summarized below:

1. What was the most helpful thing I did for you in 2014? (Feel free to say ‘nothing’)

I asked hard strategic questions which helped keep the founders focused on the big picture instead of getting lost in the details.

2. What did I not do for you in 2014 that would have been the biggest help?

I did not provide enough introductions to potential customers and investors.

3. What is the most important thing I can do to help you in 2015?

Continuing asking hard questions and provide more customer introductions.

The good news is that this provides a straightforward personal improvement plan for 2015. I will be finding ways to help the companies I work with source customers and investors.

So, what is your feedback for 2014?


Tell Your Own Story

One of the most effective ways to explain book-97709_640something is to use a story. Humans are story telling creatures, we consume stories (both real and fiction) in every part of our lives for both work and entertainment.

When people try to understand your new company, they will use stories. The story might be as simple as “they are horrible” or as detailed as “let me give you an example of how they helped me…” or as soaring as “they are changing the world, let me tell you how…”. The story may include metaphors (e.g. “they are Google for Sheep Herding”) or use personal anecdotes. Stories come in all shapes and sizes.

If you are very lucky, you will be the one telling telling your story and explaining it in a way that you think captures the entirety of your vision. Unfortunately, most of the time your story will be told by someone else. Hence, it’s important to craft a positive story that others will tell on your behalf.


Everyone who interacts with your company will have a story to tell. That includes customers who had a great experience and investors who believe in your vision. It also includes customers that demanded their money back and investors that decided to invest in your competitors. Depending on their experience with your company, the story someone tells might be great or very, very bad.

The best way to combat this uncertainty is to realize that everyone you touch is a storyteller, so you should give them every reasons to tell a great story about you. While you can’t control what they say, you can make sure their experience with your company is as positive as possible. Specifically:

  • Treat all potential customers as well. Regardless of whether they become customers, you want them to know that your company cares about them and is focused on delivering quality. Even if they choose to work with another provider, they should walk away feeling good about having contacted your company. You should also be sure that they remember your differentiation very well, so if someone asks them they will relay that as part of their story.
  • Sell hard to everyone you interview. Anyone who interviews for a position at your company should walk out the door thinking your company is something special, regardless if you plan to hire them or not. This means you need to spend time during the interview selling yourself (See Recruiting is a Form of Sales) even if the candidate is weak. You never know who they might talk to about their interview.
  • Build relationships with all investors. Even if an investor passes on your company, you should make sure they know how passionate you are and why you believe it will succeed. You may end up raising more money in the future and these investors might realize their mistake and come back again.

Customers, candidates and investors all talk to each other and you cannot know who they will talk to about your company. Treating everyone extremely well will put you in the best position to ensure their stories as as positive as possible.

Providing a Narrative

It’s not enough to treat people well, you need to give them an easy story to remember. The story of your company encompasses your vision, your differentiation (See The Only Thing That Matters ) and your people in a narrative that ties them all together. Often, the best way to do this is to talk about how your market is changing and how your company is at the center of that change. A successful narrative describes your company as more than a company – it describes it as a movement.

Crafting that narrative is something that is a critical responsibility for you as a founder. But once you have it, what do you do with it? It’s not enough to blog/tweet/post about your company narrative, as no one will read it. You need to broadcast it far and wide so people will see it multiple times and become familiar with it. Some examples:

  • Public Speaking. When you speak in public about your market, you are telling your story. While you might not talk about your company specifically, the tone and content of what you say reflects on your company. If your knowledge and passion come through clearly, people will want to learn more about what you do.
  • Public Relations. PR has a bad name since many companies use it for the wrong reasons (customer acquisition, etc.). One great use of PR is to start telling your story to the world. Your goal is not customer acquisition, but customer familiarity, which is achieved by talking about the movement that is your company.
  • Social Media. While simply posting to social media is not enough, engaging in conversations can be very important. People will watch how you behave, who you talk to and how you do it. That will reinforce your story and encourage them to learn more.

Conveying your narrative in the way I describe here is hard, as it requires you to tell your story through actions instead of directly through advertisements. However, you will find that people would much rather hear you talk about a topic that interests them instead of talking about yourself. Use that to your advantage.

Stories Evolve

Your story will not be a book you print and store on a shelf, it will be constantly changing. Embrace that and allow your story to grow, while being sure that it stays true to your vision. If others begin telling your story in a slightly different way, that is a good sign that they believe your story and are building on it themselves.

If you are successful, you may eventually have someone tell you the story of your company without realizing it is your story. That is the most fulfilling feeling a founder can have, since it means you have succeeded in spreading the story you are building.

Image made available on Pixabay to the public domain via Creative Commons.