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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Letter to My Team for Review Season

I wrote this email to my team and sent it yesterday. It covers some of my thinking about reviews, a perennially controversial topic everywhere. Even though I believe that it is not a perfect exercise, I think that the benefits can outweigh the downsides, and I cover some of my thinking here.


As you all know performance review season is beginning. I thought I would take this time to talk to you about the goals of the review process, why I personally believe in it despite its many downsides and inconveniences, and what I hope that you can all get out of it.

Why performance reviews?

The first purpose is to give everyone a time to reflect on the past year, the accomplishments and growth that we have each individually achieved, and to celebrate that. Yes, celebrate it. Take the time to think about not just what didn't go so well, but what went really well. Part of the training your managers receive is to dwell on the positive parts of the review. Many of us want to skip over that and get to the "areas for improvement", but there is as much value in knowing what you are good at and what others appreciate in you as there is in knowing what to change. We celebrate accomplishments throughout the year, but it's also important to take the time to sum them up. Learning happens when we study our successes as well as our failures.

Speaking of successes, spend time yourself accounting for them. Self-promotion feels bad to some people, but it is important to learn the skill enough to write about your accomplishments. Even if your current manager is excellent at tracking the things you have done and the skills you bring to the table, you will have many managers throughout your career and they will not always have this ability. We can work to change the world so that self-promotion isn't so important, but it is good for you to be armed with the basics for your future career. If you need help with this, talk to your manager, or feel free to stop by my office hours.

You will also get a chance to write and see a summation of areas for improvement. Hopefully you will take the act of writing this for your peers and manager seriously. This isn't the time to be petty but it is the time to be thoughtful and honest. Feedback for areas to improve is something that you hopefully hear as needed (and not just once a year), but we don't often have the time to take in the entirety of observed habits and behaviors throughout the year and comment on trends. I have gotten some of the most valuable feedback of my career throughout this process; if you're curious ask me about the time I got review feedback that told me I was creating a "culture of fear."

One of the most important goals of this exercise is for us to think about our company values and to reinforce those values throughout the team. You've all seen the list of company values over and over again. We celebrate them in team meetings and we talk about them in reviews because the values are what bind everyone in the company together. We can all exhibit them through the lens of our individual roles and skills. You were hired partially because we believe that you share many of these values and thinking about the great things you've done as expressions of these values helps us all remember what we stand for as a company.

Finally, there is the goal setting section. Goal setting is hard, and there's no reason it must be tied to the review, but this is a good opportunity to check in with your manager about what you like about your current job and where you want to change and grow. Do you want to speak at conferences? Become a tech lead? Move into mobile development? Start managing people? Maybe the answer is just "I want to keep getting better at what I'm doing now" which is totally fine. This is an opportunity to start making a plan with your manager about how you're going to achieve what you want.

I promise that your manager will put in effort to give you a thoughtful review and help you grow, and I hope that you will put in the effort to write thoughtful reviews for others. The prose is less important than the content, a bulleted list that says something meaningful is fine if that is your style.

When this is all done I welcome feedback from all of you as to how we can make the process better. I have gotten a lot of value out of my reviews over the years, above and beyond regular feedback, and I believe we can make this process worthwhile for all of us.

Happy writing!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Meaningful 2014: Everybody Hurts (notes on SparkCamp)

It is valuable to get out of your own head, and see what others are thinking.

It is even more valuable to get out of your own industry and see what others are struggling with.

This summer, I had the privilege of attending Spark Camp: Visionaries, Leaders, and Managers. Spark Camp is a gathering focused on media and newsroom folks that also pulls from external areas including the arts and technology, and I was invited to attend as a representative outside of media.

To be honest, on the first day I was rather intimidated. I am not a creative. I am not a writer, a media luminary. Everyone there had done so much. Here was the choreographer of a famous musical! There was the editor in chief of a major magazine! The mayor of a city! The writer of a blog I love and admire! The head curator of my favorite art museum! (hello, impostor syndrome)

The sessions started, and we talked about problems we faced as managers. The challenges of performance reviews. Managing people from different generations. Some of the notes I took include:
"Performance reviews as a measure of culture"
"Vulnerability inspires investment. Management is not performance art."
"Designers and engineers both define themselves often by their process"
"Conversation's role in creativity"
"Victim vs Player: Teaching folks how to be players" (more on this some other time)

My biggest takeaway was that we in tech think we are dealing with a special situation, a special workforce. Knowledge workers who have options, who can strike out on their own, who are temperamental and amazing and can change the world or give us migraines. We are not alone. In fact, people in the media industry (and beyond) deal with the same thing. Writers and artists are not all starving, and the talented ones have as many options as talented engineers.

Similarly, I'm not alone in feeling creatively stifled by the challenges of management. People with backgrounds in the creative arts discover themselves with leadership positions that offer little time, space, or appropriate opportunity for creativity. Finding that creative outlet is a universal leadership struggle.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to get some perspective on my own battles, and share my experiences with a diverse group of leaders. We often see writing on "impostor syndrome" and tricks for combatting it. Here's my trick: say yes to situations, and try to handle them with grace even when you feel completely out of your depth. Because under the surface we all struggle, and we all doubt, and sharing those struggles and doubts with strangers is sometimes the best way to free yourself from them.