A Performance Review on Performance Reviews

Klyxx’s operations chief, Charles Lian, shares the process he took to build the company’s Quarterly Checkpoint process.

It’s that time of the year again.

You pace nervously in the hallway, exchanging awkward smiles with passing coworkers.

You check your phone - yep, the time hasn’t changed.

You peer into your manager’s office waiting for an invitation to enter. 

He nods.

You take a deep breath - “Here we go,” and step into his office.

You engage in some brief small talk - the day’s weather, upcoming travel, weekend plans. 

Then, he pulls out a sheet of paper, a rubric. “Let’s talk about your performance this year...”

And so begins the dreaded experience for many known as the “performance review.” Whether on an annual, semi-annual, or even quarterly basis, everybody has gone through an evaluation of some sort with their boss. 

Why?

The reasoning is simple - from the most entry-level to even the CEO of the company, everyone is measured by their work and their contributions. If we don’t consistently assess our progress, we don’t know where we stand to improve. It is a necessary aspect of our development. It serves as a critical point of feedback between managers and reports, outside of standard check-ins.

Why then, do we often meet these conversations with such anxiety? Perhaps it is the infrequency of these conversations, and therefore we attach importance to such rarity. Or, it could be the potential financial and career implications that are placed on the result of these conversations.

Ask almost anybody and their first reaction to undergoing a performance review is usually one of disdain. That was definitely the case for me as well. 

And so, when I first started working at Klyxx, one of my first projects was to reshape our performance review process. At the onset, it was a bit easier for us - our process wasn’t anxiety-inducing or outdated, it just simply didn’t exist. As a result, we were tasked with building one from scratch. How did we do it? This article will help take you through those steps.

Step 1: Objective Setting

When we sat down to think about our performance review process, we recognized we had an opportunity to create something that would not only be meaningful for current employees but be embedded into Klyxx traditions. 

We wanted to go about the process fruitfully:

  1. What were we trying to achieve with this process? 
  2. What did we want the process to look like? 
  3. What didn’t we want it to look like? 

Those became the core questions we set out to answer.

Step 2: Researching the process

Lucky for us, we live in an age where almost everything is documented on the internet. Hundreds of companies before us ran into the same issues we did and wrote about their processes. In this step, we spent a full week just reading and digesting the successes (and failures) of other startups in their quest to build a more effective performance review process. This was a key step in the learning process - we weren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel here, we wanted to see what worked for others and if it could be effectively integrated into Klyxx.

Some of the best and most informative resources we found:

Again, there is a multitude of readings on the subject, so I definitely recommend digging deeper into your own research. These are just some of the ones we found particularly useful to crafting our process.

Step 3: Outlining the process

With a document full of notes and loose ideas, we were ready to start outlining out the backbone of our process.

Right off the bat, the first decision we made was to strike the phrase “performance review.” It was a small change, but we realized the phrasing of the term contributed in some part to the anxiety for our team members. 

We wanted to make sure teammates understood that performance was critical every day - not just the weeks or months leading up to the review cycle. We settled on “checkpoints” - a deliberately low-intensity phrase. 

The second decision we made was to hold the checkpoints at a quarterly frequency. Annually and semi-annually seemed too long: a lot can change in 6-12 months, which can then lead us to suffer from recency bias. Quarters seemed like the right cadence, which also kept us in line with how our company set goals (more to come on our company goal-setting process in a separate post). 

We wanted the process to feel like part of the routine, not just an infrequent occurrence. The expectation again was that team members were consistently being evaluated in their weekly 1-on-1s with managers, anyway - these checkpoints would just be a more formal setting for prolonged discussion.

Our preliminary findings also informed our three major goals for what we were now calling “Quarterly Checkpoints:”

  1. We want there to be a space where both managers and reports stop and review overall progress on a quarterly basis, outside of the weekly touchpoints.
  2. Creating an opportunity for reports to get clear-cut answers as to where they stand & if they're hitting the bar expected of them in their role.
  3. Using it as an opportunity to set goals for learning, role development, and job progression for the upcoming quarter.

They also informed our two major disclaimers for the process:

  1. Quarterly checkpoints will NOT be an excuse for managers to withhold feedback until they get to the checkpoint if someone has points of improvement they should have been working on during the quarter.
  2. Quarterly checkpoints will also NOT be just a manager providing a report on the team member's performance. It will be an open forum for discussion and allow the report an opportunity to provide reciprocal feedback.

These were the five concepts that we wanted to ingrain within team members - we want the Quarterly Checkpoint to be an efficient and effective process. Communication and transparency were focal points of company culture - even in a manager-report setting, those ideals still held true.

Step 4: Building out the process

With the pillars guiding us, we were ready to build the framework. Again, the objective of the quarterly checkpoint process was to serve as a discussion. That meant participation from each party involved, and advanced preparation. 

We decided the QC would have 3 parts:

  • Phase 1: Evaluation
  • Phase 2: Feedback
  • Phase 3: Goal-Setting

And within each phase was a core list of questions that informed the components of our quarterly checkpoints. 

Evaluation

  • What goals were set during this period and were they hit or not hit? If they were hit, were they ambitious enough? If they were not hit, where did the report fall short?
  • In terms of concrete movement on learning + expertise, where did the report progress on their departmental skillcard and where are they expected to progress in the following quarter?

This is meant to be the most objective portion of the QC. At Klyxx, each team member is pegged to a level on our Career Progression Framework and is given a clear trajectory. How they progressed over the course of a quarter is critical to the conversation.

Feedback

  • Where does the report fall (outside of week-in, week-out feedback) in regards to feedback from their whole team?
  • Where did the report fall (outside of week-in, week-out feedback) in regards to feedback from their direct manager?

This is meant to be the most subjective portion of the QC, and probably the concept one you’re most familiar with - 360-degree feedback. We want to make sure we gauge both direct and indirect team members, and get the most holistic view of how they work as a teammate.

Goal-Setting

  • What is the expectation for the report for this upcoming quarter? What concrete goals are going to be set to hold them to that level of accountability?
  • Where does someone stand on their career framework and what is their trajectory in the next quarter?

This is the most critical portion of the QC. The core of our process is to ensure that each team member is on track for their personal development, and making sure they are hitting their goals. The foundation of Klyxx is growth - we are always striving to improve. 

There you have it, the pieces of our QC. If some of these concepts seem obvious, that’s because they are. Our intention was not to complicate or draw out a process that everyone was already familiar with. We consolidated the components that we thought would be most valuable and created an infrastructure that would be most informative to each individual’s development. 

Step 5: Implementing the process

It’s one thing to plan out a new process - our biggest challenge was going to be execution. We were making a significant overhaul to our existing development formula, and introducing a completely new process for managers. We needed adoption to be firm, which led us choosing to pursue a more gradual rollout. 

We first introduced the new QC process individually in 1 on 1 sessions, and then eventually a company-wide All-Hands. Fortunately, this was part of a larger rollout of personnel changes, as we also introduced our related Career Progression Framework at the same time (we’ll talk about that in a later article as well). 

We collected feedback from all our team members and did a test quarter initially to work out all the kinks. One of the questions we immediately got from managers that sent us back to the drawing board was: “What happens if someone is underperforming or not progressing? When do we step in?” This led us to building out a separate performance improvement process (PIP) in conjunction with the re-imagined QC process. While we would never hope to have a team member go through the PIP, it was important to have a fallback to look to.

Since its formal implementation, we have had 2 full cycles of QCs. I am proud to say they have been both effective and informative. It has become a critical part of our core infrastructure and a process we look forward to each quarter to keep us on track. 

Now, your performance review process might look very different. You might be focused on one stage of the evaluation process over another. You might decide to hold your checkpoints on a different cadence. What we have ultimately learned through setting up this process is that there’s no simple one size fits all model. We didn’t just simply take one of the processes we researched and drop it into our company, and nor should you do the same with ours. The fact of the matter is, your performance review model will be dictated largely by your company composition. No matter how you choose to approach building this, it IS important, however, to have a clear and concise plan that everyone is aware of.

At the end of the day, no team member wants to be surprised by the way they’re being evaluated. And no team member wants to be there, on that day every year, pacing anxiously up and down the hallway.