Feedback and performance evaluation

One of the main tools for the development of the people on your team is feedback. This word is an English term that originally means a process in which the actions of a given system are inserted back into the system for the improvement of the system itself. In people management, feedback is when a person tells another person how their behavior and actions were perceived by that person. Feedback can be given by peers, subordinates or leaders.

Feedback

As a leader, it is very important that you give feedback whenever necessary to the people you work with. Six aspects are essential for feedback to be as useful and relevant as possible:

  • Be necessary:​​ before giving feedback, it is important to understand if it is necessary. Does what the person did affect the result negatively? Or is it just a different way of doing what needs to be done? Sometimes we give feedback on something because it was done in a different way than we expected, but it didn’t necessarily generate bad results. If the result was achieved with the same time, in an acceptable way, we need to accept these different ways of doing things and obtaining the results.
  • At the time: it is important to give feedback as close as possible to the moment when the situation you want to give feedback about happened. In this way, the details about what happened and the motivations that led people to act the way they did will be fresh in everyone’s memory.
  • Objectivity: when talking about what happened, be objective, that is, go straight to the point and base your feedback on facts. Your feedback should be useful to the person receiving it, it should give clear indications about the expected behavior for that situation.
  • Transparency: feedback has to be transparent, there can be no hidden or unspoken aspects, as long as they are relevant to that feedback.
  • Empathy: being transparent and objective does not mean being rude. Rather, feedback is intended to help people understand how their actions and behavior impact others. Put yourself in the shoes of that person who will receive this feedback and think about how you would like to receive it so that it is as useful as possible.
  • Private: give feedback in a private environment, to give space and freedom for a transparent and productive conversation.

Characteristics of a good product manager

I usually evaluate product managers based on 7 main characteristics:

Empathy: is the ability that a person has to put himself in the place of another to understand his desires, motivations, needs and problems. This characteristic is important to understand the customers and users of the product, to know how they relate to it and what problem they expect to solve or what need they want to be met. This will help the product manager to better understand its user so that, together with UX and engineering, they can design the best product. However, empathy should not be used only with the customer or user. The product manager must also use it in his relationship with all areas of the company, and must understand the impact that his product has on their work.

Communication: to be able to empathize, it is necessary for the product manager to communicate with people in the most different scenarios: in one-on-one conversations and in small groups, or making presentations to small and large groups of people, presentations which can be internal (within the company) or external (in conferences, user groups, etc.). However, it is not just about speaking. Communication is a two-way street, that is, the product manager has to be very good at knowing how to listen and understand what others are saying, and understand their desires and needs; which has to do with the first characteristic, empathy.

Time management: the daily life of a product manager can quickly fill up with tasks and she needs to be able to perceive and differentiate what is urgent from what is important, to ensure that she will always have time to learn more about the customer and the user of your product.

New technologies: the product manager must be aware of new technologies to find out how it can impact his product. Smartphone access, how does this impact the product? Does the user want to access via smartphone? To do what? Social networks, how can the product take advantage of them? Non-relational databases, what are the benefits and shortcomings? Go, Google’s programming language, what is it better than the language used in the product? And what is it worst at? Smartwatches, smart glasses, how does this impact the product? How does the user expect to interact with the product on these new interfaces?

Business skills: the product manager must be concerned with whether his product is meeting business objectives. If the goal is margin, are revenue and costs under control? If the goal is only revenue, how is it growing? If the goal is number of users, how is this metric evolving? In addition, the product manager must understand how each area of ​​the company works and how the product affects those areas. How does legal work? How does the product impact the legal department? And how does the legal department impact the product? These questions can be repeated for all areas of the company: support, operations, finance, HR, marketing, sales, engineering and UX.

Keen curiosity: the product manager needs to have the ability to learn fast in order to gain insights and make judgments about the product. You must be able to learn both the soft side of the product (what is the business motivation, what customer problem the product solves, etc.) and the more technical side (what technology do we use, what is the impact of this technology, what metrics can we get, etc).

Product theme: Last but not least, the product manager needs to know about the product theme. If it is a medical product, the product manager should understand a little about medicine. If it is a financial product, you should know a little about finance. For example, at Locaweb, we have more technical products (like the Cloud Server) and less technical products (like the Virtual Store). The need for technical knowledge is quite different in these two products. The Cloud Server product manager should know technical issues in depth, while the Virtual Store product manager does not need to have as much technical knowledge, but should know a lot about online sales issues.

Product managers need to know how to program?

This is a reasonably controversial question. As stated, depending on the product theme, it is important to know how to program, especially if what the product manager takes care of is a more technical product. Some examples of Locaweb are Website Hosting, Cloud Server and SMTP. However, even companies that do not “sell” a technical product can have a part of their product with a more technical bias. At Conta Azul we had APIs, integrations with fintechs (Iugu and Stone) and integration with the Finance Secretariats for issuing invoices, and at Gympass we had the integration with gym management systems and HR systems. For these products, it is important to have a product manager with technical knowledge, since the main user of the product will be a technical person and the product objective is a technical objective.

On the other hand, a product like Locaweb’s Virtual Store, Gympass’ user app or Lopes’ property search portal are products made for anyone to use. Would it be good for these products for the product manager to have technical knowledge, that is, to know how to program? In my view, it is not essential that the product manager has technical knowledge, but it will certainly help. Technical knowledge helps you understand how the product is made, and it will help you to be a better product manager. It helps to understand the work done by the engineering team and can be useful in decisions about prioritization and scope. Two analogies that can help to better understand the benefit that knowing how to program brings to a product manager:

  • A good Formula 1 racer doesn’t need to know how the car works, but if he does, he can certainly use that knowledge to be a better driver.
  • Likewise, a guitar player does not need to know how to sing or play bass, drums, or piano to be a good guitarist, but certainly this additional knowledge can help her be a better guitarist.

This does not mean that the product manager needs to be a programming expert. If she has no knowledge of programming, it would be interesting to take an introductory course in programming logic and experiment with making her first program. This experience will only benefit that person’s career.

SQL

If the product manager doesn’t already know, he must learn SQL. Access to data is increasingly democratic in companies and knowing SQL is essential so that the product manager can enjoy the data independently, without having to ask others to create their charts and dashboards. When we put Metabase as a data democratization solution at Conta Azul, I was so excited that I spent a whole week going to sleep at 2:00 am, because I was creating charts and dashboards to better understand how Conta Azul products were used.

Performance evaluation

Many companies use performance evaluation as the company’s official tool to collect and record feedback from their employees. Leaders assessing the people on their team. People evaluating their peers and their leaders. People doing self-assessments.

Some companies use the 9-box matrix which has two dimensions:

  • Performance: analysis of the past, the results delivered by that person. Here, more than the result itself, it is important to take into account the person’s role in achieving this result, especially if we consider results of a product development team, which are a result of a team.
  • Potential: analysis of the future, that is, how much the person is prepared to deal with new challenges. Literally, potential means “having or showing the ability to become or develop into something in the future”. As you can see, this dimension of a person’s assessment can be quite subjective. For this reason, some companies have replaced potential with culture, that is, an analysis of how the results were achieved by that person, and whether this “how” is aligned with the company’s values. It tends to be a little subjective too, but a little less than potential.

Leaders assess their subordinates based on these two dimensions. In some companies, these assessments include, with less weight, self-assessment, peer assessments, internal clients and, if the person leads a team, their team members. It is the 360º evaluation. In other companies, self-assessment and peer, client and team member assessments serve as additional data for the leader to make the assessment, but do not enter into the assessment calculation.

After the assessment is made, a calibration process is usually carried out, where leaders compare the assessment of their subordinates to understand whether the assessment criteria used by each leader are equalized. This entire evaluation process is led and coordinated by the company’s HR team, and this calibration is facilitated by someone from HR. The people evaluated are plotted in the 9-box matrix and with that we have a map of the company’s people.

9-box matrix and its quadrants

With this calibrated assessment in hand, the manager returns to the team and then the consequence management work begins, which is the work that needs to be done after the team receives their assessment:

  • Well evaluated: people who are in one of the 4 upper quadrants are those who were well evaluated. Usually it is people who are considered for increases and promotions. They are usually happy with the feedback and are motivated to continue doing the job in the best possible way. However, if the person’s self-assessment is higher than the assessment received, even though they are well assessed, there is a risk that they will experience some frustration. This only does not happen if she is evaluated in the upper right quadrant of the 9-box matrix.
  • Poorly evaluated: people who are in any of the 3 left quadrants or any of the 3 lower quadrants are below expectations in terms of performance and / or potential (or values, if there was a decision in the company to change this axis of the matrix 9-box). These people will need to do something to receive a better evaluation in the next cycle. This situation can cause some discomfort in the person evaluated because he feels that his job may be at risk. For some people, this situation can serve as an incentive for them to seek to improve and, in fact, be better evaluated in the next cycle. On the other hand, some people may feel unmotivated by this assessment and decide to look for an opportunity in another company. This situation is aggravated if the person self-evaluated better than the evaluation he received.

Criticism to the performance evaluation process

The performance evaluation process seeks to classify the employees of a company in order to facilitate the understanding of who are the best people and who are the people who need to improve. However, as I explained above, there are many opportunities for frustration in this assessment process, especially when there is a disagreement between self-assessment and the assessment received. This frustration is usually compounded by the fact that the evaluation process is liable to:

  • subjectivity: how to measure a person’s potential? How to measure your adherence to the company’s values? How to measure your participation in achieving results?
  • bias: distortion due to different aspects of the appraiser’s judgment in relation to the appraised person. Usually, the appraiser remembers an appraisee’s most recent actions. It is also common for actions with negative consequences to be perceived more intensely than actions with positive consequences.

In addition, we are increasingly understanding and respecting human diversity, not only in physical matters and preferences, but also in the diversity of perspective, history and context. With this greater clarity on human diversity, it becomes increasingly difficult to fit all people in a company into just 9 boxes based on two dimensions (potential vs results). To better understand the complexity of the people who make up a company, we will probably need to think in a multidimensional way.

For these reasons, there is a worldwide tendency to abandon the periodic performance evaluation process and replace it with more frequent conversations between leaders and followers about career, performance, potential and values. According to some estimates (https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-performance-management-revolution), more than a third of American companies have already abandoned the periodic performance evaluation process and have adopted these more frequent conversations as an alternative.

Retrospective, an alternative to the performance evaluation process

In addition to the most frequent conversations between leader and team member about career, performance, potential and values, I think it is important every 6 months to do a retrospective with the team about what happened in that period. In the same way that in product development we have retrospective ceremonies, it is a time to revisit what happened and evaluate what went well, what can improve and the challenges ahead.

I do a first version, based on the history I have with the person. If there is a formal performance evaluation process in the company where I am working, I use this opportunity to do the retrospective and consider all information generated through this process, self-assessment, peer review, internal clients and team members, if any.

This first version has 3 sections, strengths, improvements opportunities and challenges for the next semester, which includes not only the main objectives for the next semester but also focus on the points for improvement. If there is a formal performance evaluation process in the company where I am working, place my initial suggestion for classification in the items measured in this formal process (results, potential or adherence to values).

The next step is to use one of the 1:1 meetings to talk to each team member about this retrospective, listen to how she sees it, and eventually adjust the retrospective in agreement with her. It is an excellent time to have a broader conversation and a joint reflection on the semester that has passed and what lies ahead.

If there is a formal performance evaluation process in the company where I am working, I make this conversation before inserting the data into the company’s evaluation system, as I think it is important for the evaluation to contain this retrospective built together with the person. If there are calibration sessions, I advise the team member that the assessment may still undergo adjustments due to the calibration and, after the calibration, I tell in a transparent way what happened in the calibration, to help the person understand how other people perceive her.

EXAMPLE of a GPM retrospective

Strengths

The first semester was particularly difficult for Philippa, with many uncertainties and huge pressure to deliver the Avengers Project. Given all this, Philippa managed to navigate the situation very well and find good solutions, including recommending a company acquisition, as well as keeping her tribe engaged in the process.

Opportunities for improvement

Your PM team is still junior, with little experience in product management, despite having good technical knowledge of the product theme. It is important to look for ways to accelerate this seniority of the team.

Challenges for the next semester

You must work to increase your PMs’ seniority as they still demand a lot of your time, preventing you from having a more strategic role.

Promotions and salary increases

In the chapter “Hiring the right people” I commented that, when making the offer for a person to join your team, it is important to balance short-term (salary and benefits), medium-term (bonus) and long-term (stock options) incentives. From time to time, while that person is on your team, it is important to assess whether these incentives need to be revised, that is, whether he deserves a raise or a promotion. There are two important aspects to consider, when and how to give salary increases and promotions.

When

It is common for companies to define a period of the year for promotions and salary increases, usually just after the period of performance evaluation or periodic retrospective. I recommend not doing this, because in the hierarchy of needs of most people, the need for recognition and financial reward comes before the need for personal development. Therefore, if in the same conversation we put the topic on promotions and salary increases along with the feedback topic and what points he needs to improve, the person’s attention will be much more focused on the topic of promotions and increase. For that reason, I recommend separating these two conversations. When talking about promotion and salary increase, focus only on that topic. And when talking about hindsight, again just focus on that topic.

How

There are two ways to promote a person. The first way is to expect her to be demonstrating skills from at least 70% of the next career level to promote her. This is what I call a “pushed promotion”, that is, she must push to get her promotion. The other way is to assess the person’s potential, that is, whether he has the capacity to develop the skills necessary to operate at the next career level and, if he has, to promote it. I call this form “pull promotion” because the person is pulled to operate at the skill level of the next career level.

I prefer the pulled promotion model, as it generates a very motivating challenge for the person, who will feel that he owes the necessary skills and will rush to develop them as soon as possible. There is, of course, a risk that she may not be able to develop these skills, but in most cases, I see that people with potential usually develop them very quickly. In the pushed promotion, the main advantage is that there is no risk, the person who is promoted already demonstrates the necessary skills. However, precisely because he already has the necessary skills, this person may feel that the promotion is not coming, or that it is taking too long and may want to look at the market, increasing the risk of you losing him from your team, because it takes too long to give him recognition.

Summing up

  • Six essential aspects for good feedback are: checking if feedback is necessary, giving it when it happens, being objective, being transparent, empathizing and giving feedback in private.
  • The seven main characteristics of a good product manager are empathy, communication, time management skills, knowledge of new technologies, business skills, keen curiosity and knowledge about the product theme.
  • If the product is not a technical product, it is not necessary to know how to program. However, having some sense of programming can be useful in understanding how your product works. Knowing SQL is also useful, as it will help the product manager to better understand the metrics of their product.
  • Formal performance appraisal processes have been increasingly seen by companies as something that does not bring as many benefits as expected. Several companies are replacing this process with more frequent conversations between leaders and followers about career, performance, potential and values.
  • Semi-annual retrospective is a good way to have a structured conversation with the team member about the results achieved and how they were achieved, and about the challenges to come. This retrospective must be built together with the team member. If there is a formal performance appraisal process in the company where you are working, use the retrospective process to create the performance appraisal.
  • Regarding promotions and increases, there are two aspects to consider, when and how. I recommend separating the salary increase and promotion conversations from the feedback conversations to maintain full focus on the topic of each of these conversations. I also recommend promoting the person when he has the potential to develop the skills necessary to occupy the next career level, and not expect him to already demonstrate the skills necessary for that next career level, as this will motivate the person more.

In the next chapter, we’ll look at the ceremonies I usually use with the teams I lead.

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