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Performance Outlook

I have a framework for career conversations. It comprises of ladder reading, performance heatmap/brag docs, and career development plans. Since writing that post, I have learned and evolved the way to create the career development plan. Let me call it the performance outlook1. The idea is the manager and the employee can work together to write down their performance review for the next performance review cycle, which covers what success looks like for them using concrete examples. I would like to thank Joe Gershenson from whom I learned this technique.

Recapping Career Development Plan

Here is what I wrote for the original career development plan:

The final structured step would then be creating a career development plan. The plan would be comprised of four sections: current condition, target state, proposed projects and practical advice. The current condition and target state would be derived from the ladder reading and performance heatmap exercises. The proposed projects and practical advice would then be tailored to that condition and target. For example, suppose an engineer would like to move to the next level. They were technically competent, but needed to demonstrate project coordination and leadership skills. The proposed projects would be breadth-shaped and require cross-team or cross-functional collaboration. The practical advice would be to focus on communication and mitigating schedule risks.

Enter Performance Outlook

The core idea is to write down the performance review together with the employee as if time is up for the current review cycle. For example, suppose there is one performance review every year in January. The current time is February 2022, but we will pretend it is already January 2023. It is time to grade their performance for the calendar year of 2022. We will follow the usual format of evaluating performance: start with the impact (the what), and supplement with the contributions (the how). In particular, we will describe how the employee have improved their skills in areas of development that were highlighted in their most recent performance review.

There are a few key details I try to adhere to in authoring performance outlook:

  • Always use the present or past tense. This is counter-intuitive because the performance review is going to happen in the future. Everything written down in the exercise is imaginary no matter how likely or unlikely it appears. In fact, the uncertainty is exactly why it is important to write in the present or past tense. When writing in the future tense, I tend to leave a lot of room to account for variance, but that will only create confusion and anxiety for the employee. Using the present or past tense forces me to be crisp, which helps a lot in creating alignment on expectations.
  • Use specific and achievable examples. This is an extension of the first point above to make sure clear expectations are set. The typical employee ladder definitions can be very abstract, so it helps to be explicit here. For example, instead of “demonstrating leadership”, write down “identifying waste in our cloud spending and delivering $X in cost savings”.
  • Differentiate between success and outstanding success. It is very motivating to include stretch targets in the outlook, but the writing should make such targets clear to separate from the table stakes. A helpful way is to organize such targets under an explicit heading for outstanding success. An alternate is to create an entirely standalone performance outlook for the outstanding success scenario.
  • Write with strong yet loosely-held convictions. The write-up should express strong convictions for an opinionated future, but it should not enslave the employee or the manager to that particular version of the future. Both of them should be on frequent lookout for changes in the surrounding environment. Both should respond to changes by adjusting or rewriting the performance outlook promptly.

I have come to love this exercise. The bonus is it can be done by yourself too. It is always a pleasant conversation when an employee creates a performance outlook on their own. I have also been doing this exercise for myself.

Please give it a try and let me know if you like it.

  1. I chose the word outlook due to its use in finance for earning expectations

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