Product Leadership Skills: Performance Reviews for Product Managers

When you hear ‘performance review’, what’s the first thing that comes into your head? It’s the sort of thing that sounds intimidating, in theory. But they’re actually just another tool for you to help your teams to grow. Rather than a punishment or something they should be afraid of, performance reviews are ultimately a way for you to act as their guide and mentor.

What Are Performance Reviews?

Performance reviews are a formal and scheduled conversation between manager and employee, with the goal of helping them to improve and feel more confident. Your job as their leader is to make them feel appreciated for the great work they do, and give constructive feedback on what they could improve on.

Good performance reviews help to strengthen team bonds, and can greatly improve employee satisfaction. People feel more comfortable and confident in their roles when they know where they stand with leadership.

Scheduling regular performance reviews, be they at the end of every calendar year or after each year of being with the company, it’s a powerful communication tool. They help you to learn more about your teams, help them solve their problems, and work on their career growth.

Benefits of Performance Reviews in Product Management

Senior Product Managers, Heads of Product, and other leaders in Product, are partially responsible for the job satisfaction of the people working under them. Performance reviews, when done right, largely improve employee satisfaction. It helps teams feel heard, and helps them progress in their careers.

It also helps to strengthen your relationship with your teams. Even when you have more authority, leading by influence is still a much more powerful way to guide teams. Performance reviews can help to build that influence.

There’s also very little formal education in Product Management (though we and our students agree that a Product Management Certification is a fantastic alternative) so it’s the responsibility of those who have been there and done that to coach the new generation. You’re a mentor for the Product Managers working with you. Giving them a performance reviews helps show them the way to do Product Management, and improves the output of the team as a whole.

How to Structure a Product Management Performance Review

You might have heard of the cliched ‘sandwich approach’ but it’s such a cliche that it no longer works. The sandwich approach has you giving a piece of negative feedback in between two compliments. This is supposed to make the negative feedback a little easier to swallow.

What actually happens now, is that people see what you’re trying to do and the power of your positive feedback is undermined. People feel like you’re only complimenting them because you also have something bad to say.

  1. Ask them some general questions.
  2. Set the tone for the meeting.
  3. Give positive feedback.
  4. Give constructive criticism.
  5. Set some goals.
  6. Ask for their feedback.
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1. Ask them some general questions

This meeting is about them, so start the meeting that way. Ask them for some general feedback about their job role, their day to day, their experience with the team, etc.

“You’ve been here for almost a year now, how has it been for you?”

“How do you feel about your level of responsibility and day to day workload?”

2. Set the tone for the meeting

The easiest way to build respect between yourself and your teammates is to be transparent. So instead of hiding negative feedback in a sandwich, let them know what’s coming.

For a high-achieving employee you could say something like, “Overall we’re really happy with how you’ve been working, so this is just going to give us the opportunity to set some career goals for you, and make sure we’re giving you the right opportunities for growth.”

For an average employee who has a few areas they could improve on you might say, “This is our chance to chat about all the things that you’re doing very well, but there are also a few things I think we could work on together to see some improvement.”

For an employee who hasn’t been pulling their weight recently, you might say, “I’d like to use this time to check in with you and see how we can better support each other, as we have a few concerns about the quality of your efforts recently.”

Remember, it’s not a disciplinary meeting. There may be circumstances affecting their performance which are out of your employee’s control and which you are unaware of. Think of this as a step towards discovery.

You might also be interested in: How to Run One-on-Ones With Your Product Team

3. Give positive feedback

Start out with the positives, to help them feel more comfortable in the meeting. Talk about what you like about having them on your team, and try to give specific compliments. “The questions you were asking in those user interviews in Q2 have really helped us to understand our user’s perspective, they were very insightful.”

At this point in the review, give them the opportunity for them to tell you what they enjoy about their job. This will give you some more insight on their path to progression. For example, if they talk about how much they love diving into the data, you could give them more future responsibilities that involve working more closely with it.

Make sure you gauge whether they have enough time to do all of the things they enjoy. If the stuff they love to do constitutes only 5% of their week, and the other 95% they just find tolerable, you risk losing them to a role that engages them more.

4. Give them constructive criticism

This is the more dreaded part of the review, but when handled with care it can yield a positive outcome. It’s a conversation that really tests the trust between leadership and teams, but it can actually strengthen it if done well.

Make sure you find out the reasons why they’re not hitting your expectations of them. If it’s something behavioural (like turning up to work late and finishing early), this is your chance to bring it to their attention.

The most important thing about giving constructive criticism is to tie it into the goals you’ll set at the end of the review. This helps ensure that your teams don’t feel simply reprimanded and sent on their way, and you’ll be much more likely to get the results you want out of them in the future.

5. Set some goals

Set some measurable goals for your teams to take away and work on. These could be based on your positive feedback (“we like that, do more of it”) or your constructive criticism (“this isn’t great, stop doing that and do this instead”). 

The key here is making them measurable, and something that has a clear result. This keeps the goal clear, and makes it much easier to agree on whether they’ve hit that goal or not.

You might also be interested in: Team Metrics for Product Managers

6. Ask for their feedback

When giving a performance review, it’s very easy to break into a monologue, and make the whole thing about your perspective of their work. Make some time at the end to allow your teammate to give their final thoughts on the performance review. They may have been inspired to request more responsibilities based on your positive feedback. Alternatively, they may be ready to open up about something that’s been bothering them.

Once you’ve finished the performance review, make sure to keep notes of what you’ve discussed for their next review.

Do’s and Don’ts of Performance Reviews

Be overly negative or critical

A performance review is not the same as a disciplinary meeting. Make sure you highlight the things you like about a teammates’ work, so they know what to do more of and what skills they can feel confident in.

Set actionable goals

If you give someone an area to improve on, or additional responsibilities, make these actionable. Don’t just tell them ‘you need to get closer to the customers’, give them some options for how they could do that. This will also make your life easier when it comes to the next performance review, as it’ll give you your first set of talking points.

Treat them like a punishment

If you only conduct performance reviews when a person has done something wrong, or isn’t performing the way you want them to, that only increases the negative connotation that performance reviews carry. It also tells the whole team that you only notice when they’re doing something wrong, and not recognizing what they’re getting right.

Set a process for performance reviews

If you’re in a large company, chances are there is already a formal precedent for performance reviews. But if you’re able, try to set that process for yourself, either across the startup you’re in, or just within your teams. Make sure this process is clear and accessible to the rest of the team.

Surprise your teams with last-minute performance reviews

It’s not a high school pop quiz! Your teams deserve a chance to prepare and gather their thoughts for a performance review. The last thing you should do is announce that today’s 1-1 is, actually, a performance review! Horrible idea, definitely don’t do that unless you’re desperately vying for the Worst Boss of The Year award!

Treat the review as a dialogue

A performance review can be, and should be, a two way street. It’s your opportunity to give feedback from your teams, but it’s also an opportunity for them to let you know how they think they’re doing. It could be a defining moment for their career growth, and you could help solve some of their biggest pain points. Happy employees build better products!

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