Successful Performance Management Means Frequent Conversations

Dustin Pearce

VP Engineering Infrastructure at Instacart



"A manager's job is to obtain information in order to assist direct reports and help them in making better decisions. This is the reason why we are in meetings all day, running around all the time, and why we are not writing code. Our job is to collect as much information as possible so that we can coach our employees, contribute to their decision making process, and provide the necessary feedback. The fundamental aspect of our job is to operate in support of the work, in support of the engineers. To use a sports analogy: we are the coaches, not the players. As a coach, we must assess performance. Performance management is an integral portion of our responsibilities. I present to you particulars on how I conduct my reviews and approaches to successfully begin or enhance your performance management skills."

Actions taken

  • "Performance management is a continuous conversation between you and your direct reports. This takes a certain degree of discipline. You don't want to meet just twice a year, you want to convene at least once per month. Every one-on-one is an opportunity for feedback. Focus on giving and receiving feedback, as well as discussing targets that your employee would like to achieve or that they are already on the path to achieving. The frequency of these one-on-ones ensures that expectations are aligned and that no one is surprised when larger ceremonies occur."
  • "Performance management is usually used to access two arenas. The first is impact, achievement, or the kinds of things that one has accomplished. The second is behavioral or value adherents. Different companies value different levels of each of these two areas so be sure that you are aligned with what is important to the overall company."
  • "In my experience, engineers tend to feel that they are the sole arbiter of what is valuable about their work. As a manager, steer your direct report away from this conversation as much as possible. Explain to them the necessity to accept input from not just you the manager, but also from teammates or the company in general about what is important and valuable. It comes down to alignment with a team vision, a department vision, or the overall company's vision. If you feel that the employee is not aligned then don't move forward with any other talking points. Unless the employee really understands and aligns with these visions, then they are never going to be successful."
  • "I spend a lot of time with people developing their ability to create and go after targets that are really valuable, usually expressed as key results in the OKR method. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? What is the purpose of that goal? How will it influence your team or the company? Dig deeper by asking questions. Try to get your employees to focus on measurable impacts. After some time they should be able to do this on their own, making it easier for the individual to work well with you and their teammates."
  • "I tell people that the most important thing is to have a clear objective that people will understand and will celebrate if you win. More importantly, though, it is not whether you win or lose. It is about having a clear objective and everyone knowing that you're going for something important. If you miss it, that's fine. Instead of thinking of that miss as a performance issue, present it as a learning opportunity."
  • "Usually about once per month I will integrate a conversation about my relationship with my direct report and their relationship with their peers. Currently, with my managers, I am using a tool called 15Five. It is essentially a lightweight weekly status reporting tool that helps people share their feelings, what objective they're after, and what challenges they are up against each week. I utilize it to guide conversations rather than using it as a status check. It gives me information about what is going on so that I may ask the right questions during scheduled meetings."

Lessons learned

  • "Explain to your direct reports that performance is about a clarity of vision. Transparency about what they want to achieve, understanding the value of their work, their enthusiasm to pursue it, and their ability to absorb feedback. Continually have this conversation so that it is clear and explicable."
  • "It can be hard for employees to come with their own objectives, but try to push people onto that path. Of course, if they don't have any ideas be available to help them. Have some ideas ready for them, yet encourage them to think about them on their own."
  • "The sum of all the one-on-one conversations make it administratively easy and they act something like a performance review. Because you have been focusing on performance management the entire time and coaching someone, the objectives, successes and losses are clearly defined and listed. This acts as an inventory of measurable impact for you and for your direct report. An inventory of goals, actions taken, and lessons gained from missed targets. In fact, this inventory is a piece of gold for someone's career."
  • "I have done month-end one-on-ones that have been specifically tailored to OKR reviews, but I have intentionally moved away from this method. The reason being that I found it induced a sense of anxiety for not only my direct reports but for me as well. Work behavior tended to get weird because we were expected to talk about specific results, therefore, it was difficult to determine if processes were running naturally or not. Thus, I now incorporate them every so often rather than scheduling them to a specified date."

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Dustin Pearce

VP Engineering Infrastructure at Instacart

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementMentorship ProgramsPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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