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The Guerilla Guide to Getting a Better Performance Review at Microsoft

The Guerilla Guide to Getting a Better Performance Review at Microsoft

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” ― Charles Darwin

I'm helping one of my mentees get the edge in her performance review this year.  I thought it would be helpful to share the insights and actions that I’m sharing with her, with a broader community, so more people get a chance at getting better performance reviews. 

One of the things I should point out is that I had a 100% success rate for helping the people I mentored achieve the review score they set their mind on.  I’ve helped several people achieve the top and elite ratings at Microsoft.  While I don’t focus on this anymore, it was an interesting challenge and I learned a lot along the way.

This is a no holds barred, hard-core guide to getting a better performance review.  As the game gets tougher, you need to get better.   I know a lot of people not happy with their reviews.  They thought that if they did a good job, everything would take care of itself.  That’s the same fallacy as, “If you build a great product, they will come.”, and all the variations along that theme.

To get a great performance review, you have to design for it, and make it a project.  It can be one of the most “rewarding” projects you do.

The Formula for Better Performance Reviews

Let’s start with the formula for better performance reviews which includes a few cornerstone concepts:

  • Don’t luck into a good review.  You have to be deliberate.  You have to get intentional.  You have to put in the effort.  Don’t hope for it, make it happen.
  • Identify high value work.   You have to identify the work that is the highest value that you can do.  Value is in the eye of the beholder.  You might be surprised by which work is actually valued.  Usually, you can find the high-value work by asking the right people.  Who are the right people?  Your manager, your manager’s manager, your manager’s peers … take the balcony view, and get a good map of the landscape.  You will hear some words over and over, and some priorities over and over.   Latch on to that and find ways to connect what you do to the high-value.
  • Build credibility and influence.  If it’s all you, you’ll be limited.  Be an authority, but don’t be a jerk.  You become an authority by being the a “go-to” person for something.  Be the person that people go to and rely on for knowing your area.  You gain influence by building competence and bringing something to the table.  You gain influence by learning how to speak in terms that people understand.  You gain influence by learning what motivates and drives people.  You gain influence by helping people get what they want, and by building a better picture of the end in mind.   If you can create compelling goals where everybody wins, then you improve your influence.  It’s about building coalitions.  If you take the flip side and compete, you can easily build a coalition of the willing that will work against you.   Find ways to help others win, and find the “win-wins”, where you achieve your goals as part of their success.  Lift others up, and they'll lift you.
  • Flow value.   Are you the one that works on science projects or has lots of ideas that will never happen?  Are you the one that people roll their eyes over knowing that you will never deliver?  Are you the one that when somebody gives you something to do, you go dark for ages, and keep promising something far off in the future that never seems to come?  Flip it around.  Find the quick wins, and flow value faster.  Find the smallest, useful chunk of value, and get it out.  Find ways to improve flowing your value.  Work the big things, while you flow value with the smaller things.  The smaller things will inform the bigger things.  The smaller wins will also create serendipitous opportunities that you can’t predict.  If you build the muscle to flow value, you improve your execution.   If you improve your execution, then you can change your direction as necessary to flow more relevant value.  Ready-fire-aim.  It’s an iterative and incremental process.  While others are still planning, you’ve shipped value and you are using the learnings to ship the next best thing.
  • Give visibility to high-value work.   You have to tell and sell your  value.  This can be one of the worst things, especially if you value humility and you don’t like to toot your own horn.  The problem is, you are the most intimate with your work.   If you can��t express the value simply in ways that others get, then how in the world will they root for you, or praise your work.  The key here is to talk about your work in ways that are meaningful to others.  What’s in it for them?  Why is it important?  Why is it even relevant?   This takes practice.  You can improve this quickly by framing and naming your work.  Give your work a catchy name that is simple and sticky.  It’s not whether you can say the name, it’s whether others remember it and tell and sell it to others.  Get others dog-fooding your stuff and get real feedback on what works, what’s awesome and what sucks.  Don’t fear the tough feedback, savor it … feedback is a gift and it’s how you rapidly improve.  It’s also how you build credibility if you actually make the improvements that people suggest and you circle back with them to show how they helped make a difference.  Get their fingerprints on it.  They will help promote your work if they can stand behind it … otherwise, they might shoot it down.
  • Validate high-value work and impact.   Just because you or your Mom thinks you did an awesome job, doesn’t mean your peers or manager do.  Check in.  Validate it.  Put numbers to it.  On a scale of 1-10, is this a 7, 8, or 9? (Where 10 is awesomus maximus.)  The rule of thumb here is “impress yourself first”, but don’t stop there.   OK, so you think you did an 8 in terms of impact, but one of your peers says it’s more like a 6.  Uh-oh.  No problem.  Ask the simple question, “What would make it an 8 or 9?”.  Get the feedback and do it.
  • Build rapport, leadership, and influence with peers and beyond.  You can try to be a rock, or try to be an island, but today’s world is about connection and ecosystems.  As John Maxwell says, leadership is influence, and influence is how you amplify your impact.  The better you are at shaping the impact of the bigger tribe, the more impact you will make.  The more impact you make, the better you get at flowing your value.  If you are not skilled at influence and rapport, there are many great leadership books, interpersonal books, and conflict books.
  • Eliminate your dissatisfiers.   If you know the Kano model, the big idea is that dissatisfiers can hurt more, than satisfiers can help.  What that means is that all of the great things you do, can be undermined by the few bad things.  The key then is to find the vital few things that get in the way of others becoming your advocate or fighting for you or promoting for you.  Again, this is where the tough feedback comes in, but if you get the tough feedback … don’t fear it, embrace it … you can rapidly make the changes that will get you over your humps or past your glass ceilings or help you leap frog to new levels.  One of the best ways is to find a mentor that is the best at what you want to master, and learn from them.  Mentors are the short-cuts.
  • Anticipate a changing landscape and have “cuttable scope.”   The landscape is always changing.  If you success is heavily depending on the one-egg in your basket, then find a way to round out your portfolio.  Have your flagship thing, but also have a few things you can really count on, and have a few wild cards that might lead to your next best thing.
  • Play to your strengths.  Give your best where you have your best to give.  You have to use your strengths as your competitive advantage.  What can you uniquely do better than anyone?  You have unique experience, perspectives, and strengths, but you have to find ways to apply them.   It’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you play your hand.  If you are not spending more time in your strengths, then you will have a hard, if not impossible time, of producing outstanding results.  It’s that simple.  (See Find Your Strengths)

 

Priority Zero Personal Improvements

Identify your handful of personal improvements.  These are your Priority 0 improvement opportunities.  What are the three things that you really need to improve to eliminate your naysayers and build a coalition of supporters?   Chances are you already know.  But knowing and doing are two different things.  Don't make it a major project.  Instead, make it a 30 Day Improvement Sprint.    Do a little for 30 days and it will add up.

To recap, make your short list of key things to improve, and execute your list.

Your Action Guide for a Better Performance Review

Here is a summary of the big steps to getting a better performance review:

  1. Decide on the Rating You Want
  2. Do the Right Work
  3. Find out What Counts
  4. Tell / Sell the Story
  5. Identify the Key Influencers
  6. Collect Feedback Throughout the Cycle
  7. Write Your Review Using a Framework
  8. Send Feedback

Step 1. Decide on the Rating You Want

In the words of Bruce Lee, “Aim past your target.”   The idea is that if you want to break the wood, then aim past it.  If you fall short, maybe you’ll still reach your target. 

Decide on a number or rating.  Believe you can do it.  The first and worst person to block you from getting a better review is always you.  Start from the inside out.  Set your eyes on the prize, and decide that you are going to achieve it (or give it your best shot, enjoy the process, and learn a ton along the way.)  Don’t sell yourself short here.  Stretch.

Ask your manager to help you get that number.   If you don’t have a number in mind, then you’ll have a tough time asking for help.  Ask your manager for the work that will help you get that number.   As you can imagine, this really forces you and your manager to pay a lot more attention to what’s on your plate, and what it’s actually worth … to you, the team, the organization, to Microsoft, to the customer, etc.

This is an important place to start.  I’ve seen too many people sell themselves short, right from the start.  They didn’t believe in themselves.  And if you don’t believe in yourself, then why should anybody else.  That’s why getting a better review starts here.  It challenges your self-imposed limits and puts your beliefs to the test.

You’ll be surprised what you’re capable of, but sadly you have to first believe it, to achieve it.

  • Step 2. Do the Right Work

  • Quick quiz – Can you list off the work that’s on your plate?
  • If you can’t, you are at risk.  You are at risk in many ways, because you don’t have clarity around what you should spend your time on.  You don’t have clarity on the value of what’s on your plate.  You don’t have a simple way to tell and sell the value of what you are doing.  You don’t have the ability to negotiate with your manager about the work that is on your plate.
  • The simple fix is to write down the top five things on your plate at work.  The big things, not the minutia.  Think of them as your projects or deliverables.   Think of them as the things you do that you get paid for.  If this is your restaurant, what’s on the menu?  What do you actually do?
  • Once you have your list of work, you can rate it.  Rate it on a scale of 1-10 in terms of potential value.
  • Have your manager rate it, too.  Maybe you thought this would be worth an 8, but they think, even if you did a great job, it’s really only worth a 5 or 6.
  • The goal here is to eliminate the low-value items, and add or trade-up for higher-value items.
  • Go for a plate of high-value.   Have five things on your plate, where one is your moon shot, three are “in the bag”, one is for extreme growth, and another is an innovation that will change your game.
  • There is no guarantee that you will be able to get your plate to look like this, but what I can say with confidence is that if you don’t try, it won’t happen.
  • Fight to fill your plate with great work.  Great work is a key to great reviews.  To put it another way, if you don’t great things on your plate, you will be limited in getting a better review.   See why this is worth fighting the good fight?
  • Step 3. Find out What Counts

  • This is an ongoing thing.  You have to stay connected to what counts.  To stay connected to what counts, you have to find out what counts.  It comes down to filters and priorities.

    People use filters all the time to make meaning.  It’s the lenses they use to look at the world.  It’s the language they use.  It’s the values they latch on to.  If you know the filters that people use, then you can be more relevant by using the same language (note that, sadly, sometimes even “similar” language is too far apart for somebody to connect the dots.)

    Priorities are the backbone of value in the workplace.  The problem is there is often a gap between what people say the priorities are, and what they show the priorities are.   But the better that you can see the priorities and work with the filters, the better you can connect (or change) what you do, to be relevant and on the radar.

    Find out what’s on your manager’s plate and your manager’s plate, and so on.

    For example, in your 1:1s with your manager, ask your manager what’s top of mind?  What are the things keeping them up at night?  What’s their short-list of priorities?

    You can test yourself by asking yourself, do you actually know the top three things on your manager’s radar?  If you don’t, then don’t be surprised if what you do is not relevant, and don’t be surprised if they don’t champion your work at mid-year or end-of-year, and don’t be surprised if they can’t even tell anybody what your work is or how it’s valuable.

    You can also use Agile Results to help you rise and shine the spotlight on your best work.  Think in three wins:
    Three wins for the day
    Three Wins for the week
    Three Wins for the Month
    Three wins for the year

  • Step 4. Tell / Sell the Story

  • Practice telling and selling your story.  Name your stuff in simple and sticky ways.  The easiest way to downplay your value is to come up with really weird, names of your work, that nobody, but you, can ever remember.

    Do brown bags to build awareness.   Show a colleague or two what you’re working on, and how it might help them out.   Find the people who would benefit from your work, and share it.  The goal is to help others benefit from your work, and, as part of the process, you build awareness of your work.  You also simplify the story of your work, the more you practice it.  You also improve the value of your work, through the feedback you get as you tell and sell your story.  Be on the hunt for identifying crisp, clear, and compelling benefits for the work you do.

    Here is the most important part, and another key to getting better performance reviews …

  • In your 1:1s with your manager, ask your manager how they would tell and sell the value of your work.  What are the wins?  How would they say it in the hall?  How do they tell and sell the story in a simple way?  Is it simple and sticky?  Do the big ideas pop?
  • As you can imagine, by having your manager articulate your wins, you start to find out what sticks and clicks, and what falls through the cracks.  I am constantly surprised by how a lot of the value of the work that I do, gets lost in translation.  The beauty though is that once you start to pay attention to it, you can start to surface more value in ways that more people understand.  The other beauty is that at some point, you don’t have to flow more value.  Instead, you simply have to drive more awareness and adoption of your value.  “Value leakage” is the enemy.

    It will always come down to either flowing more value, or getting more impact out of the value you delivered.  On one of my teams, we called this “perception engineering” and we actively invested in helping others realize the value of the work we did.  After all, if a tree falls in the woods …

  • Step 5. Identify the Key Influencers

  • Identify the short-set of influencers.  Influence the influencers.

  • Guess what?  Your manager thinks your work is awesome, but what about their peers?   They get a vote or a chance to weight in.  So do your colleagues and peers.
  • But not all votes are equal.
  • Some people are way more influential, either because they’ve been around the block, or they express great judgment, or because they play politics well, or because they read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Either way, your job is to sniff out who these people are.  There is almost always a key opinion leader, the person at the head of the dominoes.  The short-cut here is to tip the lead domino.  The surprise is, that one of the ways to tip the lead domino, is to first find out who do they trust, and who do they turn to.  If you do your homework here, you can do a great job of getting the people on your side.  If you don’t take the time to do this, then the resistance you end up facing, will work against you in multiple ways.
  • The key to remember is that it’s “rapport before influence.”
  • If you can build rapport, then you can open doors and opportunities at a faster pace, and get more out of the time you already spend.
  • A great book on the top of how to get people on your side is called, Get Them On Your Side.  I like recommending this book at Microsoft, because it’s a very systematic and “engineering” type view to “building and designing” rapport and influence.
  • The key take away here is to turn critics into coaches, and build a tribe of raving fans, especially the people with influence.  Tip the dominoes in your favor.  Get the votes that count on your side.

  • Step 6. Collect Feedback Throughout the Cycle

  • Start paying attention to the good things that people say about you or your work.  Capture it. 

    One of the best tips a colleague gave me years ago was to create an email folder called Kudos and to drag a copy of acknowledgements or praise into it.  If you gather it as you to, it’s a lot easier to leverage it down the line. 

    It’s also a great forcing function.  If your Kudos is empty, maybe you aren’t showing your stuff to enough people, or getting enough feedback.  Sometimes you have to ask for feedback.  Keep in mind that people are usually better about complaining and providing negative feedback, than they are about sharing praise.   So if you think that it sucks that you have to ask for people to share their appreciation, acknowledgment, or praise … yep.  It’s the nature of the beast.

    The key take away is that it’s one thing for you to say great things about your work, and it’s another thing for others to say great things about you or your work.   Since you have a vested interest in you, and your opinion is automatically biased, it’s better to have a cornucopia of kudos from others.

  • Step 7. Write Your Review Using a Framework

  • I like to structure my review using the following frame:

    • Results
    • How
    • Evidence
    • Analysis

    When you structure information, you can make it more powerful.  You can surface the good stuff.  You can give focus to key information.  Also, the process of collecting and structuring your information transforms the information.  You will start to see patterns.  You will start to see themes.  You will start to see the bigger picture.

    I’ve actually written a post about this performance review template.

  • Step 8. Send Feedback

  • What goes around comes around.  Praise the good things the people you've worked with have done.  Reciprocity is a powerful thing.
  • Put these tips into practice.  They aren’t easy, but they are worth it.  Regardless of what you get on your review, this process helps you achieve more, and grow your capabilities, so it’s actually a “can’t lose” approach.

    If you really want to change your game, including master motivation productivity, and time management, and get better performance reviews, check out Getting Results the Agile Way at http://GettingResuts.com

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    • nice writeup.  now delete it before my teammates read it.

    • @ jhealy -- Thank you.

      No worries ... there is always a big gap between knowing and doing.  No matter how many people I share the info with, only a small percentage will act on it.

      That's why "ability to execute" is always a competitive advantage.

    • "The problem is, you are the most intimate with your work.   If you can’t express the value simply in ways that others get, then how in the world will they root for you, or praise your work. "

      Some people are afraid to come off as arrogant so they don't pat themselves on the back enough in front of the people who need to know. It's okay to sing your own praises and explain why what you did is great for everyone else. Your efforts contribute to their scucess, be sure they know that.

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