On One-on-Ones and Performance Reviews

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Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska; photo by the author

In early 2017, The New York Times profiled Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora. The title of the profile, Don’t Expect Me to Manage You, would be clickbait if not for the fact that it was a direct quote from Tzuo. I was reminded of this profile recently when someone who works for me asked about my views on 1:1s and performance reviews.

Zuora is a fantastic company (and a Smartling customer!), and Tzuo is an exceptionally successful leader. I have a great deal of respect for him and find myself agreeing with his opinions most of the time, but I was surprised by his views on 1:1s and performance reviews:

I don’t do one-on-one meetings or performance reviews. … What I found was the one-on-ones just became this laundry list of issues. And I want most of the issues exposed in a team environment, because most of these things have to be worked out in a group setting. … If I have to do performance reviews with you, something’s wrong. We should be on the same page at all given times. We should have shared goals and shared accountability. And when the job is at a point where it’s gone beyond your capabilities, we’re both going to know, and we’ll work it out. … If I have feedback, I’ll let you know. If you want feedback, call me up. I’ll give you all the feedback you want.

Tzuo’s direct reports are all highly experienced senior managers, which I suspect is necessary for making the above approach successful—although it’s no guarantee. For the typical manager—which is most of us (including most CEOs)—I think it would be problematic and challenging.

There’s a lot to unpack in Tzuo’s comments, so let’s break it down. First, on the subject of 1:1s:

  • One-on-ones become laundry lists of issues: Absolutely true, unless manager and direct report make a concerted effort to avoid this fate. What’s particularly dangerous about this tendency is that issues of real importance are frequently sat on until the next scheduled 1:1, which may be a week or more away. I encourage my direct reports to front burner such issues, for example via direct Slack message, and reserve our 1:1 time to focus on professional development.
  • Most of [the issues] have to be worked out in a group setting: Sometimes true. There are many issues for which solutions require teamwork, although I prefer to have a 1:1 or small group discussion about them—and their potential solutions—before opening up the discussion to a wider audience. For direct reports who are themselves managers, I find that the issues raised are frequently related to individual team member behavior or performance. These discussions are best limited to the responsible managers.

I’ve yet to meet someone who wants to have 1:1s (versus recognizes a need to have them). Nevertheless, I’m a strong believer in holding them every week (I’m not alone on this—Jason M. Lemkin has described it as his #1 management hack). I use shared Google Docs to keep track of topics and action items, which I’ve found helps to prevent the meetings from becoming unactionable counseling sessions.

On the subject of performance reviews:

  • We should be on the same page at all given times: In my opinion, the purpose of performance reviews is to help employees to recognize their best behaviors, as well as those behaviors that would benefit from refinement. This can be accomplished through casual conversation but is far more effective in writing. A written performance review forces the manager to think critically about what to say and how to say it, and the employee to consider the feedback carefully. It’s also something to which each party can refer at a later date. One of my former direct reports carried his performance review in his pocket for months despite it not saying anything he didn’t already know. Clearly it was valuable to him.
  • When the job is at a point where it’s gone beyond your capabilities, we’re both going to know and If you want feedback, call me up: In my experience, most people lack this level of self awareness and/or sufficient confidence to address it head on. As Dave Kellogg said in another provocatively-titled post, You Can Never Fire Someone Too Early, rationalization, conflict avoidance, and denial frequently get in the way of problems being addressed in a timely manner. Once a problem has festered for too long, it becomes unfixable. This applies equally to executives, middle managers, and individual contributors.

Again, I’ve yet to meet a manager who enjoys writing and giving performance reviews. That said, most of my direct reports have told me that, while time consuming and sometimes daunting, performance reviews done well ultimately are rewarding because they deepen the trust between manager and direct report. Of course, done well is the key phrase in the prior sentence, and I’ve found that many managers struggle to write and give good performance reviews. I’ll cover this topic in my next post.

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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