How to prep your team for an annual review

In my first job out of college, I was a programmer in Fort Worth. The job was challenging but not very clearly defined so it took me a while to find a good working scenario. By the end of my first year, I knew what I was doing but I wasn’t too thrilled with it. At my annual review, my boss said, “I don’t think you should continue working here.” (YIKES!) But then he added, “I’d like you to interview with a friend of mine in Dallas.” He looked at my skills and performance, and realized that I would be better suited as a sales engineer than as a programmer. Now that’s a manager!

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the annual performance review is a required event at many companies. Many on your team see the annual performance review as a healthy discussion about their careers. Or else face them with dread, fearing you’ll have nothing helpful to say.

They also think you spend a lot more time on these reviews than you probably do. From their standpoint, you hold their career in your hands. They don’t realize that you have to do one of these damn things for every person on your staff and the work is more annoying than anything else.

From “Invasion of the Annual Reviews” by Phyllis Korkki

The annual performance evaluation is “this weird form you fill out every year that has nothing to do with everyday life,” said Robert Sutton, a professor and organizational psychologist at Stanford and co-author of the forthcoming book “Scaling Up Excellence.” Sutton is wary of rankings and yearly evaluations in general. Many organizations, he said, would be better off if they provided continuous feedback, with formal evaluations coming into play mainly if a worker is being eyed for promotion or has shown substandard performance.

Your people should value your feedback. Good or bad, knowing where they stand can only be helpful.

Start with current status. Do you have a product status dashboard or score card? You should have a one-page summary of the state of every product your team manages. (If not, see mine here). Could you use a similar approach for your team’s accomplishments? Whether by person or by product, a summary cheat-sheet is a helpful tool to get you prepared for your evaluations.

Get a success memo. I suppose in an ideal world we’d keep a log of all the good and bad things employees did throughout the year but I certainly never have. As managers, we tend to have short-term memory; we can probably only remember the last thing an employee did, or perhaps the last bad thing an employee did. We surely don’t remember some of their successes from six months ago. So ask them for a “success” memo. Get your folks to write a list of accomplishments: the projects they worked on, their product deliverables, their goals achieved. You’ll likely be surprised at some of the things they tell you about—things you’ve long ago forgotten but were really big at the time.

Discuss growth and stretch goals. In your face-to-face discussion, talk about their career plans and help identify specific activities to help them achieve their goals. One product manager wanted to better understand the mechanics of trade shows so putting that item on their next year objectives made sense. Another wanted a closer relationship with sales people so we discussed good and bad approaches for working with the sales team.

Discuss how to move to the next step in the career ladder. There’s an old rule of management that you need to be grooming your replacement if you ever want to be promoted yourself. Your existing team members are likely the best candidates to take over your job. Discuss where your employees want to be in the next few years and give them specific tips on how to get there. I used to ask my team to write next year’sresume and then we’d work this year to make it become true. In fact, a current resume is a pretty good tool for discussing where your team members’ pasts and potential futures.

Share your own challenges. Be sure to take some time to solicit help and advice from your product managers. It’s always easier to see things from the outside and you may be amazed what observations they have that you’re too close to see. After all, you hired your people to help you solve business problems; let them help you solve your business problems!


As a manager, you owe it to your employees to give them career counseling. But don’t do all the data gathering yourself. Use existing information or get your employees to pull the raw data together. Then use your management skills and career experience to analyze the data so you can provide specific recommendations. Your team will appreciate that you cared enough to prepare a meaningful assessment.