How to achieve high performance, and, ratings

Marton Trencseni - Sun 21 January 2024 - Management

I wrote this document for my team members — Data Scientists and Data Engineers — to help them do a better on their annual performance reviews.



The purpose of this brief note is to remind us what the key to getting good performance, and, ratings is. I write this because, after looking through 10+ reviews this week, I think it's a good idea — we have room for improvement.

The key to getting good performance ratings is to consciously invest time, energy and attention to all steps of the performance journey. The steps are, roughly:

  1. Set performance goals and OKRs   📝
  2. Throughout the year, work hard and focus on impact   📈
  3. Visibility   👀
  4. Fill out self-review and score OKRs   🖋️
  5. Manager speaks to employee and rates employee
  6. Calibration

I will concentrate on the first 4 below.

Set performance goals and OKRs

Setting strong, ambitious goals, so that you feel like you cannot hit all of them is key here. If you set yourself a few, easy goals, even if you hit them, your manager will say, with all honesty, "great job, this is baseline performance (Meets Expectation)". If you don't set strong, ambitious key results on a certain objective, your best chance of going beyond the baseline is probably to hope for an external piece of work "forcing" you to go beyond that, even though it was not part of the OKRs. But why would you do that? Plan for excellence, don't wait or hope for it to happen!

Most large organizations have generic objectives that don't change much year to year. A good rule of thumb is to have 5-10 Key Results (KRs) per Objective. Even for objectives like Company Values you can enumerate plans/ideas of how you will exceed! Make them ambitious: when you set them, you should feel like a bit overwhelmed, like "I'll be happy if I hit half of this". I feel like that every time we build team OKRs, and in the end we usually end up hitting 70-80%, because a year is actually a long time, we're all hard workers and often things are not as hard as they seem.

Personally I'm a big fan of making goals and OKRs. I also do it personally. Every year, in the first couple of weeks in January I build my annual goals (not OKRs) in a Google doc. Usually it ends up being 2-3 pages long. I group them under headings like Reading, Writing, Professional, Fitness, Relax, Money. You can check a sample here.

OKRs, or more broadly, goals, are not something we do because the company is asking us to. We'd do OKRs and goaling anyway. As you can see, although I don't follow the OKR structure specifically, I do something similar personally also, and have for a long time. The point of goaling is to think through what we want to do, to make a plan, and then write down what "good" looks like in terms of outcomes. An additional point about "goaling" is the dopamine hit that we get when we accomplish a key result or goal item.

We are data people and love metrics, so I won't sell SMART goaling goaling, but give a brief overview below. Here are the five parts of SMART:

  1. Specific: Goals should be clear and specific, so you know exactly what you're aiming for. This involves answering the "W" questions: What do you want to accomplish? Why is this goal important? Who is involved? Where is it located? Which resources are needed?

  2. Measurable: A goal must have criteria for measuring progress. This helps to stay on track and meet deadlines. Ask questions like: How much? How many? How will I know when it is accomplished?

  3. Achievable: The goal should be realistic and attainable to be successful. This means you have to figure out how to accomplish it and whether it's possible, given the current constraints such as time and resources.

  4. Relevant: The goal should matter to you and align with other relevant goals. It should address something that is the right time and fits with other efforts or needs. Ask: Does this seem worthwhile? Is this the right time? Does this match our other efforts/needs?

  5. Time-Bound: Every goal needs a target date, so there's a deadline to focus on. This part of the SMART goal criteria helps to prevent everyday tasks from taking priority over longer-term goals. Ask: When can I achieve this goal? What can I do six months from now? What can I do six weeks from now? What can I do today?

In my experience, when making annual goals, most of the time it's not realistic to hit all 5 components of SMART, with Specific and Measurable being the trickiest. My approach is not to obsess too much over this, but to write something which is clear to you and your manager, and perhaps later on you can come back and improve the wording. I don't believe in hard-locked OKRs, minor refinements to definitions are fine!

Are you doing a good job on this? Most of us can improve:

  • have you thought through what you want to achieve this year?
    • also on Value objectives?
  • do you have 5-10 KRs per Objective?
  • did you invest time and mental energy to make your goals as SMART as possible?
  • have you taken multiple stabs at goaling, you've slept over it between iterations?
  • have the OKRs made you stretch and improve or it is about doing the baseline?
  • bonus: have you built personal goals?

Work hard and focus on impact

This will be the shortest section.

We don't have a problem here.

Most of us work hard and accomplish good outcomes for our organization.

But remember: if you do a "good job" throughout the year, that's the baseline, so that will be "Meets Expectations". The expectation, towards all of us (also your manager), is that we do a good job. The baseline is not that we don't work, and if we do our job then we're already exceeding. The reason I point this out is that sometimes, on self-review, the person will essentially list out baseline activities of their job and then rate themselves "Exceeds" or "Exceptional".

The easiest way to not exceed is to forget about the performance journey and OKRs thoughout the year. I see this happening a lot, when people scramble in December to hit as many key results as possible. The smart thing to do is to create a system — with your manager — to continuously keep the OKRs in mind and work on them. For example, if your KR is to "fix 24 tech debt tickets", it's definitely easier to do 2 per month versus trying to do as many as possible in December!


If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The physics answer is, of course it does. But a company is a set of people, and people are not like physics! At any organization, you need to make sure that people know about all the good work you're doing! No exceptions.

You may think, "But why? I just want to do a good job, and I want to be recognized for it. Isn't it enough if you know? This is unfair, it wasn't on my JD."

The situation is simple: in any organization beyond a trivial size (the cut-off is somewhere around 100-150, the Dunbar number), there will be some sort of "quorum" or "committee" that will ultimately evaluate you. So, it's not just your manager that needs to know — you have to have social proof. You and your manager can write down the list of these 5-10 people! Your best bet at getting good outcomes based on your work is if these people:

  • know who you are
  • know what you did
  • think you did a great job that had a positive impact for the company

You may think, "But Marton, isn't it your job to make sure I get recognized by these people?". In a way, yes, it's my job. But imagine Alice and Bob, both did a great job, and Alice worked on her visibility, while Bob relied on his manager for it. However, Bob's manager is actually responsible for providing this visibility for 20+ people, and is not able to remember everything that happened with 20 people across 12 months. Who has better chances of getting recognized? If senior management is already aware about Alice and her work, they are already primed before they come to the calibration meeting.

There is all the reason in the world to work on your visibility, and no reasons against it. Working on your visibility is not "cheating". Also, your manager will personally be grateful to you, because they will have an easier time getting you good outcomes.

It's also worth noting, as I said, that this is not just our company. I can tell you that for example promotions at Facebook, which has a very different structure, but it was the same story at a high-level. To get promoted was very hard, you had to present a case to a Promotion Committee, and it was much more likely to get approved if the members knew who you were and knew what you did, so it was an "obvious case". It was hard, people worked very hard on improving their visibility.

Fill out self-review and score OKRs

This week, as I was doing everybody's reviews, my starting point was to read everybody's self-review. I was surprised that many people chose to not fill out the self-review at all, or not put much energy into it! In these cases I sent it back and asked the person to fill it out and put effort into it.

The self-review is essentially the last part of visibility. Not putting in the effort to present your case here is a huge wasted opportunity! As a manager, I can tell you how I do reviews: I open up the system, and see what you wrote (text), and then see if it supports your rating. Of course, I also try to remember all the things that happened in the year, the good things that you did. But in general, I'm assuming that if something is worth mentioning, you will mention it in the self-review — because it's your job to do so at this stage, and also your self-interest!

A good self-review looks like this:

  • it lists out all the good things you did this year — be concrete, not generic
  • it is specific about what you did (vs the team that you worked on)
    • use "I" instead of "we"!
  • it is specific about the impact (eg. 10M USD)
    • concrete numbers are better than estimates
    • bottom-of-funnel numbers (eg. net profit) are better than top-of-funnel numbers (eg. income)
    • numbers other than USD numbers are fine (eg. # of techtalks, # of interviews, # pageviews, etc)
  • it's fine to practice some salesmanship, but be concrete
  • this is the time (along with generic within-the-year visibility) to be bold
  • your text should support your rating — if you rate yourself "Exceeds" or "Exceptional" for an objective, don't put down bullet points and sentences that essentially say "This is my baseline job and I did it." Your comments need to support why you were beyond the baseline.
  • if you don't take OKRs and performance reviews seriously, don't expect your manager to take you seriously!

A note on calibrations

The way calibrations work is the following: Corporate HR sets a budget of a certain % of people that can be within each bucket (Meets, Exceeds, Exceptional). The input of calibration is all the people in business unit, with their scores as their manager set it.

Every year, there are way too many people in the Exceeds and Exceptional buckets, so Calibration is about discussing and figuring out "who to move down". So let's say there are too many people in Exceeds, then Alice would have to explain to the group why she rated Bob 3.8 Exceeds. All the other managers also explain, and by the end of the meeting (or meetings), the managers have to agree who is actually, upon hearing their manager’s explanation, not really Exceeds, but Meets Expectation. In a way, it's grading on a curve.

This is why visibility is so important. If I'm explaining why Bob is Exceeds, and nobody in the calibration meeting even knows who Bob is, it's much tougher to make that argument. For Exceptional, a lot of people better know who Bob is and what he did!

As I mentioned above, calibration is not per function or per department, it's across the business unit.

A note on promotions

I think everybody knows this, but I will say it just to be safe. There is never any guarantee for a given rating on promotion, even if we do a great job. For example during Covid, everybody got a default "Meets" rating, no increment and no bonus.

This applies also for promotions. In my experience, at our company, promotions are "needs"-based. So the most likely way to get promoted is if there's a slot that the company needs to fill. It has happened, but not so often, that people get promoted simply based on a performance plus level argument (Bob did great, he is currently at level L, but he has been consistently performing at level L+1).