Treat your performance review as a product
The life cycle of performance evaluations
As Product Managers, performance self-evaluations, often a precursor to performance reviews, are essential aspects of your career. They help you reflect on your performance, set goals for the next period, and identify areas for improvement. The process is a forcing function to clarify career goals, seek feedback on areas of improvement, and partner with your manager toward your next promotion.
However, most PMs perceive performance evaluations as a chore that’s imposed upon them. They dread self-evaluation (and the ensuing performance review) and procrastinate writing the first draft till the last minute leaving little time for the manager to review and offer meaningful feedback. Worst, they are surprised if the manager’s expectations don’t match their achievements.
Instead, treat self-evaluation as an employer-sponsored resource. It’s an iterative process to align your tactical productivity toward tangible outcomes for you, your manager, and the company. In this blog, we will discuss how you can integrate this process into your day-to-day job and elevate it from a chore to a career-advancing vehicle.
This post doesn’t describe each step - there’s enough content out there that goes deep on how to set SMART goals or how to write performance self-evaluations. The goal is to explore how you turn self-evaluation into a habit. I illustrate this concept through a self-explanatory visual below. Read on for additional context
As I illustrated above, a performance evaluation is not an event but a life cycle. It has 5 parts - define success, activate a plan to get there, track progress, seek feedback along the way, and reconvene with your manager to evaluate yourself and set the next set of goals.
Let’s explore each of these.
Set the key outcomes you would deliver by the end of the review period. Depending on your company’s culture, these goals will vary. For product managers, this typically falls into 3 themes:
Product/business impact: products/features/experiment you will launch, key outcomes (revenue growth, customer usage/satisfaction, cost reduction, etc.) you will deliver
Team impact: how you will contribute to others’ success
Culture impact: how you will influence the org culture
Define measurable, objective criteria so you can measure success for each of these themes.
Work with your manager to align and refine these goals so that they map to the company’s objectives and your career aspirations. What that means is, your success should impact business and vice-versa.
The goals must represent substantial scope and opportunity to enable your career growth. For high-risk (and high reward opportunities), ensure you have a contingency plan. For example, say you are pursuing a product that has external dependencies, then collaborate with your manager to back-pocket product areas you can pivot into.
Next, you plan a roadmap toward the goals defined above. The plan granularity will vary based on your seniority but the idea is to identify high-leverage activities that will push you towards your goals. For example, build rapport with a business partner that will streamline your product launch. Or, learn a critical skill by shadowing a leader. Or, hire the right talent for your team. Proactively co-building a plan with your manager will prioritize your calendar, elevate your 1:1s, and avoid surprises during the final performance review.
As you advance in your career, the leverage activities get fuzzier, bets-based, experimental more than linear execution. It resembles playing Chess, planning moves in advance than a game of Checkers - all the more reason to front-load your review period with a game plan.
Tips: Build the first draft immediately after the performance review and discuss it with your manager during the next 1:1. Use GitMind or a similar mind mapping tool to groom high-leverage activities.
Periodically prime your brain by reviewing the goal-activities mind map and keeping it easily accessible. This simple habit will optimize micro-decisions, track goal progress, detect blockers, and pivot your strategy if necessary.
Also, journal your key accomplishments, learnings, and failures. “What if I missed a key achievement!” and “What failures should I include?” are primary detractors. By jotting high and low lights in real-time, you minimize the review-season anxiety. During my last review, I summarize my recent contributions using M365 CoPilot. It processed my journal and created a self-evaluation draft within seconds.
Finally, anchor your 1:1s around the goals and key activities. Abreast your manager with a pre-1:1 recap so you can use the face time to reflect on successes/failures, seek coaching and guidance on blockers, identify blindspots, and course-correct before it’s too late. Essentially, you involve your manager throughout the review period, instead of surprising them at the end of the cycle.
Like the product, soliciting feedback is a discipline that should be part of your job, instead of a one-off event. Leverage manager/peer/mentor 1:1 and other interactions to check how you are doing. This will build trust, solicit real-time, actionable feedback, and prevent surprises at the end.
Make it easy for others to give you feedback. By framing “one thing I can do better” or “rate my presentation skills on a scale of 1 through 10”, you create a safe space for them and make their response actionable and conversational.
Time your feedback requests and be specific. Leverage key presentations, product launches, and high-stake meetings to solicit specific, real-time feedback from your trust circle you can apply during the next opportunity.
Lastly, return the favor by prioritizing to respond to feedback requests from your coworkers and offer them meaningful insights to help them grow.
Writing self-assessment should now be a formality at this point. Yet, counter the writer’s block by following these tips:
Schedule a 60 minutes time to write a “dirty draft”. You can start by pasting your goals and then assessing the progress towards the goal, emphasizing your contributions towards these goals. Include how you influenced a decision or persuaded a team to commit to a particular dependency, or handled a difficult situation within your team that enabled the specific goal. For failures, focus on "what you could have done differently” not how the situation could have been more favorable. And then follow it up with the key learning and how you would adapt the next time.
Schedule another 60-minute block to refine, fact-check, and elaborate on the draft. Submit it well in advance to leave your manager enough time to process this and submit his own feedback.
Empathize with your manager’s time and cognitive load. Leave them a sufficient buffer to review by submitting your self-evaluation in advance. Follow a consistent, simple format so can assess your performance easily and objectively. Contextualize them with customer quotes, product dashboards, peer reviews, or any relevant material to showcase your impact.
Last but not least, set goals for your next review period so you can fuel the flywheel.
In conclusion, a performance review is an excellent opportunity to reflect on your achievements, identify areas for improvement, and set goals for the future. By treating this process as a product, you can make the most of this process and ensure that you are well-prepared to discuss your performance with your manager. Make it a deliberate practice to not only take the dread out of that event but transform it into a career-advancing ritual.