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Lessons Learned

How My Cofounder And I Review Each Other's Performance

One startup CEO explains why top-level managers need to be be honest with each other—regularly and sometimes painfully so.

How My Cofounder And I Review Each Other's Performance
[Photo: Rawpixel.com via Shutterstock]

"Too nice. Uncomfortable with ambiguity. Overly ambitious and unrealistic. Conflict avoidant. Not all the time but frequently enough to warrant some self-improvement."

This was some of the feedback I received from my cofounder and president, J.J., during our most recent quarterly debriefing with each other. As a cofounder myself and the company's CEO, I took his comments to heart and reflected on them later, adding them to my running list of "mistakes" I compile each year.

But it wasn’t always this easy. Here's how why we decided to start giving each other meaningful, one-on-one performance reviews (and what we've learned since).

How To Make Regular Debriefings Work

J.J. and I were both uncomfortable and a little anxious during our first really honest debriefing. I'd suggested we institute as an ongoing practice in order to make sure we kept on the same page and continued to do our best. There were personal reasons, too: In our past lives, J.J. was my boss, and now that we were cofounders, our roles had evolved. We wanted to make sure our working relationship reflected that.

So far, we've yet to find a downside to this process. In fact, after our first somewhat awkward meeting, J.J. later said, "In the past, I didn’t understand why you did this but now I don’t understand why we don’t have all of our executive team do it." So we did just that. It's now become the sort of frank and honest exchange that many have criticized the typical performance review for not being.

Here are some guidelines we've set up for our own exec-team debriefings:

Set a regular cadence. Since businesses move and change so quickly, it’s important to do debriefings regularly so the information is fresh enough to act on. One of the biggest criticisms of the traditional performance review is that it's a solemn ritual that happens once every 12 months. Between the two of us, J.J. and I decided on quarterly meetings—enough time to make relevant changes without becoming cumbersome.

Come prepared with detailed lists. Include positive efforts and outcomes as well as mistakes. Some people like to call them "learning opportunities," but I believe that just calling a mistake a mistake is more helpful—as long as you can give reasons for it. Honesty is crucial in these conversations, but only if you've decided ahead of time what key issues you need to be honest about. J.J. and I go through our lists with each other, exchanging our experiences and observations.

Set aside enough time. Sometimes it's tough. Our last debriefing lasted six hours and was pretty intense. But once we listened to each other and were at times painfully honest, we had cleared away some big misunderstandings that had piled up. At an emotional level, it felt cathartic, but it also helped get us on the right page strategically as we continue to grow and build our company.

Make feedback a daily thing. Arguably the biggest reason for the shift away from the annual review is the widely noted preference, especially among younger workers, for regular feedback. Personally, daily habits and practices are right up my alley, so this wasn't so difficult; I meditate regularly and set and track weekly, monthly, and yearly goals.

Hopefully, that radiates outward, creating a culture of transparency, self-reflection, and openness in our young company. In fact, J.J.’s and my quarterly meetings reflect the way I try to live. I keep a list of "mistakes" (which are often more behaviors or traits I’d like to change about myself) and review it regularly. But I can appreciate how other execs, who operate differently, might struggle to give and receive daily feedback. It can take practice, but it's worth the effort and can strengthen your working relationships so those debriefings remain as productive and honest as they possibly can be.

Transparency And Trust Start at the Top

Many of us aren't accustomed to such direct, open, and honest feedback. We're more comfortable evaluating one another according to the the well-worn descriptors like "self-starter," "teamwork," "ownership," "impact," and others. It's not that these are bad qualities, and they're often meant to eliminate bias so performance reviews are as objective and outcome-based as possible. But at the leadership level, anyway, they might not be enough. I encourage my executive team to think in deeply personal terms about how we work with each other, and it seems to be paying off.

Without this level of transparency and thoughtfulness, we often end up operating under misconceptions that can lead to distance, disengagement, and errors. For example, I’ve worked in situations where I haven’t been completely honest with team members and didn’t bring up instances that bothered me. I thought I was being polite. But after a while, we talked less and less and I started giving important tasks to others. Eventually, when they tell me they're resigning to find a new job, it comes out that we've misunderstood one another. Maybe some of the small things that caused that could've been resolved earlier.

The honest, forthright exchange of ideas and information doesn't usually come from an annual, formalized review process. It needs to start with the leadership, and it needs to be about establishing trust—not just accountability for result.

"If the executive team doesn’t trust each other, attempts to control the flow of information, and has only surface conversations," Glassdoor CEO Robert Hohman writes for Fortune, "it will be near impossible to foster transparency throughout the rest of the organization."

He continues, "We see it in survey after survey: Employees will quit if their employer, leaders, or managers aren’t being completely honest and upfront." By keeping a running list of the ways we can do better, by being more mindful, and by dedicating ourselves to self-awareness, self-improvement, and honest communication, it becomes that much easier to avoid these pitfalls—professionally and personally.

That’s what I’ve found for myself, at least, and J.J. has found that it works for him as well. So we'll keep briefing one another each quarter on how we think we're doing, in order to become an even more effective management team together.

Vincent Yang is a data scientist and the CEO and co-founder of EverString, the leading platform for predictive marketing. Prior to founding EverString in 2012, Vincent worked at Summit Partners, a $16 billion venture capital and private equity firm where he developed technology that aided corporate investment strategies.

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