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Why marketing leadership needs a new performance review process

By Kristin Johnson / August 7, 2019

Performance reviews: that time of year you sit in front of a blank screen and try to remember every missed goal, valuable contribution and bad meeting. The process is wrought with anxiety and a bit of awkwardness but rarely actionable feedback.

That is because performance reviews have traditionally been used as a way to grade an employee’s achievements and discuss their weaknesses over an entire year–effectively an in-person report card. So it’s little surprise that between 60 and 90% of employees dislike the reviews process. Reviews don’t appear to be very effective either—only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree their evaluation motivates them to improve.

However, the problem with reviews aren’t the reviews themselves, it is the frequency of them–especially for marketers. Having managed dozens of marketers over the years, I’ve found restricting reviews to once a year directly contradicts the speed at which our roles evolve. In digital marketing, for example, 64% of marketers expect their role to change in the next year thanks to the ever expanding number of platforms and channels available. But annual evaluations don’t keep pace with that change.

Marketers need formal, ongoing feedback to develop both the technical and leadership skills they need to fulfill their evolving responsibilities. Instead of reserving evaluations for the end of the year, performance reviews should be treated as one piece of your team’s larger feedback strategy. This will ensure performance reviews will actually contribute to development rather than be viewed as a necessary evil of your structure.

Turn leadership development into a year-round initiative

All leaders must embrace a mentality of constant learning but that mindset is even more critical for marketers, given the propensity for rapid change in marketing.

Bringing that continual evolution to feedback and performance reviews ensures it is actually relevant and helps the team (and company) grow–which is the whole purpose of feedback. By creating space for meaningful conversations around an individual’s work expectations and progress outside of company review cycles, you can improve engagement as well as performance. It will also enable you to be nimble with your team’s development, structure and goals.

In addition to the standard check-ins and 1:1s, designate a regular cadence for you and your team to have conversations explicitly focused on career growth. Ideally, these conversations happen on a monthly basis and start by level setting on what they want to be known for on a professional level and what their individual career goals are. From there, you can meaningful conversations around how they’re achieving those goals without it being tied to a specific promotion or review cycle. Unlike a 1:1, these conversations shouldn’t be focused on status updates and should instead be used to reflect on an individual’s performance thus far and outline clear goals for that person to work towards. Ultimately, these development meetings will help marketers break down their long-term vision into relevant and actionable next steps to self-actualization.

Developing leaders through proactive management

When you’ve had those ongoing, regular development meetings, your more formal reviews become much easier as they’re a capstone to your conversations. Then the review process is reserved for discussion of ongoing trends and proactive conversations about next steps in their career.

Performance reviews are a prime opportunity to help emerging leaders implement a plan to move their careers forward. Rather than make recommendations based on assumptions about a person’s motivations and goals, involve them in the review process and encourage them to take ownership over their growth. Come prepared to have an open conversation about the path your employee envisions for themselves and what challenges they envision on their growth journey. From there, you can outline the responsibilities, leadership development skills and projects that both align with their goals and support business growth.

Before going into a performance review with a marketing leader who’s just beginning their journey, prepare posing the following questions to yourself and your employee:

  • What does this person value at work?
  • What types of projects motivate or inspire them?
  • What technical or people skills does this person need to develop to become a more effective leader?
  • What kinds of opportunities will challenge this individual as they take on additional responsibilities?
  • Where can an emerging leader have an immediate impact on bottom line goals today? In one year? How do they need to grow between now and then?

While reviews are often a retroactive look at performance, these questions can help you structure a forward-looking conversation around growth opportunities for each of your reports. It will also give you and your report a shared language to use when discussing growth and shine a light on hidden motivations or hurdles.

This approach can also be used to support leaders struggling to meet expectations. The answers can uncover the why behind their struggle, a gap between motivation and expectation as well as a blueprint to get them back on track.

Managing and retaining high-performing individuals

In addition to employees still developing their leadership skills, marketing leaders also need to reevaluate how they use performance reviews to support their high performers.

While higher performers deliver 400% more productivity than the average employee, retention of those employees is a top challenge. One in five high performers say they are likely to leave in the next six months and fewer than half are satisfied with their current job. Just because they’re doing an exemplary job doesn’t mean you can coast on the positive feedback and expect them to stay engaged; high performers need help in discovering new opportunities to contribute to the organization and their expectations of you are high.

The last thing you want is for your strongest leaders to feel bored, disengaged or stagnant at work. Before entering these review conversations, ask yourself the following questions to get strategic about leadership development for your high performers:

  • What kinds of projects or opportunities will challenge this individual to think outside of their comfort zone?
  • Are there relationships you can facilitate or cross-functional projects you can assign that will build this person’s ‘brokerage skills’ within the organization?
  • Are there opportunities for this person to teach others on your team or participate in mentorship programs?
  • What’s one thing that would help this person increase their business impact by 10%?
  • In addition to their day-to-day responsibilities, how else can this individual contribute to an organization’s overall growth?

Using this information, you can structure performance reviews to ensure that high performers are receiving constructive feedback at all times. Reviews should help high performers focus on the ‘right’ projects and follow a clearly laid out agenda. But don’t let the conversation stop there. One study found 50% of high performing individuals expect a monthly sit down with their direct manager, so ensure you’re not only keeping those meetings but also making them as valuable and efficient as possible.

There’s always room for improvement

The performance reviews of old are notorious for being clunky, outdated and ineffective in helping employees understand their strengths and weaknesses. But it’s not that the evaluations themselves were lacking—it’s that many teams aren’t using performance reviews to their advantage. Aim for honest and more frequent conversations that reveal your team’s aspirations, uncovers their past work and sheds light on what motivates them.

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson is the VP of Content and Communications at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketer with a passion for impactful storytelling, fostering her team's growth and sparking thoughtful discussion. Outside the office, she enjoys yoga, cooking and a great pint of beer (usually, in that order).
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