Performance is Nurtured, not Measured

Last month, Microsoft said goodbye to forced stack ranking. I was surprised how long it took the company to recognize they needed to revamp how they nurture, grow, and motivate their engineering talent. This method of performance review forces managers to rate every team member on a bell curve from the best to the worst, even if the 'worst' performs excellently. This practice sets a team up for failure; Harvard Business Review believes forced stack ranking is largely responsible for Microsoft's "inability to foster high-performing teams" because it replaces collaboration with competition. Simply put, I think this system is lazy. There have been times where I had to let a high percentage of the team go and other times when I only had to let go of one; I will never use a distribution curve to dictate who stays and who goes because you don't need to leave the fate of your engineers in the hands of an equation if you prioritize making each and every one a world-class developer.

Nurturing talent isn't a formula or a ranking, it's an opportunity for managers to take their team from good to world-class. Building a high-performing dev organization is half about recruiting the right candidates, and half about recognizing where their talent is right now, where it can go, and how you can help them get there. I can't stress how crucial it is to master the art of recruiting in order to get top talent and best fit candidates through the door. But getting to know your engineers 1-on-1 doesn't stop there- you need to work with every single person on your team to set expectations, evaluate progress specific to their skills, and map out a clear path to success. At HubSpot, we developed a rubric to give our Engineering Team concrete examples of what's expected of them in terms of effectiveness and attitude. By setting clear goals and communicating where each dev fits into your organization's puzzle, you make it hard for them to fail. That's why the main benefit of our rubric is that it helps new managers recognize when someone is not a good fit.

I am always surprised at how many managers that I talk to struggle with letting people go. Recruiting is the predominant influence on your team's make-up, but knowing when and how to part ways with an employee is just as important and has to be handled with care. Microsoft only prioritized results, as suggested by stack ranking, but that approach would never work at HubSpot. We evaluate good fits by performance, but also largely by how they click culturally. You could be the most talented engineer in the world, but if my team can't comfortably collaborate with you, we'll have a difficult time innovating together. I once noticed a subset of my organization having a meeting without their direct manager; I dug into the situation and discovered that the team was being compromised professionally and emotionally because they found it difficult to collaborate with their new manager so they decided to meet without him. I quickly intervened, explored the situation, and had to ask the manager to part ways with HubSpot for the sake of the team.

I obsess over our recruiting process to avoid having to face the facts with bad fit employees; if it were best for my team and the company, I'd never fire anyone. If I let someone go, it's because I realized our organization can't nurture their career development and they should be somewhere that can. I'm not sure I could sleep as well at night if it were based on a bell curve or how one engineer compares to another. No one wins in that scenario.