The Evolution of Performance Management at Help Scout

In the early days of Help Scout, our CEO and co-founder, Nick Francis, was inspired to build not only a great product for our customers but a great company for our teammates to do their best work. We knew we didn’t want to copy and paste a traditional (and meaningless) performance review process, so we bucked the trend and created our own Help Scout-y version.

Along the way, Nick coined the term for the “Player Road Map,” which became the grounding artifact in our twice-a-year road map check-in process. While it served us in the early years of Help Scout, it became clear it wouldn’t suit us for the long haul. Today, our process looks much different — and we’re excited to share where we’ve landed.

What we used to do

Twice a year, everyone at Help Scout would set aside some time to complete a self-assessment that included prompts about previously set goals and whether they were achieved, what work was shipped that they were proud of, any challenges faced, and what they wanted to work on in the next six months. Then, the teammate and manager would meet to discuss the self-assessment and co-create new goals for the next six months.

We thought we had created a lightweight but meaningful process — but it soon broke for several reasons. 

Why it broke

The road map process we created couldn’t scale with the growth of our team. One of the biggest pain points that emerged was that we weren’t using a tool to properly facilitate it. Instead, everyone wrote their road maps in various Google or Paper Docs and then archived them in our internal Wiki tool, Slab. Year over year, it became hard to keep track of people’s road maps and whether the conversations were happening. There was no way to track growth over time, and there was certainly no way to gain any kind of high-level insight into what was happening across the company.

In addition to lacking tools and consistency, we realized we weren’t focusing on the right things. Our road map check-ins were becoming nebulous conversations about goals that weren’t rooted in actual performance and outcomes that impacted the business. It was clear we needed an overhaul.

4 steps to create a performance-driven culture

While every team and company is unique, there are a few ways we shifted to a more performance-driven culture at Help Scout. Here’s what we suggest:

1. Define what performance means for your company

If we wanted to move to a performance-driven culture, we needed to take a beat and spend time defining and documenting what performance meant to Help Scout specifically. We had to clearly articulate why we were moving to a twice-per-year performance review cycle, connect it to our company values, and explain why this would be a better outcome for our teammates as well as for the business.

A snippet from our “Performance at Help Scout” doc:

The great Dolly Parton said, ‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose.’ We're all here to support you on that journey, and in order to do that, we need an opportunity for everyone to offer specific observations and actionable feedback about what we do well and how we can improve.

We also decided that it was time to introduce performance assessments. We believe that performance is the value of a teammate’s contributions to the organization over time, and that value needs to be assessed in order to help make decisions about compensation and promotions. Using a shared framework like a performance assessment helps everyone know where they stand and helps managers know who needs further guidance and who is ready to move to the next level.

We also feel strongly that using performance assessments actually leads to more fairness and equity — everyone understands how and why they’re being assessed, and that information is shared transparently. Using performance assessments also allows for a bird’s-eye view of employee performance to help us understand how we’re doing holistically across the organization.

At Help Scout, we use a 1-4 assessment score system:

1: Not meeting expectations

Performance is falling consistently below the expectations of the role. This includes managers of teams whose performances have consistently fallen below expectations.

2: Partially meeting expectations

Performance has been inconsistent in the period leading up to the review. This individual may be meeting some goals or demonstrating some behaviors expected of the role while not meeting others. Someone also may receive a 2 if they are new to the role or took on new responsibilities and are making progress toward meeting expectations by the next review cycle.

3: Meeting expectations

You are awesome! Performance and behaviors are consistently strong and in line with expectations for the role.

4: Exceeding expectations

Performance is consistently exceeding expectations for the role and level. The person exhibits an exceptional level of achievement and an ability to deliver results that significantly impact the business.

We also moved to connecting compensation to our performance cycle. Previously, it hadn’t been perfectly clear how to get a raise or promotion at Help Scout, so connecting our compensation to performance felt like the right iteration. As a company that wants to reward strong performance, it made sense! Now, following each performance cycle, there’s an opportunity for managers to submit their teammates for raises or promotions where appropriate and based concretely on their prior performance. We also felt this was in line with our values around DEI to ensure we were examining everyone for raises, not just the loudest voices.

2. Lay out the process

We decided that our performance reviews would include three parts:

  • Self-assessment — A summary on contributions, accomplishments, and areas of development over the last six months as well as your own assessment (1-4) of how you’ve met performance expectations in your role. 

  • Manager’s review — The manager writes their own version of the prompts above and selects an assessment number between 1-4.

  • Upward review — Everyone has an opportunity to submit brief feedback for their manager.

3. Pick the right tool

Once we were clear on our process, we had to pick the right tool to make it all work efficiently. After evaluating a few products, we landed on Lattice and have been very happy with our choice. It feels like night and day between our old process, and now, thanks to Lattice, we can easily track completion rates, see progress over time, and report on analytics across the company.

4. Set everyone up for success

Moving to a brand new performance management process required a lot of communication with our team and a lot of documenting our work! We also had several Zoom meetings with managers to walk them through the new process, ensure alignment on the assessment categories, and make space for Q&A.

It was also critical to make sure every team had a career framework loaded into Lattice so that teammates knew how they were being assessed. It’s not a fair process if your team doesn’t understand what great performance even looks like, so make sure you’ve done that work upfront. 

What we’ve learned

We’re in the midst of our second cycle using our new process, and we already have a lot of learnings to report! After our first cycle, we heard feedback that it would help managers to have even clearer guidance on what actions should happen depending on what assessment category someone lands in. We also included peer feedback in the first cycle, but we heard back that that process added a lot of extra work, so we’ve shifted to a culture of continuous peer feedback instead of saving it all up for review cycles.

Lattice has a great “feedback” feature where anyone can submit feedback to someone else at any time, so we’ve created “Feedback Focus weeks” outside of review weeks to encourage utilization and to remind people to get into the habit of regularly giving feedback. 

What’s next?

Following this cycle, we’re excited to dive into Lattice’s “Grow” feature, which is a space to plan and capture progress on your career development. One of our People team goals for the first half of the year is to ensure that 100% of our company has a Grow plan so that everyone is crystal clear on what they should be focused on and how their progress will be assessed. If we want our performance management process to be fair and meaningful, then we have to ensure expectations are clear.

After reviews are written, we’re going to have our first full calibration. Our People business partners will facilitate a series of meetings with managers, directors, VPs, and C-suite to calibrate everyone across the company to ensure consistency and fairness. It’s crucial to help leaders understand what performance looks like on their own teams as well as how it compares across the organization and to make sure everyone is evaluating through a shared lens.

Performance reviews don’t have to suck

Performance reviews understandably have a terrible reputation. Often, companies slap together thoughtless processes, then managers go through the motions, and teams are forced into certain curves and outcomes to keep executives happy. To be clear, that is not what we’re building at Help Scout or encouraging.

Both employees and companies can benefit from a process that’s thoughtful and intentional. When done right, everyone at your company will have a complete understanding of their performance, growth edges, and opportunities for career advancement. The business will then have clear insight into how the organization is performing, who to reward fairly, and who needs more support.

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