Inspiring Reviews - a Fresh Approach to Performance Reviews at Wetpaint

4 min read
Mar 9, 2012

Every now and then, as an interviewer, I get fired up and inspired by someone I'm interviewing. Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint falls into this category. Ben started Wetpaint in 2005 with seven other people, and he freely encouraged all of them to think of themselves as co-founders.

At first, Wetpaint's goal was helping people create all types of content online as the whole world was going social. Now, Wetpaint is more focused on how people are distributing their content via Twitter, Facebook, etc. Ben Elowitz categorizes Wetpaint as a next generational web publisher, like People or Entertainment Weekly.

Ben states that Wetpaint's two most important strategic assets are:

(1) IP - this is the intellectual property wrapped around the creation and distribution of content online.

(2) Talent - all 45 folks who work at Wetpaint who have created such a successful business.

From a strategical point of view, they currently conduct operating and financial planning in November and December. They also perform a mid-year checkup, gauging initiative performance, new learnings, and necessary changes. They're definitely not afraid to make changes outside of these cycles.

To keep himself accountable, Ben's Board of Directors helps him examine the facts. In addition, they host a tw0-day Board offsite to get alignment every year, which Ben finds amazingly helpful. Now that the company is firing on all cylinders, they hold less frequent, less intensive Board meetings.

Ben is very introspective when it comes to best practices around people management, leadership, and culture. The following are his experiences around these issues:

*Weekly One-on-Ones with Top Fives - For his four direct reports, Ben conducts weekly one-on-ones. Everyone has a list of the top five things they're working on, as well as things they need from him. Feedback is exchanged both ways. Ben finds that this process keeps everyone focused and accountable.

*Questioning the Goal of Performance Review - Ben thinks that the goal of performance reviews should be to quickly move people very far forward in their lives and careers. It's a once-a-year opportunity to inspire and tell them where they can go in their lives. He believes it is invaluable beyond work because it's about changing people's lives. Ben's best managers always made sure he was getting better and better every year.

Thus, he thinks that performance reviews are "important, life-changing, inspiring, lots of work, and hard to teach." I was immediately eager to learn more when he described reviews as "life-changing and inspiring," versus the typical adjectives I've been receiving.

At the same time, he hopes that the reviewees' thoughts on the annual review would be similar to his own. Although he concedes it probably still revolves around fear and dread regardless of how much he evangelizes that they should be around goals and life-changing progress.

*Separate Performance and Compensation Reviews - These are both part of the same process, but they are conducted in separate meetings. The performance review is done first, and the performance score is a big part of their compensation review. Ben likes separating these two discussions because he's discovered that most of the time the reviewee fascinates on "the number" of the compensation review. In Ben's mind, reviews should be 70% professional development and personal growth and only 30% performance assessment.

*Internal Review Infrastructure - Wetpaint invests in teaching managers how to better conduct reviews. They focus on positioning it as a true opportunity to improve the professional development of the team. He feels that if he doesn't train his managers, they'll just fill out a form.

*No Surprises Mentality - Ben's a big believer that there should never be any surprises. Feedback shouldn't be saved up and should be provided on a rolling basis.

*Calling BS for More Candid Feedback - During 360s, if someone gives someone all fives, Ben will send the form back to the person. He'll remind them that this process is about helping people become better, and that they can only do that with thoughtful feedback on improvement. It truly is about honest, critical feedback that moves people forward.

*Ben's Personal Four Quadrant Review Process - Ben's accountable for four annual reviews. He spends about 4-6 hours per reviewee. He starts by pulling out a blank sheet of paper and divides it into four quadrants:

(1) What went well in terms of results

(2) What went poorly in terms of results

(3) Individual's strengths

(4) Individual's areas for improvement

Then he fills out each quadrant with a bulleted list. He also takes the input he receives from 360 reviews (each person has three) and the reviewee's own self-assessment. He analyzes this and goes to the top center of the sheet and lists three top priorities for feedback during the meeting. He's calls this his "MIT" for "most important thing." Otherwise, giving feedback on everything will be too paralyzing, especially if there's 40-50 bullets to go through. Ben does admit that this is thorough, but wonders if it is too thorough.

*Conclusion - Ben shared many nuggets and tips on conducting performance reviews, but what I found most refreshing was his philosophy that this is a formal once-a-year opportunity to inspire and move people as far and as quickly as possible at Wetpaint and beyond as individuals.

I'm a big believer that we have a choice when faced with any situation. We can have a positive, neutral, or negative attitude, like "today's going to be a great day!" or "works going to suck today." And to some extent we do attract what we think. The kicker is that our mindset we choose is free, so why not be positive or at least neutral?

Even though he admits it's hard and takes him 4-6 hours per review, Ben adopts a mentality of "important, life-changing, and inspiring." Thanks for reminder of the opportunity and obligation all entrepreneurs and managers possess.


*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.

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