Thursday, November 16, 2006

Focalization #2

There were a couple of good comments to the last post. If you haven't read them, please do so, as they give some good background relevant to this one.

As one of the comments mentioned, focal has changed recently and rank groups are more focused on in-tact teams. The advantage to this is that you don't have managers of other organizations gunning for you rather than their own people. The disadvantage is that your manager now has to hit distribution numbers with his own people rather than going after someone else's.

The basic idea of focal is that the top people get rewarded well, the bottom people get a strong message, and everyone else in the middle gets about the same (typically mediocre) raise and stock package. For the sake or argument, let's say that top 15% of performers get 2-3x better annual compensation, and that the bottom 15% get nothing. That means that the 70% in the middle are treated about equally. The difference in effort between someone who ranked at the 84th percentile vs. the 16th can be huge. But they will get about the same compensation.

My recommendations for focal:

1. Know your peers and know your boss. Focal is all about you being ranked relative to your peers. If you want to be competitive, you need to know what they're doing, how well they're doing it, and what your boss thinks of them. I'm not recommending that you act duplicitously, just that you pay attention to what people are doing and the team interactions with your boss.

2. Know where you are, and where you want to be. Don't work to be near the top. An "almost there" doesn't count at focal, and working your butt off to get near the top will often result in frustration. If you aren't competitive enough to be at the top, or don't want to work that hard, being in the 40-50th percentile is the sweet spot. This generally keeps you far enough away from the bottom that nobody is questioning your performance, but it doesn't have you working as hard as those in the 90th percentile for no additional reward. Knowing exactly where you will fall is nearly impossible, but you should be able to gauge yourself relative to your peers after going through focal or mid-year one time.

3. Write a good work sheet. Over and over I see people turning in crappy, overly verbose summaries of their own work for focal. Your boss will get 2-3 minutes to explain to other managers what you did for the year, and the results and impact it had. They'll also get to cover 3-4 items - no more. So when you summarize your accomplishments, focus on impact. Don't write about what you thought was important, or on what you did particularly well, but what other managers will think was important to Intel. It's all about the result and the impact. If you can put a real dollar figure or some other quantifiable metric, it's even better. If you didn't quite hit expectations for an item, either don't mention that or have a good explanation. If you did better than expected, flaunt it. "Conceived of and drove the xyz project to target and removed redundant servers in Oregon. This resulted in 47 servers being identified and shut down. The program target was $125K in savings, but Bob's efforts resulted in $300K savings for support, maintenance, and licensing." This is short, specific, and demonstrates that you not only hit a goal, but exceeded it.

4. Take advantage of bad mid-year reviews. Not all groups do a mid-year review, and in those that do everyone hates it. But getting a bad performance message at mid-year is far better than getting one at focal. Your boss has an obligation to help you be successful, so if you have a mid-year performance problem, they will work with you to turn it around before the end of the year. It's a reflection on them if they don't. Mid-year documentation tends to be treated informally, so it's far less likely that a future manager will know that you had a performance problem. A formal performance problem at focal will stay with you forever. But here's the real kicker: your boss can take credit for a bad mid-year message at focal. If he needs to have 3 poor performers at focal to hit distribution, and gave 2 messages at mid-year, he only has to find one more at focal. So he hits his target and you don't get a permanent mark.

5. Poor performance messages should not be a surprise. Once focal starts, it can take on a life of it's own and the target goals may force a manager to give a performance message they don't agree with. Or they may think you deserve a performance message, but hadn't mentioned it to you previously. Either way, if you had no idea that you were performing poorly before your review the momentum is in your favor. If you're boss didn't give you an indication that you needed to do anything differently during the year, it's going to be hard to make a performance message stick at focal.

5b. Take advantage of good mid-year reviews. If your mid-year review is good or better, you should expect to have the same review at focal, unless something has changed. If you find yourself in a situation where you did OK at mid-year and poorly at focal, your boss really needs to have given you some indication of this. If not, you have a good argument for reversing the bad message.

5c. Use the open-door policy. Intel has an process that allows you to speak to HR or your boss's boss when you feel you've been wronged. People rarely take advantage of this at focal, but I've seen it work over and over. It won't change a poor performance message that you deserved, but if you were treated unfairly, there's a good chance of it being changed. And people often think that their manager will hold it against them for escalating. That could happen. But sometimes your manager is frustrated at being forced to hit a target, and would welcome HR overturning the poor performance message they delivered.

6. Make a job change if needed. If you're in a group where you can't be competitive, consider finding a group where you can. I've had peers that made me look positively below average no matter how hard I worked. I've also been the rock star in other groups. This is usually up to luck or circumstance, but when possible don't move into a job where where you be the weak link.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Focalization #1

I'm going to post a couple of entries about the annual review process at Intel, known to employees as "focal" or R&R, which is an acronym for Ranking and Rating. My goal is to explain how focal works, what problems I have with it, and to give some tips to employees to better deal with the process. Some of this material is going to be obvious, some of it may not. I've been on both sides of the focal equation for several years (as an employee and a manager).

For any non-Intel readers, focal consists of collecting information on each employee from several sources, going through an evaluation process where they are ranked and rated based on their performance, determining compensation, and then giving feedback and results to the employee. A manager collects information from the employee themselves, from peers or stakeholders the employee recommends (and possibly some they don't recommend). They then complete an short written assessment of the employee using that information and their own observations. A manager theoretically has a fairly well rounded view of an employees accomplishments, strengths, and improvement areas from several sources. People are grouped by job function and/or manager into "Rank Groups", and the managers representing the people in a group sit down in a room and go through the written evaluations. Basically, you end up ranking people from the top to bottom (largest to smallest contribution). Being at the top is always good, but being at the bottom is not necessarily bad. For example, if you are junior relative to the others in the rank group, you would expect to fall toward the bottom.

Employee compensation is largely determined based on how well employees performed relative to their peers in similar roles and at similar pay grades. So if people in similar jobs at similar pay grades ranked higher than you did, there would be questions about why you feel below your peers. Similarly, if you were ranked above your peers, you would appear to be doing a better job. At a high level, I think this is a good process that generally does a fair job of evaluating performance. But in practice, there are several pitfalls, and it tends to encourage and reward some bad behavior on the part of managers. I don't know of anyone who likes it.

Your performance is determined based on how you stacked up relative to the other people in your rank group, not by an arbitrary measure. There are some obvious implications to this: if you work with a bunch of overachieving geniuses who live to work, you're going to have a harder time competing than if you work with a people not as highly skilled as you, or who don't work as hard.

Intel pushes the idea of target distributions for rank groups. In general the top 10% of the rank group is considered to be doing better than everyone else, and the bottom 10% is considered to be doing worse. It's a little more complicated than this, and the percentages may be different, but the idea is that a distribution needs to be hit. It's considered a target by HR, and very few people at Intel will tell you that it's a hard target.

I've worked in about 5 different groups at Intel, and had a dozen managers. All but two of them have insisted on hitting our distribution targets in focal. In practice, these distributions are almost always hard targets that need to be hit. Finding high performers is easy - the highest ranked people at a given pay grade are usually your top performers. You start handing out higher ratings to them until you meet your quota. Then you start looking for poor performers. Sometimes you have an obvious candidate or two. But with smaller rank groups in particular, you may not see anyone who deserves a bad performance message.

Because each rank group rolls up organizationally, each org manager will look across rank groups for an average. But if they aren't hitting their numbers, managers are going to be asked to find more poor performers.

This explanation turned out to be longer than I expected. What you need to understand about focal is that just doing a good job may not be enough to get a good review. If you're doing a good job, and everyone you work with is a doing a great job, you'll be at the bottom of the pack. My next entry will cover some ways to help manage this and how to prepare for the process.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vote Beeblebrox!

I've got a couple of posts just about ready to go, but was sidetracked for a couple of weeks doing some volunteer election work in the evenings. I was primarily making calls to encourage people to vote, helping them to find polling places, and answering any other questions. The organization I was calling for had us make calls in areas where races were close, to people who were registered but unlikely to vote. Calling people cold is not a very rewarding experience, but overall I'm glad I participated in the process. After having made several hundred calls, I'll offer the following state-specific observations based only on my experience:

Florida - generally cordial about the calls
Massachusetts - the most willing to talk about actual issues
Ohio - I spoke to a lot of angry people
Connecticut - Most people didn't answer the phone
Missouri - probably the best answer rate, and people were generally polite
Pennsylvania - people were guarded but cordial
Virginia - better than Ohio, but overall not happy people

I don't have much data, but people in Ohio and Virginia just sounded completely worn out by the election. I suspect they are tired of being in the in the national spotlight, and are tried of being polled, advertised to, and harassed. I got a few comments like "this is the ninth time someone has called me!" In all states about 10% of my calls were to people who actually wanted some information about how and where to vote. This about the same percentage who told me clearly that they "didn't give a fuck about my election" and slammed the phone down.

I also learned the following:

  • People don't like to be called at home
  • People really don't like to be called at home after 8:30pm
  • People really, really don't like to be called at home after 8:30pm to be told they should vote
I'll try to find a different way to help get out the vote in '08.