“I’ve always believed, that if done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience.” So says the charming hustler played by Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, the movie that set female hearts a flutter, and finally made him a star. I’ve always felt the same way about “performance reviews” that crop up about once a year in most organizations, with similar dread and apprehension. There is no single discussion that causes as much anxiety, and so much potential for anger and resentment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. For what is a review but a renegotiation of terms. And both sides, if they play their cards right, can benefit enormously from the opportunity this presents.
On the manager’s side, a little preparation goes a long way. Some managers like to meet casually, or “on the fly.” I knew one boss who would offer feedback to employees while they rode the elevator up to the 22nd floor, before casually stepping out the door with a clipped “good luck.” I’ve known others who will simply cut and paste last year’s review, switch out a few words here and there before hitting “send.” The worst part about this approach is that it sends the wrong message by saying, “I’m really busy and important, and I don’t have time to think about you and your job.” But feedback, if it’s to be of any use, needs to be honest, thoughtful, specific and if possible, more positive than negative. Most of us can handle criticism, however painful, if we recognize the truth in it.
A great truism of all critical feedback is that you’re probably not as good as you’d hoped, and never really as bad as you think. The truth – for most of us – lies somewhere in between. The “review” is a great opportunity for the employee to elevate her stock, by stating openly her accomplishments. Again, good preparation is key. Focus clearly on your strengths and what you have achieved, and if possible frame it into a compelling narrative that puts you at the center. Whether you’re up for advancement or not, this is still a useful exercise. Bragging is allowed here. Unfortunately, most of us tend to remember far better our failures than our successes, so this is helpful to balance our skewed perception of ourselves.
The workplace has changed enormously in recent years. Gone are the days when some benevolent company would direct and manage your career for you, while you dozed off at the wheel. Now more than ever, it is incumbent upon every employee to proactively manage his own career. We have become in essence, a nation of free agents. A company of one. And all successful “companies” must identify and set their priorities in such a way that our goals can be achieved. In the humdrum of work, it’s often easy to find yourself adrift, floating aimlessly downstream without clear intent or destination. The days blur into each other, until you have no idea where you are going, or what it was you hoped to achieve. But ask yourself this question: if you’re not steering the ship, then who is?
There’s a saying that goes “nobody ever stumbled up a mountain.” And nobody “accidentally” became famous either, regardless of what he or she may tell you. Even for Brad Pitt, I’m sure it took years of acting classes, silly bit parts and horrible auditions in order to get there. And for you to get where you want to go, you must first identify a destination and then have a clear plan. What does this mean for the modern professional? Well, it means setting out broad career objectives for yourself every year or six months, being alert to opportunities as they arise, and constantly sharpening your skills to meet the moment. I’ve often heard people confidently say they have “20 years’ experience,” when what they really have is one years experience repeated 20 times over.
A performance review is an excellent opportunity for you to look at yourself, and update, if necessary, your individual company’s charter. What did I produce this past year? What did I learn? Where am I getting in my own way? Where could I use some help? Is there coaching available in my company? Are there any personal development classes that would make certain parts of my job easier? Should I be speaking with other industry peers in my field so that I remain current? Is there anybody I can identify who might be willing to mentor me while I navigate this tricky next phase of my career?
If you find you are not growing in the way you would like, or you believe your professional goals are not being met, then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Companies that do right by their employees will generally find their employees trying to do right by the company. But if a company does not look out for its employees, then you can bet that smart employees will likely do what’s best for themselves and their families. Don’t stick with a company that lacks the opportunities to empower your career progress. If you have a good set of core skills, and know where you want to go, there are many ventures that will want to help you get there.
Bottom line is this: you get what you settle for. Don’t settle for less.