[Note: I created an update to this post in June, 2008]
I just hit the "send" button on my annual review. Always nice to get it done. We won't have our "numbers" and our official "review meetings" for another two months, but half the work is looking back on the past year, and being accountable.
This is my 28th review document I've submitted at Microsoft. Over the years, I've learned a thing or two about how reviews are done. Mind you, every team is different. But here's my advice for someone going through a formal, documented review process:
Take time to reflect. I’m pretty introspective normally, and I spend a lot of time with my employees talking about performance and career paths, but for those that don’t spend much time, this is a good chance to really think back on how things have been going. Carve out a full day to do your review. Take it seriously.
Think of your review as a living resume. At Microsoft, potential employers can (and usually) look at your review before offering to interview you. This is a great chance for you to go beyond your job description and resume to list what you’re good at, what your struggle with (and how you’re addressing it), and what your development plan is.
Be thorough. I’ve written reviews both ways (just get it done in one-two pages, and go on and on in ten pages). I’ve found that the more I’ve thought out what I’m good at and how I’ve met my objectives, the more my reviewing manager is influenced by what I write. Sometimes it won’t change the actual review score, but it will change the tone of their comments back. Remember the living resume point above. Besides, short, terse reviews set the tone of ambivalence—NOT the message you want to send to your manager at review time.
Go with metrics. If you have good measurement, show it. If you can show improvement in an area, document it. If you’ve built things that didn’t exist, list them out.
Make it about YOU. This is the one time in your life to be ego-centric. Only use “we” when it’s appropriate, and take credit for things you should. Mostly, talk about WHY you got the results you did. Don’t say “I launched the tool on time and under budget.” Say instead, “because of my focus on meeting deadlines, and by providing leadership to the team, we avoided slipping the product on two occasions. At one point, when a four-week slip was imminent, I gathered the team together, and discussed all our options. I led several discussions that uncovered three alternatives, and after some research, we implemented an option that actually avoided a four-week slip.”
Don’t worry too much about missing an agreed-upon deadline. Stuff happens, and everyone changes focus and makes tradeoffs. The best advice is to monitor your agreed objectives/commitments, and adjust them throughout the year. But if you didn’t, don’t’ worry about telling the story. Explain why you changed priorities, and make it a positive (I weighed the options, and the best business decision was to focus on the other project). If you just blew it off (“I forgot”), that’s another story…
Don’t forget the “extra credit.” Many of the most important projects for your career are extra credit. Or sometimes things you did outside your job led to you improving your performance. Write about the volunteer committee you were on. Or a memorable conversation with a Director or VP. Or your experience mentoring. Or your improvement in your attitude or your ability to take criticism. It’s all fair game!
If there’s something negative to say, bring it up yourself. If there’s an elephant in the room (something you “hope” your manager might forget about, but doubt she will), bring it up. Talk about how you struggled with it. Talk about what you did to fix it. Talk about what you’re doing to improve. You can spin it in a much better light than they will if they have to bring it up in their comments…
Sometimes mistakes can be the best thing. I once went into a review dreading a review, because I’d really failed meeting my targets (in this case, a number of attendees at a seminar). I explained to my manager what I did to fix the problem, and how I knew it wasn’t going to happen again. I fully expected a low score on that review goal, and he ended up giving me a very high score. He believed (like me, and many managers) that excellence performance isn’t about not making mistakes, it’s about how you manage things when you fix them.
Realize that half the equation is perception. More in some orgs. The review “formula” might say a 4 (on a 1-5 scale) means someone “Consistently exceeds position requirements and meets all objectives. Results achieved is exceptional, relative to individuals at similar levels.” In fact, you might have exceeded all your objectives, and had noteworthy accomplishments. The key here is “relative to individuals at similar levels.” In some companies or organizations, even if you’ve done a great job with measurable objectives, and even if you’ve exceeded them in every way, those that set and approve your rating might have a perception that doesn’t match the scale. If they think you’re not adding value, or if you’re considered by them to be in the “bottom third” of the org (performance wise), you won't get a top-third score. Your written comments in the review will often be too late.
Don’t sweat the review. I once had a manager that said on a 1-10 scale, nothing at work should give you a 1-2 experience (really bad) or a 9-10 experience (really great). I like that advice. Besides that, if you’re really stressed out about a review, the review time isn’t the time to do anything about it. If there are things that you’re worried about, address them early in the year. Absent that, don’t be afraid to talk about problems with your manager. Most are there to help you, and they look good if you look good (in fact, they look bad if you look bad, so often managers will downplay problems to their management, especially if you’re actively working on improving).
Ask your manager to edit some of their negative comments. Some might never consider it, but many will tone things down (once they’ve made their point in writing and in the one-on-one session) if they’ve been too forceful or pointed in their comments. At least take the opportunity to add your own comments to respond to theirs. Don’t let a negative example just sit there for your next potential manager to read.
Don’t put it off until the last minute. Here’s one I learned just last night, as I opened the review for the first time (in preparation for today’s 5PM deadline): I’ve been incredibly busy to start with. But on top of that, part of me didn’t want to face the fact that I knew I’d missed at least one key commitment. I often dread doing my review, thinking I’ll be overwhelmed with how little I’ve accomplished. But EVERY SINGLE TIME I’ve finished up a review, I see how much I’ve accomplished. I feel more confident, optimistic, and secure that I’m doing the right things for the right reason. My most important audience is myself.