Apparently, I’d hired Alexander the Great.
Working incognito as one of my staff lawyers, he’d chosen to write a self-appraisal that would blow his cover: This guy was God’s gift to men (and, to the extent they touched his career, women).
His delusions of grandeur annoyed me. Big time.
More importantly, I wondered how someone so far down on the self-awareness scale could ever hope to overcome (or, at minimum, work around) his weaknesses.
Shrinks have been telling us for years that acknowledging the need for change is the first step toward getting there. Applying that notion to the business world, you realize why people who present themselves as perfect tend to have bumpy trips to the top (if they don’t stall out from the get-go).
But, let’s focus on the topic here: Performance review season is your annual chance to set the record straight. Your manager asks you evaluate your own performance in writing and give yourself a score, based on the company’s rating system.
Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of these self-reviews (and written scores of them myself). What has struck me about them is the extreme differences in ‘tone’: While those written by men typically land on the ‘Alexander’ end of the spectrum, those by women often read as if the author had donned her hair shirt (blouse?) for the occasion. Ah, gender differences….
Neither extreme will get you where you want to go.
So how do you write these things? Above all, your self-assessment should be an advocacy piece: It’s your chance to shine a spotlight on your accomplishments. However, it also needs to be credible. That’s achieved by owning up to the fact that you (like other mortals) have room to improve in certain areas.
Here are three guidelines to follow:
Tie your accomplishments to the business
Never forget that you work in a business (whether it happens to be a law firm, a company or other enterprise). Each year, that business sets certain goals for itself (some short-term, some long-) –- and you are expected to help achieve them.
Your self-appraisal should emphasize your accomplishments and be clear about how they contributed to reaching those goals set by the business and by your boss.
Even if you’re at a junior level in your company, your accomplishments contribute, in some way, to reaching the goals. In your self-appraisal, you need to emphasize exactly how.
‘Own’ your successes. Being rightfully proud is a good thing. Being unduly arrogant is not.
If you’re struggling to find the right ‘tone,’ have an out-of-body experience: By that, I mean imagine that you’re a third-party lawyer who’s been hired to advocate on your behalf. Adopting this detached persona will help get beyond any fears you may have that ‘nice girls don’t brag’ or –- if you’re having problems with the other end of the continuum — will force you to describe your accomplishments in a way that passes the laugh test.
I’ll bet you’re great when it comes to advocating on behalf of your real-life clients: That’s what legal training is all about. You know how to analyze the facts from an objective standpoint, then how to wrap them up in language that presents the best argument for why your client should get what he wants.
Writing a self-appraisal involves this same process. The only difference is that your client is you.
Build your case with examples
To write a compelling self-appraisal, you’ll need to back up general statements about your achievements with specific examples that prove your point.
Don’t expect your manager to remember that the winning case strategy in that big trial was your idea –- or that you’ve brought in double the new business your firm expected from you. Your manager has lots of other things on her mind. It’s up to you to jog her memory.
If you aren’t specific in your self-assessment, your manager will base your performance review on her general impressions of you, remembering only random interactions (often the ones you wish she would forget).
Coming up with examples to use will be easy, if you keep an active performance file on yourself: Each time you accomplish something significant or receive praise from a client during the year, write yourself a note (or keep a copy of the relevant e-mail) and stash it in your performance file. When annual review time rolls around, all the examples you need will already be collected.
Don’t rely solely on memory for these examples. If you do, you’ll short-change yourself.
Tackle your growth areas head on — then lay out a plan
Don’t apologize. Do acknowledge.
In your self-assessment, identify one or two aspects of your performance that you intend to focus on and improve over the coming year. But watch your language: Don’t talk in terms of your ‘weaknesses’ or ‘failures.’ Rather, label these as ‘growth areas.’
And do talk in terms of development: Emphasize what you’ve learned and outline your plan for how you’ll do things differently in the year to come.
Don’t beat yourself up here: We all need to improve in certain areas before we can reach the next level of leadership. Identifying your growth areas in a ‘non-weaselly’ way will show your maturity –- and confidence. It will signal that you are taking charge of your career and its development.
Yes, self-assessments are hard. Plan to devote serious time to writing yours, and advocate as if you were your own most important client. Because that’s exactly what you are….