The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?

 

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there’s an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

“Working Out Loud changed my life”

Those could be my words but they’re not. They’re from Barbara in Germany, one of the first people to go through the 12-week coaching program for working out loud.

Barbara and I first met via an enterprise social network we use at our firm. Only after we started coaching via telephone did we get the chance to meet in person and become good friends. Working with her shaped the ideas in the book and led to forming working out loud circles.

Here’s her working out loud story.

Her purpose

BarbaraBarbara grew up near the Baltic Sea in Lübeck, Germany. One of four kids, she was the one with the traveling bug, spending nine months at a university in Texas and taking jobs in places like Milan and Brussels. When I met her, she was working in a group responsible for the firm’s books and records where she spent a lot of time analyzing large, complicated spreadsheets.

In our first session we tried to figure out what her purpose would be. More money or recognition at work? A different job in finance? She mentioned she enjoyed helping people with taxes. Could exploring that be her purpose? None of these were appealing. It turned out that Barbara didn’t consider herself a finance person. She was good at it, particularly the detailed analysis, but it wasn’t her. After university, she sort of stumbled into a finance track and didn’t know how or when to change.

After some deliberation, she decided her purpose was simply “to see what else is out there.”

Exploring & connecting

That’s when we started to talk about her other interests, and the one she was most animated about was genealogy. While I think of genealogy as simply charting a family tree, Barbara took it much further. Both for her own family and for historical figures and dates, she would pore through old church and government records. If she hit a dead end, she would call archivists for possible leads. She was also writing about it regularly.

Her first step was to look for other people like her, including other bloggers, people who organized genealogy conferences, and firms that specialized in family tree research. She followed them online and exchanged tweets and email. Within a few weeks, she had her content featured on major genealogy sites, including a lovely profile story focused on her.

That’s when she discovered something. She found that people did genealogy for companies too. She learned that people made a living producing corporate histories – books, documentaries, online content. Her favorite example was a beautiful online history for a company in her hometown so she connected with the person in charge. She discovered our own firm had a corporate historical society too.

Discovering possibilities

The more she looked, the more she found. It was like discovering a whole new world. For the first time, she started wondering if she could somehow connect her passion for genealogy to her work inside a large firm. Maybe, for example, she could help the firm’s corporate historical society engage more people inside the company. She reached out to them via email, describing her appreciation for their work. That led to other interactions including organizing a corporate history event and working to promote their content on our firm’s enterprise social network.

Just had my call from the historical society. And it was amazing! Again I have this huge grin on my face ;) He directly asked me for my opinions regarding the examples he sent me and if I have other ideas…

The results

Before she started working out loud, Barbara was already smart, charming, and articulate. Working out loud just amplified her positive qualities and increased the chances she’d come into contact with interesting people and work she might find fulfilling. She achieved her near-term goal of “seeing what else is out there.” Here’s how she described her results:

I’m more visible because of my blog. I’m often asked to provide input for other bloggers. I got profiled by myheritage. I found a new topic of interest which is corporate history. I have a regular exchange with historians (inside and outside of my company). I started the history group on our internal collaboration platform to bring my whole self to work.

 

I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but WOL really changed my life. How I approach work and life. How I do things. I’ve always been a connector of people and topics. But this coaching took me to the next level. Now I do it with a purpose…not only for me, but for others too. I think even more about “who could participate in this” or “who could benefit out of it.

Barbara’s story is an example of job crafting. That’s where you make adjustments to both your job and your approach so you tap into intrinsic motivators: autonomy, control, purpose, connectedness. It’s how you can make almost any job fulfilling and meaningful.

Barbara’s still at the same firm but now she has greater control of her learning and her network. She’s routinely discovering other people, ideas, and possibilities. She feels, as she wrote, like she can bring her whole self to work.

Imagine if everyone felt that way.

How to discover a job you’ll love: the story of Sandi Ball

Musical Note nails by cute polishMaybe you know someone who’s bored, frustrated, or angry at work. Maybe they feel like a monkey trapped in some experiment. Maybe that someone is you.

The good news is that the world of work has splintered into an ever-expanding set of opportunities. The bad news is that the traditional steps for finding work are  designed for matching you to traditional jobs, not for connecting you to opportunities you’ll love.

To make the most of the wider range of possibilities, you can learn a lot from a 25 year-old woman in Canada who has a passion for nail polish.

Jobs from Abbot to Zymurgist 

You used to be able to name all the occupations. Farmer, doctor, lawyer. It was only in the 1930s that the concept of a white-collar worker even arose. Knowledge worker came about in the late 1950s. But since then, the sheer diversity of what people call work has changed dramatically.

In an in-depth study called The Changing Nature of Work, the National Research Council described the increasing heterogeneity of workers, work, and the workplace:

  1. there is increased diversity in the workforce and within occupations
  2. traditional occupational boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, 
  3. the range of choices open to human resources managers and other decision makers about how to structure work appears to be increasing

It’s not a small change. In the 1950 US Census, for example, there were only 287 kinds of jobs. By the year 2000, before many of the Internet tools we use today even existed, that number nearly doubled to 543 and it continues to rise.

As the number of different kinds of jobs increases, so do the odds that you can find works that suits your particular aptitudes and passions. But how would you find those jobs? How would they find you?

The story of cutepolish

As a young girl growing up in Alberta, Canada, Sandi Ball was fascinated with nail polish. Her mother would often help her decorate her nails. Then, when Sandi turned 12, her mother gave her a collection of 50 different bottles of polish. Sandi was hooked. Ten years later when she was a 22 year old student and part-time teacher, people would frequently compliment her on the way her nails looked. They also said it looked too difficult for them to ever do.

So Sandi started a YouTube channel. Wanting to keep work and her hobby separate, she didn’t reveal her name and called the channel cutepolish. Originally she saw it as a creative outlet. She could combine her “passions in art, technology, and teaching…to film and edit instructional videos to show girls all over the world how fun and easy nail art could be.”

She could have worked in a salon, or become a teacher or videographer. All fine jobs with familiar labels. Instead, she started making contributions that combined her different passions and might lead to more interesting possibilities.

Now, four years later, her videos have been viewed more than 240 million times and her channel has more than two million subscribers. She connects with thousands of fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and her popularity led to an invitation to appear at VidCon, “the world’s premier gathering of people who make online video” where over 12,000 people attended to meet and learn from successful video makers like Sandi. There, the audience included YouTube producers and other influencers who could open doors she’d never have dreamed about growing up in Alberta, Canada.

Last month, as if finally embracing her success, she revealed her name in this charming Q&A video.

What you can do

Was Sandi Ball lucky? My mother would say she made her own luck.

Her first video was a simple 4-minute video with a combination of still shots, text, and bits of video overlaid with low background music. More than fours years and hundreds of videos later, her latest contribution is professional and stylish, including her own narration and product placements from the cosmetics company Sephora. As one fan commented on the original video: “she has come a LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG way.”

Sandi never heard of working out loud but that’s exactly what she has been doing. She made her work visible, framed it as a contribution, built a purposeful network, and increased her chances of finding meaning and fulfillment.

My big break

If there is a God, then surely he reached down that day, turned me around, and had me go back into that room.

Though it happened 37 years ago, I was reminded of it while listening to a public radio program called My Big Break, a show in which people recount a moment that changed the course of their life and career.

Here’s mine.

1977

I was an eighth-grader in St. Benedict’s Elementary School in the northeast Bronx and it was time to make a decision about high school.

Growing up in The Bronx

Everyone at school lived in the same all-Italian neighborhood. We grew up surrounded by big families, lots of food, and many good people. But we also grew up with racism and violence. Our world was small, defined by an area within a ten-minute walk or so. Living in a neighborhood where everyone looks and lives the same, difference was a threat. Also, when your world is small, small things matter more. Parking in the wrong spot or making eye contact with the wrong person could quickly become an issue of respect and honor.

When it came to high school, everyone went to one of the same few places. I just assumed I would attend the same high school as my brother and sister, Cardinal Spellman, also in the Bronx.

A fateful decision

Regis High SchoolA few teachers told us about other options, schools like Bronx High School of Science or Aviation that required a day off to travel to the school and take a special exam. One afternoon, a dozen kids or so were listening to a teacher describe Regis, an all-boys school in Manhattan. She described their academic program in glowing terms. She said the teachers were Jesuits, something I’d never heard of before, and that it was free. If you could get in, she told us, it was an incredible opportunity. But the odds were against us. Kids from all over the New York City area sat for the grueling 3-hour entrance exam and only a few hundred passed. Then they interviewed you and your parents and cut that number in half, resulting in only 135 kids attending Regis each year.

After her presentation, she asked us who would like to sign up for the exam. My best friend and I looked at each other and decided to leave. Academic achievement was mostly ridiculed growing up. We craved normalcy and acceptance. A school full of smart kids, Jesuits, and rigorous academics seemed decidedly not normal.

We got up, left the room, and were laughing smugly, happy that we were walking back to our smaller, more comfortable world. Halfway down the hall, we slowed down and stopped, as if being pulled back. “It is a day off, though” one of us said. We considered it further. “Okay, we’ll just take the test. We don’t have to go.”

So we turned around, walked back into the room and started a process that led to both of us going to Regis. There, we learned to read works in Latin and Greek. We analyzed religious texts rather than just recite them. We discovered a culture of hard work, critical thinking, and service to others where being intellectually curious and nice was the new normal. My world got much, much bigger.

Making your own luck

A fateful decisionGoing to Regis High School was my big break. I was lucky. But what about other people? What of all those who keep walking down that metaphorical hallway, unaware of the possibilities behind all those doors?

While it can be entertaining listening to people answer “What was your big break?” the question I really want to ask people is “What big break would you like to create?” Then I want to give them the skills and the habits to make that big break happen, to improve their own luck.

Part of that is writing a book to help people build a better network, career, and life. Another is trying to create a way for people to self-organize and help each other. Maybe the first step is simply helping people consider the possibilities beyond their current world.

What big break would you like to create?