If you’ve spent any time in a professional services firm, you’ll know that it’s a high-performance culture. You’ll also know that the trouble with that is everybody’s definition of “high performance” is different.
Whether you’re a young attorney, auditor, consultant, or anything in between, you’ll be all too familiar with having regular performance reviews. Sometimes these performance reviews are done in the form of post-engagement feedback. Sometimes they’re done periodically through the year. In many firms, your manager rates your performance on the job as a number. (E.g. Out of 5)
There’s absolutely nothing worse than feeling like you performed well on an engagement, only to have your manager/team leader dish you out a number that not only is worse than you were hoping for, but also that doesn’t necessarily come with any constructive qualitative feedback. We’ve all been there…
“F*** the system.”
“This is bullshit.”
“My manager hates me.”
So what happens next? Maybe you resign yourself to a career full of poor performance reviews and blame the rampant favouritism in your organisation. Perhaps you let pre-feedback anxiety get the better of you. Or you might quit your job, start a vegan food truck business, and vow never to work for The Man again!
But what if you could stack the deck in your favour? What if you could learn how to take the subjectivity out of performance reviews?
The good news? You can!
Read on to learn how to start getting the performance ratings you deserve.
Take the subjectivity out of performance reviews
In my time in professional services, I’ve realised there are 5 critical elements I need to get right if I want to get the ratings I deserve.
1. Understand the performance framework at your firm
If you work for any sizeable professional services firm, guaranteed there is already a framework in place against which on-the-job performance is measured. In this framework, you would expect to see performance criteria for each job grade that sets out what the expectations are as well as how high performers might exceed those expectations.
Understanding this framework is essential. If you’re a senior associate and you don’t know what your firm expects of a senior associate, then how will you ever know if you’re performing well?
Enhance your understanding of the performance framework and performance review process at your organisation by asking your manager/coach/team leader some important questions to understand exactly how the firm will rate you on each job/for each period. Good questions might include:
- “What role will my feedback for each job/engagement play in the overall moderation and remuneration review process?”
- “Are there any KPIs that I need to meet or characteristics that I need to display in order to be considered high performing?”
- What is the process if I disagree with performance feedback given?
- What are the indicators of a high performer at my job grade? Are these in writing?
If your firm doesn’t have a written policy, it is absolutely critical that the first question you ask your employer is “how will my performance be measured?”
2. Set upfront objectives with your reviewer
Once you’ve understood how your performance should be measured, the next step is to make sure the person who will be providing your performance feedback is on the same page. This is because your reviewer may have a different interpretation of the performance framework than you. Even worse (and, unfortunately, very often) they may not even be basing their ratings and feedback on the framework, but purely based on gut feeling.
No matter what, you do not want your performance review done based on someone’s gut feeling and/or which way the wind is blowing today. The key to making sure this doesn’t happen in 98% of cases, is to have an objective-setting discussion with your reviewer before your start the piece of work/period on which you’re going to be rated.
During this conversation, you want to clarify what your reviewer expects of you going into the engagement. Ask simple questions such as:
- “Hey, just before we get started, could you give me an idea of what ’a job well done’ looks like for you in this situation?”
- “Regarding my performance on this job, what are the things that matter most to you?
- “I’m trying my best to be a high performer/increase my ratings. Could we agree on what things I’d need to be doing in order to be rated X on this job?”
Use the answers to these questions to write down a few key objectives for you in order to get the performance rating you want and agree these with your reviewer.
Asking these questions does two things. Firstly, it creates a reference point for both you and the reviewer. Ideally, this reference point aligns well with your firm’s performance framework. (If it doesn’t, be sure to ask why not.)
Secondly, it puts your performance front of mind for the reviewer. I firmly believe that if I know someone expects to be a high performer, I’m less inclined to rate you differently without clear cause. You’re stacking the deck in your favour!
3. Meet the objectives you set!
This one’s all on you and it doesn’t require a lot of explaining. Once you’ve set objectives, make sure you take every opportunity to deliver on them. After all, these objectives are what you’re going to be measured against.
Once you’ve gotten through the job, it is imperative that you spend some time self-assessing your performance on the job. Revisit the objectives you set; did you meet them? This is where you need to be extremely honest with yourself because it’s going to play a critical role in the next step.
What are you particularly proud of regarding your performance on the job/for the period? What could you do better if you had to do it all again? Referring back to the indicators of what’s expected of someone at your level, how did you stack up against these? Did you display any indicators of performance at the grade above you? If you were doing the rating, what would score yourself?
Make your own notes, and then set up the next step.
5. Debrief with your performance reviewer
Once you’ve understood your own performance, it’s time to go back to your reviewer and have a debrief meeting. Not an email, not an IM conversation, not a phone call. A face-to-face discussion.
Ideally, they’ll ask you how you thought you performed. Even if they don’t, make sure you lead the conversation. This is your time to shine! Get the conversation moving with an appropriate structure:
- Reflect on the objectives you set together: “Thanks for your time. If you don’t mind, I just wanted to go back to the objectives we set at the beginning and chat through each of them”
- Be sure to demonstrate your epic self-awareness by highlighting things you picked up in your self-assessment first: “I did some self-reflecting and in terms of these objectives I was particularly proud of the way I… although, if I’m being honest with myself, I could probably have done… better.”
- Then, get your reviewer’s input: “Did you notice anything else I haven’t mentioned? How do you feel about the way I performed against this objective?”
- Translate the feedback into performance ratings: “Great, thank you for your feedback! Could you confirm how this will look from a performance rating perspective, considering how I’ve performed against the objectives we set?”
If you can have a structured conversation like the above, I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that the performance rating you receive is going to be the one you deserve based on your performance. What’s more, you and your reviewer will be far more likely to agree on the outcome!
Let me let you in on a secret: if I’m ever torn between two ratings/grades when reviewing the performance particular person, I go back and ask myself “could they identify their own weaknesses?” If the answer is yes, it suggests to me that they’re mature enough to be self-aware and that normally tips the scales in their favour. I know, for a fact, this is the way a lot of managers and team leaders operate when it comes to performance discussions.
For this reason, you want to make sure you’re communicating very honestly about your own perceived performance. It never helps to try and pretend like you didn’t do anything wrong. There’s almost always something we could have done better. Let the one to bring it up be you.
Go ahead and stack the deck in your favour
As with much of the advice I give juniors in my firm, the crux of all of this is how you communicate. Without proper, proactive communication, you’re gambling blindly when it comes to performance reviews.
You can increase your odds significantly by making sure you and your reviewer are aligned on expectations. You can get the dealer on your side by reminding your reviewer that you care about your performance and want to do well. And you can hit the performance rating jackpot by achieving the objectives you set and being self-aware enough to identify where you may have fallen short.
Performance reviews are inherently subjective and can often feel like a gamble, but you can sure as hell stack the deck in your favour.
If you practice the above 5 steps religiously, you’ll be getting the performance ratings you deserve in no time.
What’s your favourite tip to get the recognition you deserve? Let us know in the comments.
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