People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going. – Earl Nightingale
Most people think HR makes us set performance objectives to check a box
I’d be willing to bet most people think setting performance objectives is just another thing you have to do to make HR happy and it doesn’t have a real impact on how you progress. I know, because that’s exactly how I used to think of it. The way I figured it, the powers that be would always find a way to rank you and pay you whatever you felt like in a given year. I still believe that to some extent because, at the end of the day, the budget available isn’t based on how many high-performers a company has.
Even so, there’s some good news. There’s much more wiggle room for individual gain than I thought back then. The overall pool of salary $ might be fixed, but you can definitely make sure you get a bigger piece of that if you do things the smart way. Part of that includes taking your performance objectives seriously.
If you do objectives right, they can help your campaign for accelerated career growth and if you do it wrong, it can leave you exposed if you have any sort of dispute with your supervisor.
S.M.A.R.T. objectives are genius
Have you heard of the S.M.A.R.T. method of defining your career objectives? It stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It’s unclear exactly who came up with the concept but what is clear is it works for the two purposes I mentioned above: 1) limiting your exposure (aka covering your ass) and 2) setting yourself up to make your case for the next level (aka getting a promotion and more money). Let’s tackle each one of those separately.
Purpose 1: Limiting Your Exposure
Call me paranoid but when I go into a job, I aim to make the expectations so clear, misinterpretations later are virtually impossible for any person with half a brain comparing the goals to the outcomes. Why do I put some much weight on this? Well, in the business world, I tend to work people who are usually different from me in many ways. I don’t come from any kind of money and was on financial aid my whole life. I’m black; my wife is white. I didn’t go to a big name undergrad school, at least not big name to people in Chicago.
When I think about it, I guess you could sum it up as fear. I’m so afraid of going back to being poor, I do everything I can to prevent any chance of that happening. While my fear may be irrational, the end result is something you can apply in your own career pursuits. Clearly understanding expectations of you not only gives you a feel for the bare minimum requirements, but it also gives you a snapshot of what’s most important to the company hiring you.
I emphasize the expectations being a snapshot because things change rapidly in the business world. People quite the firm and the firm decides not to backfill the role. Someone may go out on maternity leave. Or maybe the team gets restructured with some positions getting re-leveled. As the company evolves, so should your responsibilities. The point is you need to get in sync and stay in sync with the people who have a say in your performance assessment. It’s good practice to have a formal conversation with every major change, but it’s required early in your career.
Purpose 2: Setting yourself up for the next level
Unfortunately, seeing people get let go or fired happens more frequently these days than in the past. Still, the more likely occurrence is to see someone getting passed over for a promotion. If you’re reading this book, I’m going to go ahead and assume you have your target set on more than just the bare minimum.
The way to do that is by talking with your manager or whoever the appropriate person is to help you outline what skills/metrics do you need to achieve for the powers that be to consider promoting you. Or even better, ask for the objectives for the position you want and work toward those in addition to the objectives for your current position. The last thing you want to do is look so far into the future that you fall short on the job you have.
You ever heard someone say to get promoted you already have to be operating at the next level? If you haven’t I promise you will. Going about outlining your objectives this way gives you a mechanism to force people to define the nebulous “next level” and provides you the opportunity to document a history of next level performance (side-note: is it just me or does this next level talk make you start thinking of old school video games?)
As you can imagine, documenting (and agreeing on) this key information makes it a lot harder for someone to say you’re not ready for a promotion.
Always do the optional self-assessments
In the spirit of trying to minimize mandatory administrative work, some companies make self-assessments “optional”. I think of this the same way as someone seeing a mirage in a desert i.e. phony. While the words say optional, the reality is foregoing this opportunity only works against you.
For starters, if for some reason you haven’t regularly connected with your boss/manager on your performance and there’s a disagreement, imagine how that plays out with only one written opinion on record. You lose.
Second, we all know the people evaluating our performance can’t necessarily keep up with everything we do. That makes review time the perfect time to remind them. Now I’m not saying put together a laundry list of everything you do, especially if the tasks are a baseline expectation for your role. Why? Because you have to focus on results. The more concrete and quantifiable you can highlight those results the better.