Be Prepared: Annual Reviews Will Matter in '09

The downsizing may have just begun, so employees are well advised to take a few steps toward ensuring a stellar performance review

Every year, I write an article about performance-review preparation. Based on the e-mails I get, I think maybe two out of 1,000 readers knuckle down and invest time preparing for the big day. I can't say that I blame the rest. When things are humming along and a decent annual review seems to be in the bag, why waste time preparing for what's bound to be a cakewalk?

But in 2009, performance reviews will matter—a lot. There's no sign that the rash of corporate downsizings is slowing. As employers get smarter about forecasting their '09 business prospects and their head-count needs, they're going to get smarter about talent management too. I'm talking about the kind of talent management that's less concerned with succession planning and more concerned with carving off low performers to make room for new hopefuls.

It's only logical that employers who are pressed to make head-count reductions will use them to release their lowest-performing employees. Plenty of employers continue to interview and make offers as they're releasing staff. Sophisticated human resources information systems make it easy for managers around the globe to determine which employees are perennial producers and which are barely getting by, and to make stay-or-go decisions accordingly.

Given that the annual performance review is the principal vehicle by which employers track who's succeeding and who's just treading water, most of us can't afford to sleepwalk through the 2009 performance review process.

Don't Delay

You can get your performance-review planning started now, whether your review is next week or not until October. You can begin by creating a physical file and an Excel spreadsheet to track your major deliverables for 2009. Create an e-mail folder to save the plaudits you receive from customers, peers, and managers throughout your organization—including your own manager, his or her boss, and all other leaders between you and the chairman of the board. It's easy for an overbooked manager to forget the significance of (and his elation over) the Web site launch you made happen in January if your review date isn't until June. Make sure your accomplishments are easy to recall when you need them.

If you don't have performance goals established for 2009, take it upon yourself to put them on paper and get your manager's sign-off on your agenda, pronto. If you support internal clients, get their buy-in on your project plan as well. Your manager will take those internal clients' views to heart at your performance review, so you'll want to make sure that you and they are in synch vis-a-vis your service-level commitments.

Throughout the year, save the important documents—including presentations you've given, course-changing e-mail analyses, and other evidence of your impact on the organization—in one place.

Be Proactive

And don't take for granted that your amazing accomplishments are warming your manager's heart, even if you're following his or her plan. Corporate agendas shift quickly, and it's wise to check in at least twice a quarter to make sure your burning-hot priorities are your boss' most critical items, also. As vital as individual performance-against-goals is when review time rolls around, the folks who survive and thrive in challenged organizations are the ones working on the mission-critical assignments.

Your regular check-ins will help ensure that you're one of the folks (being a top performer, as you are) plugged into those do-or-die missions.

Our last performance-review-planning tip: Ask for help. Visit with each of your peers and colleagues well before review season and ask, "What could I do to improve my performance?" Take that feedback seriously; it's a gift. If colleagues demur, tell them "I'm serious; don't be nice to me. I'm asking for help. What could I be doing to become better at my job?"

Don't confuse this face-to-face interaction with a 360-review, which I think is sneaky, behind-the-back feedback. They are terrible for teamwork. You get the results and then you stew over who said what and why. Take the initiative yourself, take the feedback to heart, and use it to your advantage.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.