Take Your Career Off Autopilot

June isn't just the start of lazy summer days, it's also the best time to start planning for your year-end review

Photograph by Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Many people think the annual performance review process is symbolic — paperwork to show HR or a tradition to take for granted, like the March Madness pool. Managers and employees alike fill out the evaluation forms without much thought or preparation. Some companies don’t even have a formal process in place. However, the performance review handled correctly is a critical career management tool. At the very least, it’s a built-in reminder not to run your career on autopilot. At its best, the review meeting is where you can ask for more money, better projects and constructive feedback.

Confirm the process

At the management levels, many companies keep a talent log, formally or informally, where high-potential candidates are identified for executive positions. Do you know how raises and promotions are decided? Do you know when these decisions take place? Do you know who makes these decisions? One of the key reasons that you prepare for a year-end meeting months in advance is so you have time to affect the outcome. (Starting in June assumes your company runs on the calendar year and makes next year’s decisions in the last quarter, but this is the first thing to confirm!) Ask your friend in HR or that well-connected colleague who knows everyone or that person who’s been there forever and knows all the shortcuts. Find out about the decision process for raises, promotions, team resources and anything you might want. Confirm the timing, so you know how much time you have to influence the process.

Decide what you want

Once you know how the process works, you need to decide what you want out of it. If it’s more money, then you want to pay particular attention to financial decisions — e.g., when budgets are approved, who needs to authorize increased spending, how bonus or stock grants are made. You want to find precedents for the things you want to ask for, so look for past examples — do raises only come with promotions; does anyone at my title get stock grants; do certain groups get bigger bumps than others. If your goal for your performance review is a title bump or a bigger team or different projects, then you want to confirm the decision-making and find precedents for these specific things.

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Build your case

Now that you know how decisions are made and what you want to ask for, you need to structure your argument so that you get what you want. Focus on what’s in it for your boss and your company at large. More money to you is less money for them, unless you can demonstrate how more money is actually an investment that leads to more revenue for both of you. Show examples of what you drop to the bottom line — in additional revenue, higher profit, costs saved. Trot out market data that shows what people at your competitors are making. Now your raise request is an investment in making sure you don’t go to a competitor and continue to pad the bottom line — more money for you, couched as more money for them.

All of this preparation takes time. You can’t wing it during your performance review and just hope your boss sees it your way. You need to gather the market data and your own track record of achievement. You need to spend some introspective time figuring out what next step makes the most sense for you. You need to figure out how things get done at your company, especially if your company has restructured during the recent recession years. If your company doesn’t have a formal review process, you need to schedule time with your boss to make this happen on your own. A year-end review means decisions happen well before the year end, which means your work starts now.

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Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology and pharma/biotech.

Tags: careers