Don’t wait for your company to adopt a progressive performance management system; make sure you are actively owning, participating in, and revolutionizing that process.  If you feel that you can finally get back to focusing on your real work now that performance review season is over, you’re mistaken. Your real work must include documenting and assessing your own performance throughout the year – before, during, and after each review or check-in. Don’t rely on your boss to keep track of your performance. Adobe also says this. To help employees effectively implement their new system, Adobe’s HR team created a simple “Making Check-in Successful” document which advises employees against being inactive in the evaluation process: “3. Don’t be a victim – if your manager isn’t driving discussions on expectations or providing you feedback[,] ask for it” (p. 14, Exhibit 2 in Stanford’s Adobe case study).

In general, why might your boss ask you to write a self-appraisal or a list of accomplishments a few weeks or days before delivering your review? Two reasons come to mind: 1. she hasn’t done a good job keeping track of your performance or 2. she wants to see if your perceptions match hers. Even if she hasn’t diligently recorded your achievements and areas for improvement or if her perceptions of your work don’t match yours, you can convince her of your worth as an employee.  Carefully writing your self-appraisal is the perfect opportunity to build your brand and influence your boss. Self-appraisals are akin to resumes; both should be updated regularly and both must convey your accomplishments and talents. Before you put pen to paper, however, you must analyze your work critically and holistically.  Your pre-writing process will determine the effectiveness of your self-appraisal.

What should your pre-writing process entail? Here’s my two-step approach: 1. practice self-awareness 2. practice audience-awareness. Self and audience awareness are crucial to writing an excellent self-appraisal. In fact, those two skills are central to writing anything of value. The first step in achieving awareness is to answer the following questions frankly. Have you and your boss clearly defined the expectations of your role? If you haven’t, make sure they’re S.M.A.R.T., like MIT’s HR department. How often do you ask yourself and your boss if you’re meeting or exceeding her expectations? Do you keep diligent records of your successes and failures?  Do you frequently ask for 360° feedback or do you rely on your boss to get it for you? You must do it all.

If you believe that you’re in business for yourself – which you are – you can’t leave your performance review up to your boss. Create something simple like a t-chart or craft something more elaborate such as a spreadsheet with data that includes the same criteria (e.g., leadership, communication, initiative, safety, etc.) that appear in your company’s PR. Once you’ve done that, carve out just ten minutes each week to write at least one item on your chart.  Did you reduce process time by 10%? Write that. Did you deliver a presentation that inspired your colleagues to approach a problem differently? Write that. Did you reduce safety incidents since last month? last year? more? Write that. Did you miss an important deadline? Write that, too. Should engaging in this process inspire you to write more, add some context to your examples.

Successful, forward-thinking employees will actively maintain a t-chart or something similar. Recently, I had a productive discussion about this topic with Joseph Venezia, a VP of operations at a medical device company in the Northeast. He says,

Creating a t-chart will yield a performance evaluation full of strong data and examples of positive and negative performance, which ultimately makes writing a self-appraisal or an employee’s review much less stressful. Conversely, without [systematically] updating your chart or employing any method for recording real-time performance, you’ll likely try to accomplish a year’s worth of work in one sitting. To accurately write a review that reflects an entire year of performance without these tools is nearly impossible and will often result in an evaluation that is inaccurate, missing critical elements, [or demoralizing.]

His insight comes from over 10 years of working experience. But Stanford’s case study of Adobe’s management system — specifically the “recency” and “voluntary attrition” (that’s a euphemism for quitting) effects of annual PRs — validates Joseph’s and my assertions. To be like Joseph, follow his strategy, which he graciously shared with me:

As an individual, I spend 9:00am – 9:15am every Friday to add to my t-chart. This is scheduled time in my calendar. Likewise, as a leader I spend 9:00am – 10:00am every Thursday to add to my team’s t-charts…also scheduled. I also keep their t-charts in my Google Sheets so I can quickly add any input real-time throughout the day as long as I have my iPhone with me.

That’s an example of a strategic vice president of operations. He owns the PR process — not the other way around.

Now that you’re aware of how empowering the PR process can actually be, make sure you constructively solicit feedback. Perhaps you’re familiar with Stop-Start-Continue. Instructors at Boston University use this approach to cultivate self and audience awareness. Stanford devised a similar debriefing system called “I like, I wish, What if.” Adobe uses the first two statements in this technique during check-ins (p. 7 Stanford’s Adobe case study). Remember, if a colleague or boss gives you the gift of thoughtful, actionable feedback, ask for as much information as she’s willing to give, write it down, and genuinely thank her. Then apply my two-step approach again: 1. practice self-awareness 2. practice audience-awareness.

If you’ve thoroughly documented your achievements and failures, your boss is less likely to surprise you when delivering your PR. You’ll also have the proof you need to back up your own self-appraisal. Like Joseph says, “Carefully documented achievements (or shortfalls) are rarely — if ever — challenged.” If you’re disciplined enough to keep track of your performance year after year, you can validate your progress with long-term data. That’s empowering for you, convincing for your boss, and tough for HR to dispute. At the very least, you’ll get high marks for taking initiative and brilliant material for a resume.