A career checklist that will make your life easier next year

16 tasks for December that will help you nail your performance review, get a promotion, or even land a new job

You may be thinking about the 12 Days of Christmas right now, how little time you have left in the year, and how much you need to get done. I know that the holidays are busy. I know that it’s hard to stay focused. But, this end-of-the-year 16 task checklist is a worthwhile career investment to make. The future you of next year will thank you for taking the time now.

Early in my 20+ year corporate career, I thought that things would take care of themselves. Step up, do great work, and of course my manager would notice and reward me appropriately. Rarely, that will happen with an exceptional manager who is on top of things and is focused on developing your career. Rarely.

I discovered that it was much more common for a manager to be too busy to notice. I learned that I had to take charge of my own career development and advancement. I had to build the case for my raises and promotions. I had to be ready to make a big change if things weren’t going to work out. I had to be prepared.

Career preparation checklist

You still have a month to wrap things up before the big New Year’s Eve countdown. This list will remind you of areas that might need your attention. Plus, it will be a lot easier to get some of the required information and data before everyone starts slipping away for their vacations. If you wait until January, it might be too late.

  1. Priorities
  2. Goals
  3. Accomplishments
  4. Failures
  5. Projects
  6. Additional responsibilities
  7. Success metrics
  8. Request feedback
  9. Testimonials
  10. Team contribution
  11. Industry involvement
  12. Professional growth
  13. New priorities
  14. New goals
  15. Personal goals and plan
  16. The Business of You

1 – Priorities

What were the corporate priorities for the year? How did those priorities trickle down to your organization? How did they translate into your own priorities at work?

Some organizations have a very formal process for identifying and communicating priorities. They require that you clearly commit to your personal version of those priorities at the beginning of the year. If that sounds like your company, then you’re in luck. You already have them documented.

If not, you have a little more work to do. Maybe you documented them for yourself. Maybe you didn’t. You may need to dig through a few emails or other communication from the top down to uncover what they were supposed to be for the year.

If your priorities had to change during the year, this is the time to clearly document why they changed. You don’t want your performance judged on past priorities that were made irrelevant at some point. Hopefully you have a record of why the old priorities were dropped to focus on the new. Regardless, be clear that things changed and what your real priorities were for the remainder of the year.


2 – Goals

Your goals for each quarter and the year overall should have been directly related to the above priorities. What were the specific outcomes you committed to in order to support those priorities? What were your overall goals for the year?

If you achieved or exceeded your goals, congrats! Document those accomplishments for the next task. If you failed to achieve some of those goals, that will be captured later. You will want to document why that happened. What was under your control, and what was not.

You may also have had other professional goals that you wanted to achieve this year. If you haven’t quite completed those yet, you still have a month to go. There is still time. Be sure to capture these as well, to have a complete picture of everything you set out to do—and accomplished—this year.


3 – Accomplishments

Create a complete list of everything you accomplished professionally for the year. You may need to go back and skim your calendar and email inbox to jog your memory. If you keep a projects directory organized by date (something I highly recommend), then you can browse that as well.

This is obviously tied to your committed priorities and goals for the year, as mentioned above. But, we all know that the one constant in life and business is change. This is especially true as we are more fully embracing what it means to be an agile organization.

“Change is the only constant, and to turn one’s back and pretend that it is not coming is an exercise in futility” – Anthony Carmona

I remember creating one of my earliest self-reviews for a manager and being disappointed by the short list of committed accomplishments for the year. Only a fraction of the commitments made at the beginning of the year had made it all the way through to become an accomplishment.

Of course, this was because our priorities had changed almost every month. It was quite a chaotic time at Apple, right before Steve returned. I learned that I had to take ownership of this situation and clearly explain how things had changed and pivoted. Then, I created a complete list of all of the other accomplishments that resulted from the change in focus.

Don’t be shy about what you claim as an accomplishment. They don’t always have to be formal projects that were tied to corporate priorities and goals. Include other professional and personal accomplishments that demonstrate your creativity, productivity, and growth.


4 – Failures

Own your failures before they own you. This is your chance to control the narrative. I learned this lesson early in my career, and it has always served me well. Own your story and tell your story the way you want it to be told, before someone else does.

If it is truly your fault that you failed to accomplish a committed goal, step up and own that. Don’t deflect responsibility. Don’t unfairly blame others. This only makes you look weak.

This becomes even more important as a leader. Your team will have failed commitments and missed targets. There will be myriad reasons this happened. But, as the leader, you own that responsibility. Never blame your team.

That being said, if there are circumstances that made failure inevitable, then clearly state that. We never have 100% control over the outcomes for complex goals. Partners fall behind schedule. Competitors release products that steal your launch thunder. Market conditions affect consumer behavior.

Do your best to understand why the failure occurred. Explain the factors that impacted the outcome. Most importantly, document what you learned from all of this that will increase your chances of success next year.

Failure is inevitable. What separates the best from the rest is that they aren’t destroyed by failure. They learn, evolve, and grow.


5 – Projects

Document each and every project you worked on during the year. Some of these will be the expected projects that were tied to your goals and commitments. But, many will be unexpected projects that were put on your plate later.

Even if it was only a small contribution to help out a coworker, document it. They add up. I know some people who were such great team players that they were always helping others out, but never recognized for it (sadly). Their formal list of projects was mediocre, but the value they added to the organization was tremendous.

Don’t let this happen to you. Document everything you worked on so that your manager understands how much you are contributing overall. Great leaders will have noticed your involvement, but most managers are so busy that they need to be reminded.

This is also a good time to keep adding to your portfolio of work. Portfolios aren’t just for designers. Everyone can benefit from documenting their project-based work and accomplishments. I’ve worked with so many people who have struggled to build their portfolio long after the work was completed, or even after they had left the company. It’s hard to get the data and information you need later. Much harder.

Create a simple one-pager per project that explains what the project was, the role you played, the problem statement, the goal of the project, the desired outcomes, what work was done, what was actually produced and launched, what the actual outcomes were, and the lessons learned. You can also document trade-offs that had to be made, which can help explain why a project didn’t ideally turn out as you had hoped, and what you would do differently next time.


6 – Additional responsibilities

It is all too easy to forget all of the little side projects and tasks that came up during the year. As you look at your list of formal projects, you might be thinking, “Is this all that I did this year? I sure seemed a lot busier!

You feel that way because you were. But, you most likely took on additional work without thinking to keep track of it all. Go back and skim through your calendar of appointments. Scroll through your mailbox and other messages. Browse your project directory.

There is often a good deal of work that a great employee performs that doesn’t neatly fit into a “project” definition. I mentioned assisting others with their projects in the previous section, but we often have fuzzier contributions that we make to our organization and company throughout the year.

Obviously, it is much easier to capture this big list of little things on a weekly or daily basis. That’s something for you to remember next year. Keep a running list of all of the little tasks, activities, and contributions you make.


7 – Success metrics

This is directly related to your project work for the year, but focused on the ones that actually launched. Documenting all of the success metrics is not only helpful for your performance review or making a case for your promotion. It’s also critical for constructing a more powerful resume and Linkedin profile.

Recruiters and hiring managers love to see examples of what you accomplished in your past jobs. It’s pretty weak to have fuzzy statements that only speak to your job activities (e.g., “Created lots of spreadsheets”). It’s much more powerful to have examples of tangible success (e.g., “Key project increased sales by 23%”).

I was a designer for almost 9 years before I became involved in metrics, instrumentation, and analytics at eBay. Part of that was due to working on OS software before the rise of the Web. Part of it was due to corporate focus. eBay, for example, is a very data-driven company.

But, I still meet designers who don’t know what needle they are trying to move with their design work. This is a career-limiting mistake. My move into leadership and Product was highly correlated with understanding how Design can help drive product and business success. Know your data!

If this is all new to you, it’s time to learn. There are so many resources available now, from free to paid courses.

https://www.lynda.com/Analytics-training-tutorials/2378-0.html

In the meantime, work with a product manager, analyst, or business owner to get the data you need for your projects. This will be a lot easier now than later.


8 – Request feedback

Proactively identify coworkers who can provide feedback on your work performance for the year. It might be tempting to only ask people for input when you are certain that they’ll have great things to say about you. But, that’s not how you will learn and grow. Also, your manager is certain to solicit input from the people who have worked most closely with you, whether you enjoyed interacting with them or not.

As with the Failures task, get ahead of the feedback. Reach out to the people you worked with and schedule a quick 30 minute meeting to sincerely ask for their feedback on how things went. Some people will be comfortable doing this, some will not. That’s ok. Meet with the folks who are willing, and let the others know that a few notes in an email are fine.

The very act of soliciting feedback and input on how you can improve yourself is a sign of professionalism. People will notice and appreciate it. I always had the utmost respect for people who would sincerely ask me if there was anything they could do to improve our working relationship.

It’s not always possible to avoid negative interactions at work. You shouldn’t expect that everyone will be happy, want to be your friend, and never have any complaints about you. But, we can all be professionals, realize that ultimately we’re on the same team, and want to help each other become the best at what we do.


9 – Testimonials

So, this one is going to feel a bit strange for most of you who have always been employees. But, consultants, entrepreneurs, and independent business owners are quite familiar with asking clients and customers for testimonials.

Why do we do it? We seek them out because the opinions of 3rd parties tend to carry more weight than your personal assessment of your performance. Your manager will assume that you do have some bias, of course.

For the previous task you asked a variety of coworkers for feedback. Some of it probably contained constructive criticism. You may have even encountered some negative feedback or complaints. But, a few probably spoke glowingly about your performance and how you interacted with them and/or their team.

Don’t be shy about asking for a few positive testimonials. Ideally, you would do this throughout the year upon the successful completion of a project, big task, or other activities when you delivered value. Put this on your to-do list for the future.

But, it’s ok to ask for a testimonial or recommendation later. Believe it or not, I asked one of my managers from over 20 years ago to provide a testimonial on Linkedin. Guess what? He gladly wrote one. I should have asked him for it two decades ago, but Linkedin didn’t even exist then.


10 – Team contribution

When I was a corporate manager, “contribution to the team” was one of the factors I evaluated when considering someone for a promotion. It’s a sign that someone is growing professionally and adding value to the organization above and beyond his or her basic work performance. People who do this regularly help everyone get better at what they do, and it elevates the entire organization.

This is similar to the previous points about the contributions you made beyond your assigned projects or work responsibilities. Think about the times you shared useful research with your team. Did you learn a new skill and teach others in the company? Did you learn something at a conference or workshop, and then share that knowledge with your colleagues?

Basically, document the times you made an effort to help others get better at their craft, mentored more junior employees, helped onboard a new employee, or invested your time and energy in improving the organization. It probably happened more often than you think. Again, look back through your calendar and messages to jog your memory.


11 – Industry involvement

When I used to discuss potential promotions with other corporate leaders, we talked about “expanding spheres of influence” for the high-potential employees. If people were clearly having regular influence at a level above their current role, it was one sign that they might be ready to move up.

When someone is just starting out, their focus and influence is usually just with the people they collaborate with at the project level. Over time, this sphere of influence expands to include their immediate department. Then, they start having influence within the broader organization. Then, they start getting noticed and having influence across the company. Eventually, they might become known at the industry level.

We all know a few people in our chosen professions who are known by almost everyone in the industry. You mention their names and someone has attended one of their talks or workshops, read their articles, or watched one of their videos.

Document all of the times that you have demonstrated your own expanding sphere of influence. How were you involved with other members of your profession beyond the company? What did you contribute to the broader industry (e.g., articles, talks, panels)?


12 – Professional growth

What did you do this year to invest in your professional growth? This could include conferences, talks, workshops, online courses, etc. What new skills and knowledge did you acquire?

The wonderful thing about this type of investment is that it’s good for the company and it’s great for you. Everything you have done to grow professionally will make you more effective in your job, better position you for a promotion, and make you more desirable in the job market.

One area of professional growth that you will always hear me recommend is to become comfortable with public speaking. Warren Buffett once told a class of business students that he would pay anyone in the room $100,000 for 10% of their future earnings. If they were good communicators, he would raise his bid by 50%because public speaking would make his ‘investment’ more valuable (source).

As you look forward to the coming year, think about where you would like to continue investing in your professional development. Look for opportunities for your employer to either provide the training, or pay for you to seek training outside of the company. Companies usually have a budget for this, but you will need to ask.


13 – New priorities

Now, it’s time to look forward. This is your opportunity to demonstrate to your manager that you understand what is important to him or her. You should also indicate that you understand what is important for the company.

What do you believe are the company’s new priorities? What is your organization supposed to be focusing on in the coming year? How does that translate to your new priorities?

A performance review is a look back, but making the case for a raise or promotion requires that you look forward. More junior employees tend to focus on priorities that personally affect them and their projects (e.g., “One of my priorities for the coming year to is to be a lead on a bigger project”).

More senior employees, and the ones who are operating at the next level and are ready for a promotion, tend to see the big picture of what the organization needs and what the company thinks is critical. For example, “In the coming year, my priority will be to successfully launch project XYZ which will add $3M in recurring revenue for the company.


14 – New goals

Given these new priorities, what goals do you want to commit to for the coming year? What do you plan to accomplish? You’ve learned a lot over the past year about making commitments, stretch goals, and the likelihood of achieving them. So, now you’ll be better at identifying goals that you have a higher likelihood of meeting and exceeding.

As with the priorities, your goals should reflect that you are thinking and operating at the next level. You will want to commit to goals that are meaningful for the company, and your manager. But, importantly, you need to translate these into goals that you are personally able to commit to and know can be measured.

Early in my career I made some mistakes with choosing goals that weren’t fully under my control, which meant that I could fail to reach them despite my best efforts. I also made mistakes with goals that weren’t easily tied to a quantitative measurement. That left the success or failure open to interpretation by my manager.

Do your best to commit to goals that are meaningful and ambitious, yet you know that you have a high degree of control over achieving them and there will be no doubt when you succeed.


15 – Personal goals and plan

You may not want to share this task with your manager, but you should definitely do it for yourself. What do you personally want to achieve in the coming year? This may or may not be aligned with your current role. For example, if your personal goal is to get promoted to the next level, and that is impossible in your current company, then you might make a plan to find a new job that will give you the growth opportunity that you need.

I like to ask my clients to create a 10 year goal, a 5 year goal, and a more focused goal for the next year. Over time, your longer-term goals will evolve. That’s to be expected. But, knowing where you ultimately want to land with your career and life will help you make difficult decisions in the coming year. You may be faced with a few options that all seem like reasonable paths you could take. But, when you consider where you want to be in 10 years, one will emerge as being more aligned with that objective. Planning in reverse like this can be very effective.

A goal without a plan is simply daydreaming. It’s fun to think about, but not likely to magically come true on its own. Map out what you need to do over the coming months to achieve your goal for the year. Create a plan for making progress towards your longer-term goals. Identify the activities and habits you need weekly and daily to keep focused.

Plans are more effective than goals. Daily habits are more powerful than plans.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant


16 – The Business of You

I find that I regularly end up rewriting and tuning my personal elevator pitch that explains who I am, what I do, and who I help. This is natural. Your personal life is certainly not static. So, you shouldn’t be surprised that your professional life evolves as well.

I call this “The Business of You” and you may have noticed that phrase mentioned in a few of my past articles. It’s basically your professional value proposition. What value do you add to the company for your employer? Why should a new employer hire you? If you’re an entrepreneur with your own business, why should a customer buy your product, or hire your services?

This statement shouldn’t be a long essay. You should boil it down to one to three sentences at the most. Here are some one-sentence examples:

  • I ensure that young couples never forget their wedding day by creating a stunning visual keepsake of their most magical moments.
  • I help mobile app companies virally grow their customer base by designing uniquely addictive experiences.
  • I help smart business owners save money acquiring new customers by teaching them how to reduce their dependence on traditional advertising.

Be ready to hit the New Year running

Note: this exercise will be so much easier next year if you check in on these tasks at least on a monthly basis. Get into the habit of updating a document with your changes in priorities or goals, new and completed projects, and other notes that you think will help your performance review.

In the old days, I used to keep a Word doc handy for this purpose. Now, I’ve switched to using Evernote so that I can easily make updates from my laptop or phone, on the go, wherever I am.

Many companies have their performance reviews at the beginning of the year. Budgets are allocated. Decisions are made about investments, raises, and promotions. You want to be ready to take advantage of this opportunity.

If you have your goals, plans, and data prepared, you’ll be better positioned to make the case for what you want out of the coming year. This might be a promotion, a raise, training, conferences, or even getting ready to make the jump for a bigger opportunity somewhere else.

Good luck with your performance review! If you have any questions about this checklist and the 16 tasks, feel free to join my Slack team and ask. It’s completely free!

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