Connect for Success

Many of us may have already discovered that our education, credentials, knowledge and skills are crucial components of getting ahead in our careers. But fewer have discovered that these components, while important, are not enough. Your degree, skills and experience can make for great resume material but do not always open doors. So, what is missing? In my experience working with hundreds of job searchers, business students and others looking to enhance or change their careers, the missing ingredient is the ability to make oneself stand out. This skill not only enhances one’s ability to get that hot job, but can also be applied to life on the job – persuasion, buy-in and credibility all depend upon your ability to get noticed. 
Now, when we talk about standing out, we are not necessarily talking about being better than another, having more experience than another or even being smarter or more talented than another. The truth is that in the competition for jobs, there will be many with the experience, credentials, skills and brains that you have. So, counting solely on those elements may not be in your best interest. Instead, just as is the case in all aspects of business, it is the relationships we develop with others that will make us stand out, get attention and get opportunities.
The notion that business is about relationships is not a new one. But few see the application this notion has to one’s career advancement. The evidence can be seen in the way many of us apply for positions – relying on job posting sites, the electronic forwarding of resumes and waiting for a reply. This is not the stuff of human relationships and given that hundreds, sometimes thousands of others are doing the same thing, you may not stand out. 
Many of the most interesting, lucrative and rewarding jobs actually come from what I refer to as the hidden job market. This is when job searchers, organizations and recruiters use their networks to find people. In fact, I have seen only a small handful of jb opportunities come purely from responding to a job posting. The vast majority include one’s ability to tap into a network of friends, family and peers. 
There are a number of reasons why many do not tap into their network. First off, some have messed up their network by burning bridges, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes due to arrogance or an inability to recognize its value. Secondly, many are afraid to tap into it because they don’t want to be seen as opportunistic, or don’t want to “bother” someone they may not know that well. Finally, many just don’t know how. 
Even if you have burned bridges, it is never too late to start over. Attend industry events and utilize people you know to begin to re-establish your network. Maybe get a career coach or recruiter who can help you with some new contacts. Approach these people as someone who wants to learn about them, as opposed to someone who wants to talk about themselves and you might be surprised at what comes back to you. 
Again, some are reluctant to approach others altogether. Indeed, this “approach” can bring about a fear of rejection or imposition on another. But, without this risk, you will not stand out. Often the fear comes from not knowing what to say or ask. Try focusing on learning about that person, their job, career path and experience as opposed to asking for a job. People are more likely to want to meet with you and talk to you when you are focused on learning about them. This takes some of the pressure off and can help both people discover opportunities. This way, even if there is no job, they might know someone who knows someone, and so on. As well, if you don’t want to be seen as opportunistic, don’t be opportunistic! In other words, stay in touch with those in your network for reasons other than opportunities for you. 
This may seem a daunting task if you think about it as having ongoing, deep and personal relationships with 150 different people. But finding innovative ways of maintaining contact can do the trick. For example, if you are looking to get ahead in the marketing industry, try to find interesting news or perspectives in the press and share it with those you know in the industry as a gesture of shared learning. Also, try sending handwritten holiday cards to those in your network or take the initiative to host an event or party for some selected people in your network. 
Finding ways to tap into and utilize your social network can indeed be the thing that differentiates you from others. It also can help to hone the skills influence and credibility that helps while on the job. It is truly the best way to connect for success. 

Why are we doing these anyway (performance appraisals)?

We may dread them and we may put them off for as long as we can, but in many organizations, January is performance appraisal time. Weather they are called employee evaluations, employee appraisals or some cryptic acronym, their accuracy and usefulness are often questioned. Given that in many cases they just have to be done (it’s our policy ya know), we best figure out a way to ensure that the time we spend on them is productive. 
The most profound challenge with performance appraisals concerns their usefulness. Every year at this time I hear complaints from managers and employees alike regarding how useless they are given the amount of time spent on them. Like anything we spend time on, we need to feel that time spent is going somewhere. In other words, if I am doing it I need to know why. 
This is precisely the problem. In many organizations, if you ask around, most will not know why they are done, other than because they always have been. And in organizations where being accountable for the time we spend on all work activities is valued, this just does not make sense. 
There are essentially three purposes of performance appraisals: employee development, administrative record keeping, and to determine promotions and salary changes. Now, we certainly need to keep records of performance and we certainly can utilize an assessment of performance for promotion and salary issues. But, when it comes to employee development, many of the forms we use and the way we use them do not serve to improve performance or to develop employees at all. In fact, they can have the opposite effect. This is because the way they are set up makes them nothing more than a judgment of performance, an exercise in evaluation for its own sake, as well as a source of conflict and defensiveness.
In order for any evaluation to be developmental, is has be forward looking, not backward gazing. But most appraisals look at the past and then give a judgment or a score. Most stop there. They usually do not include the essential step of providing direction on how to fix or improve things that did not go well. Nor do they provide goals for someone to reach. 
Telling an employee that they “performed at a poorly or adequately” in specific areas does not improve performance. Instead, it frequently brings about a debate regarding the truth of the assessment. This “search for the truth” occupies the time and energy of both parties and the discussion will not focus on improvement for the future, but instead on who is right, who is wrong, and whose “fault” something in the past was.  Sometimes, when employees are uncomfortable getting into a debate, they keep their disagreement to themselves and become resentful and angry at the inaccuracy and can become disengaged as a result. 
Any effective appraisal process must also include a clear set of goals outlined at the beginning of the year. Without these, employees can find that they are surprised by specific evaluations. For example, a “poor” rating on teamwork, based on feedback the boss received 6 months ago, leaves the employee wondering why this was not brought up when the situation occurred. It also leaves them wondering what on earth can do about this now that 6 months has passed. They feel set up for a “poor” rating. They may also not know what really counts in terms of their performance until they are rated on that aspect of performance. This approach is not developmental, but purely evaluative and punitive.    
Probably the best approach to managing these challenges is to develop a process which aims to manage performance and development employees through the setting of goals and objectives at the beginning of the year, and then to look at the extent to which these goals were met at the end of the year.  At the front end, goals can be spelled out in terms of defined, measurable actions with time lines. At the back end, we can see if the goals were met and if the defined actions were done. If not, additional goals and actions can be proposed, becoming some of the goals for the next year. 
A simple model like this one can help to create performance appraisals which actually do something, not just ones that say something.