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How To Navigate Year-End Reviews & Salary Negotiations

Here's how to drive the conversation to where you want it to go.

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January 21, 2021

Year end reviews are often your best chance to work on positioning the potential trajectory of your career. If you're wondering how to prepare the pooled wisdom of our industry vets from both sides of the table can help you meet your objectives. We'll take you through the process of a year end review, and no matter what kinds of internal processes or politics you're navigating explain how to leverage them to your advantage.

Understanding The Process

Protocols can vary wildly even between similar firm types, but whether you're at a bulge bracket investment bank, mid-market PE, VC, or any kind of boutique firm in between, there will usually be a few set processes you should be aware of. We'll outline how to prepare for internal dynamics and negotiations later in his doc, but first let's cover that kind of process specific items you will most likely encounter:

  • If your firm relies on 360 reviews then expect that to take up the bulk of the conversation.
  • At a boutique or smaller mid-market focused firm you might get a self-review exercise two weeks ahead of your meeting. Before you walk into the room your leadership team will most likely have met to review that document and discuss your performance, bonus, and career trajectory.
  • For the most part, any past goals or self review documents you have filled out are going to come up. If you have yearly, biannual, or more frequent reviews these will likely form an anchor for the conversation.
  • Some companies are extremely informal and you'll mainly have conversations based on the personal experience of all the people involved. 

No matter what kind of firm you're at, you can expect that all key decision makers have assessed your credibility, potential, and have been making mental notes about your performance throughout the year. 

Building Consensus With Your Audience

It's essential to understand what kind of company you work at, and the way that this company does or says that it does business before walking into the room. Some organizations are casual or relaxed and some have rigid protocols, career paths, and review processes. Many other companies are less structured. You want to make sure that you're speaking the right language and prepared for the environment you're about to enter.

For Informal Environments:

If your company is more informal, then focus more heavily on developing personal connections and positive perception. It's absolutely essential that you've had touchpoints and formed candid relationships with all major partners, VPs, and/or decision makers in the room. If there are specific focus areas you would like to concentrate on, be sure that you've contributed extra effort to ensure those relationships are strong. If you are caught off guard, having clear data on your contributions will help you anchor the conversation and reorient it towards a positive direction. 

For Formal Environments:

If your company culture is more formal, be sure that you have data to support any claims you might make in your review. Come prepared with evidence of:

  • Projects you've contributed to meaningfully.
  • On successful projects, hard numbers that match your contributions.
  • Evidence that you've met goals and or pushed beyond them.
  • For projects that didn't go as well suss out your mistakes and how you addressed them.
  • Be sure that you have clear evidence of improvement on any goals or issues you've identified previously. 

No matter where you work, you need to make sure that you have a grasp on the goals and metrics that were presented to you earlier in the year. Part of the review is a black and white evaluation of goal attainment, but part of the process is also related to the "how" and cultural representation of company values.  Before you step into the room, try to determine what your leadership team needs and expects, and what they believe you bring to the table. Good company cultures foster honest introspection, so prepare to be challenged or criticized. 

Champion Your Champion

As Jeff Bezos famously stated, "your personal brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room," and in these discussions your brand is  paramount. No matter how well you've laid the groundwork beforehand, you'll always need an advocate who is willing to stick their neck out and fight for you when you're not in the room. Ensuring that you have that personal advocate can make the ultimate difference in the success of your requests. 

11 Tips for Fostering Effective Salary Negotiations During Year End Reviews 

If you've gotten this far in your career you're likely familiar with many of these concepts but for the sake of passing on battle tested advice during PE year end reviews. If you are in a position to seek more formal role and responsibility tweaks or salary, then utilize these tips to make sure you're putting your best foot forward. Some deal shops will assume that you will have a two year run before they expect you to get an MBA, in these cases you may be restrained by how much you can improve your salary and can instead expect to fall within a band of +/- 10% or so. In these cases 

#1: It's Not About Winning

Winning or thinking that you're winning a negotiation can be fun, but at the end of the day it's about creating a good deal for everyone involved. If things do start to get aggressive avoid the temptation to issue ultimatums. If you have an ultimatum issued to you try to ignore or work around it until you can ascertain what is and isn't negotiable. Keeping negotiations flexible and friendly also means if things change in the future, the management can offer concessions without losing face. Finally, even if you manage to twist some arms and get what you want, down the line they likely won't be as forthcoming with assistance. In short, you should start and end these discussions as friends.

#2: Prepare With Your Goals in Mind

Every company will have advantages and disadvantages, as will candidates like yourself. 

Before you walk in yourself these questions:

  • Is this a career track company or a more formal stepping stone to an MBA?
  • Is seniority based on merit or rigid process?
  • Are you looking for experience, money, reputation?
  • What is this firm doing for you, and what can they do for you in the future?

Answering these questions keeps the review focused, and also helps clarify your preparation. 

#3: Get Ahead of Feedback

You should have a reasonably good sense of what went poorly. Address challenges early so you can keep the conversations smooth and avoid gotcha momentas. Mistakes will happen, discussing how you addressed or plan to overcome these challenges in the future is always more beneficial than trying to skirt around them.

#4: Don't Underestimate Likability

It might feel like the elephant in the room, but likability and charisma go a long way. There are a variety of practical reasons why your likability matters. For example, in high stakes situations and during tough moments, positive personal relationships can keep a team going. Likewise a likeable individual has a positive impact on company culture and is more likely to nurture a larger more helpful network internally and externally.

Do your utmost to remain as likable as possible in negotiations, no matter the outcome of your review. You're going to need people to advocate for you down the line, and behind closed doors, so don't alienate anyone on the leadership team by being overly confrontational. Likability helps ease tensions when things get difficult, and it will also offset any perception of being greedy or rude. Remember, people only make good deals with good people. 

#5: Keep Gratitude at the Forefront 

Not to get too flowery, but people want to feel that their investments in personnel have worked out. Your firm is investing in you and your career as much as you're contributing to their bottom line. Organizations, especially those scaling rapidly, are breathing organisms in their own right. You don't want to appear to be an internally toxic component in the mixture. 

#6: Don't Get Tripped Up by Tough Questions

Hard questions will get asked. Don't get defensive. Be honest and argue your case. If you're looking for a promotion or more money, eventually decision makers will wonder if there are other offers on the table for you. Which naturally leads to the question of, are you really interested in the firm itself or what we can offer? 

Be  prepared for these objections. Addressing these questions unhesitantly and honestly will keep everyone engaged in finding a resolution. If you are blindsided by a reasonable critique, that almost looks worse than the issue itself, so prepare. 

If a question doesn't make sense, ask for clarification and don't assume the person asking it is trying to be malevolent. Understanding the intent of a question and answering that is often more important than the question itself.

#7: Focus on Value, Not Money

People often search out titles for the sake of egotistical prestige. A new title always means 

more responsibility and people to serve within your organization. Be sure that what you're asking for aligns with management's goals and what you can provide.  Couching your objectives, as specific benefits for the other side of the table makes it possible to ask without seeming pushy or arrogant. It's good to start with efforts you've championed or capabilities you've grown, especially if they show you can add long term value to the firm.

Don't start discussions with money. While that's important to this entire process, it also frames the conversation around a factor that sometimes can't be easily controlled. It might signal to management that money is your only objective. That might naturally lead to them thinking: what's the point of investing in you, if you may jump ship as soon as more money is available anywhere else? Instead frame salary growth as a result of your efforts, not the goal of those efforts. 

#8: Negotiate For a Range

At some point in the negotiation, ratcheting down on a hard salary number is necessary. Many management teams may open with a request for your target, but try to work out a range from them. 

Know what's common for workers in your salary range, your region or industry tier, and the value of your skills. If you're tempted to go for a higher number, data and clear results are your best friend for supporting raises. 

#9: Keep Negotiations Linear

If you have a few central issues or a related set of them outline them early on so VPs and partners understand all your concerns. Jumping between points will limit your effectiveness. Similarly if someone on the management team is prone to doing this then try to keep them within predefined rails. 

#10: Don't Play Hard to Get. 

If you have a price range or work experience goal, don't be vague or conceal it. People don't like to guess in negotiations and it's more efficient to make your goals known. Explain where you're willing to be flexible, and frame everything in terms of benefits those changes will have for the firm. 

#11: Are Their Hands Tied?

Understand what decision makers can and can't reasonably grant you. Come prepared with alternate things you value in case negotiations hit a dead end.  Don't get fixated on the money. Concessions on responsibilities, location, travel, flexibility, perks, or support for continued education are often more valuable to your development or happiness in the long run.

Remember, Your Firm Wants to Help

Many people get into an adversarial mindset during year end reviews, remember that from a management perspective, your success ends up being part of their success. Effectively advocating for yourself makes you a more enticing and viable prospect for further promotion as your reputation ad company grows.