Do You Know How People See You?

What you don’t know can hurt your career. Here’s how to do a 360 on yourself.

By the time you’ve been working for more than 20 years, you know a few things. You know what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and what you’ve contributed to your job or industry. And if you happen to be out of work at the moment, you know that you need gainful employment, sooner than later, to maintain or improve on the life you’ve built. But there’s one thing that’s harder to know, because in mid-life and mid-career, we get used to thinking of ourselves in certain ways. That one thing is how others perceive you and your effectiveness in your work.

As a former corporate HR professional, I’ve observed how this particular gap in self-awareness can slow down career progress or a job search. Sure, performance reviews offer some feedback, but in general that feedback only comes from one direction—your boss, whose opinion is limited to what it’s like to manage you in your current job. Your subordinates, peers and clients can hold up a mirror as well, offering a more complete picture of who you are at work. How to get those multiple perspectives? Enter the 360-degree feedback assessment, a data gathering process designed to glean information about your strengths and weaknesses from a wide range of people—a 360-degree view—for the purpose of your development and improvement. Not everyone has the luxury of going through this process at work, or having your company pay for it. But nearly anyone who is open-minded and motivated to learn and grow can benefit. Better yet, it’s absolutely possible to do a modified, DIY 360.

Darryl Simon, founder and president of Vantage Growth Strategic Advisors, is an organizational development expert and executive coach who has been conducting professional 360-degree assessments for 20 years. He's currently seeing an uptick in midlife career changers in the market, and the process can be a great eye-opener for re-inventers. “We all have blind spots,” he says, “Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to put a spotlight on something we’re not aware of. It’s a very collaborative world we live in—the more self-awareness we have, the more effective we can be.”

Intrigued? Here’s how to do your own 360:

1. Determine your goal. Are you interested in changing careers; throwing your hat in the ring for a promotion; thinking about entrepreneurship, or are you interested in improving at what you already do?

2. Identify 7-10 people who know your work well and whom you trust to be candid and confidential. The group should include people from different vantage points, including peers, subordinates, supervisors and clients. You want folks who are willing and able to share honest, specific, timely feedback about you.

3. Design a list of 7-10 open-ended questions with your goal and your focus group in mind. Simon often includes variations of the following questions in his practice: What are my greatest strengths? And: What areas would benefit most from improvement?

4. Reach out to each member of your focus group to frame the parameters of your project. A good first step is to say something like, “You’re someone whose opinion I trust and I’m interested in improving my effectiveness. Would you be willing to have an in-person conversation, say over coffee or breakfast, in the next two weeks to share your feedback about my work? If you’re open to this, I’ll email you some questions ahead of time.” This approach sets the casual tone you want, and it also gives your contact time to think about your questions.

5. Have a private conversation with each member of your focus group. Start with some ice-breaking chat to make you both more comfortable. Then steer the conversation to your purpose (self-improvement) and your gratitude for the other person’s time and consideration. Ask for and answer any questions they may have about your project before you go down your list; then prepare yourself to receive the information.

6. Here’s the tricky part: Cast yourself in the role of observer, and listen and take notes. Quietly receive the feedback without comment until the speaker is done. Try not to be oversensitive or take anything they say personally, and be sure to always thank your contact for the feedback in the moment, no matter how you feel about it. Follow up with a brief, sincere note or email of appreciation.

7. Repeat the above steps until you’ve spoken to everyone on your list.

Now that you’ve gathered your data, review it for themes. Much of the information will speak for itself. Maybe your focus group’s comments reveal that you are perceived as a great idea generator but you’re not as effective at executing. Or maybe your reluctance to delegate popped up in several comments. “You can expect some information to validate what you already know; you’ll get a few surprises, some good news and some bad news,” says Simon. The next step is simple but not necessarily easy: Use the information to improve yourself—and consider partnering with a mentor or coach to help you with the follow-up. “Development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Simon. But then, if you have the courage to conduct a self-administered 360-degree review process, you already know that.

Leslie Granston is a writer, consultant, and founder of the blog, H[E]R. She is a former corporate human resources executive who specialized in diversity and inclusion, recruiting, and professional development.