review your story
December 7, 2018

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, to review your story

By Paul Laughlin

Is this the time of year when you review your story? Perhaps you expected me to say appraise your performance, or review your goals?

Under traditional performance management systems, end-of-year can be full of interpreting metrics. How can you present your performance this year in the most favourable light?

But I wasn’t talking about ‘spin‘, rather a different kind of review. Over recent years, my leadership coaching practice & CPD has taught me a great deal. Specialisms like Gestalt Coaching and Narrative Coaching have given me a fresh perspective.

Many businesses (especially management consultancies) are changing their approach to performance management. Gone are the annual cycles of performance reviews, replaced (hopefully) with more timely feedback.

In previous posts I have shared on the need to protect able employees from the biases in the old approach. So, I am pleased to see this change. However, there is a case for an even bigger change – from goals to stories.

Why might stories be more helpful than goals?

Although setting the most appropriate goals for you to achieve each year can be helpful, there are drawbacks.

Here are just some of the limitations of reviewing only the achievement of goals:

  • Often goals are set to be stretching, but a binary ‘achieved‘ or ‘not‘ fails to recognise relative progress. Did you ‘shoot for the moon’?
  • Goals exist in isolation, whereas your day-to-day actions are assisted or hindered by context. Changes in the business, the performance of others, health & your learning curve.
  • Goals can isolate, whereas often the business most needs the effective collaboration of a team (not individualism).

Plus, as David Drake shares in his seminal book on Narrative Coaching, goals can cause the following behaviours:

  • An over-emphasis on ‘the ends‘ at the expense of ‘the means‘ (c.f. ethics, unintended consequences).
  • Orientation toward short-term pressures & metrics (which may undermine sustainable growth).
  • Fatigue from ‘changing goal posts‘, stress & burnout.
  • Sense of overwhelm & people feeling disconnected from others & themselves.
  • Tendency for people to give up on what they really want from life/career for the sake of current priorities.

None of those sound like a helpful recipe for leadership development.

Many large organisations are investing in internal ‘academies‘ and prioritising winning ‘talent wars‘. Recruiting the right people and personal development are becoming strategic priorities.

So, at this time of year, when so many leaders are simply focussed on whether or not they achieved their goals – is there a different way?

Review your story – two approaches that may help

Let me caveat first, I am not saying to give up on goals. I have written previously how helpful they can be in achieving focus. Month by month, week by week & day by day they can act as a compass. However, they are not enough by themselves.

As the book “Living Forward” argues, we need a larger Life Plan. A view of our intentions that helps guide our goal setting. But this should not just be a forward-looking, aspirational, exercise.

Stepping back to see the unfolding story of our lives can help us both grow in self-awareness & make better informed choices.

(1) The Lifeline exercise

One way to reflect on your life to date is through a tool called a lifeline exercise. There are different variants of this, but at the most basic this involves drawing a line chart of your life.

Set the x-axis as your timeline. Start wherever you wish, but many people find it helpful to begin with the end of their schooldays. From that point consider the major events & especially choices that you have made in your life.

The y-axis is used to express what has happened. It shows whether times were positive or negative experiences. So, one can call the vertical axis either ‘level of fulfilment/satisfaction‘ or simply ‘high/low points‘.

Once you have drawn a line to chart your ups & downs from then until now, it can be helpful to annotate the peaks & troughs. What do you call that time? What did you learn as a result? What do you now do differently or what major decision did you make?

Done carefully, it can be uncanny how often you spot repeated themes or analogous decisions . Have you consistently chosen status over money? Have you consistently avoided roles or responsibilities that would take you away from what you love? Do you have a pattern or risk taking or avoidance?

Taking time to reflect on this and any other themes or insights from your lifeline chart can be time well spent. As I shared when describing insight generation workshops, asking “why” multiple times can uncover insights.

The Open University usefully shares one simple guide on how to complete this exercise. They helpfully combine this with a research paper for those who want to understand the academic basis:

Returning to STEM

This free badged course, Returning to STEM, offers useful skills and solutions to help you get back into a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).

Stanford University have also published a useful and more detailed exercise booklet, that I recommend to my clients:

Click to access Lifeline_Exercise.pdf

(2) Telling your own story

People have different preferred learning styles (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, auditory). So, it makes sense to offer an alternative means to achieve similar insights. For some people this works better by speaking out their ‘life story‘ or writing it down as a narrative.

Rather than needing to draw any visualisation, this is a writing or speaking exercise. You should challenge yourself to think like an author or movie producer. What is both the big picture story of your life so far & the cameo details that will help others get a feel for it?

A number of organisations have published exercises to help leaders complete such an exercise. All are framed as writing exercises. I have also experienced that it can be helpful for a leader to work with their coach or mentor for such an exercise. That gives that added opportunity for a leader to simply talk out their story (with the coach taking thorough notes).

Let’s enable you to have a try yourself. Here are a couple of resources that you might find helpful. The first is the Seven Stories exercise from Get Five HR consultancy:

Click to access Download_-Assessment_-Seven-Stories-Exercise.pdf

If this method appears to work for you, then you may also find “Step out of your Story” by Kim Schneiderman helpful. She shares exercises to work with your story and the choices you can now make in that context:

Step Out of Your Story

To be honest, I am not much for self-help books. It seems like so often they all cover the same ground, simply stating the same old ideas in what the author hopes is a new way. This isn’t the case for Kim Schneiderman’s Step Out of Your Story.

How has your story developed? Where are you now?

Once you’ve produced either your lifeline chart or written story, it is time to reflect on your year. Take both that bigger picture and the repeated themes you have identified. Now focus on where you are now & your journey through 2018.

As an alternative to just ticking off prescriptive goals, try answering the following questions. You can imagine you are a movie critic reviewing the movie of your year (if that works for you). Here are the 10 questions to review a year of your story:

1. What has happened to your career/home/other story over the year?
2. What have been your 3 biggest wins this year?
3. How have you grown as a person/leader over the year?
4. What have been the most important changes for others in your story this year?
5. How has your work/home/other context changed over the year?
6. What new opportunities have appeared in your story?
7. What threats are beginning to appear in your story?
8. Which strengths have helped you succeed this year?
9. Have there been any ‘blind spots’ in your story (do different with hindsight)?
10. What matters most to you in your story?

As you reflect on your (very personal) answers, it worth writing down thoughts that strike you. These may include things you want to keep/stop/increase/decrease doing in future.

Pause… Look at what you have. Doesn’t that tell you more about what has been achieved this year, than just goals & metrics?

Finally, try drafting an outline of where you want to be in your life story by the end of next year. Weave in natural developments to your story (riding the momentum of what has worked already). Also include elements of excitement (new things to try, ideas to act upon, opportunities to seize). Think about people, not just tasks or achievements. Which relationships do wish to prioritise? How do you want to develop yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually)?

To achieve this kind of ‘story foretelling‘, it can be useful to complement your “life story to date” with a vivid vision of your destination. That will draw on other psychological & physiological techniques that I have seen help others. But that is another blog post in itself…

Will you review your story?

Thanks for reading this blog post. Now what will you do?

As you (probably) have a bit more time over December, will you just use the familiar review processes at work? Or will you take some time out to reflect on your life story and what that tells you about the ‘act‘ of this last year?

If you do try reviewing your story, not just your goals, I’d love to hear how that works for you. Was it more insightful? Did anything I share above help (or hinder) you? After all, it’s a good time for me to review what is working in my offering too.

Enjoy your time to reflect. For those who have subscribed to our weekly newsletter (top of page on the right), our annual readers survey will be published soon.