The parable of Clark Kent and the performance review

Few people know this, but before he found a job working for the Justice League, Clark Kent worked for years as a kryptonite delivery guy[1].

DALL-E prompt: "superman, sick sad and depressed, carrying a glowing green cardboard box, pen and ink line art"

Try as he might, Clark never seemed to figure out this job. His coworkers made it look so easy, but Clark struggled every day. Some of his colleagues supported and helped him, but he knew others were frustrated and felt that he was letting them down.

Clark dreaded going to work each morning, and at the end of the day he felt sick, exhausted, and disheartened. He was determined to try harder and not give up, but when an interesting opportunity presented itself, he applied for a new position. Although it took him a little while to adapt to his new team, he soon found that in the right environment he could fly. Literally. The rest of the story you probably already know.

Even though this story is about Superman, it feels like it could be about me. Maybe it feels eerily familiar to you too… and maybe you feel like you still have a big box of kryptonite in your arms.

If you’ve seen my “Unplanned Career” presentation you’ve heard a version of this story already, but I spent 7+ years of my career at Microsoft delivering my own personal kryptonite. I tried extra hard and occasionally succeeded, but compared to my peers and my leaders’ expectations, I simply didn’t measure up. It wasn’t until I found my current role and team that I learned that I could fly.

If you’re in a situation, in a role, or on a team where the things you need to do are harder for you than they are for everyone else, or where the thought of going to work makes you ill, perhaps it’s time to look for your next role. I’m not talking about giving up – I’m talking about moving up.

Instead of falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy, why not step back and ask yourself these questions?

  • What am I good at – especially where am I strong where others are weak?
  • What gives me joy and energy when I do it?
  • Who has the problems that I am uniquely qualified to solve?

I’m not convinced I’ve articulated these questions as well as I should, but I’m going to keep pushing forward. Ideally your honest answers to these questions will start you thinking about the unique value that you can contribute, and that in turn can help you start thinking about where that contribution will be uniquely valued.

I’ve been thinking about this post for months, but the pieces didn’t feel ready to fall into place until today. Perhaps that’s because today I completed my end-of-year Connect[3], and I realized what an awesome year I’ve had. I kicked all the butt and took all the names, and then I forgot half the names when there was more butt that needed kicking. It was a very good year, in ways I could never have imagined before I found my amazing team.

It’s not only that I’m doing incredible, high-value and highly-valued work – it’s that it’s almost effortless.

Please don’t get me wrong. I work very hard, and I struggle every day. I’m pushing myself to learn and grow, and sometimes I fail. When I do fail, I think back to how I felt when I was delivering kryptonite every day. I’m doing things I’m good at, and which give me energy and joy. I’m doing them for leaders who recognize, respect, and value what I do. I may be flying against the wind, but I’m still flying.

If you’re not flying, maybe its time to ask yourself why not.

[1] I’m not sure why I can’t find the comics where this story was originally presented, but I swear on Batman’s mom’s grave[2] that the story is true.

[2] Too soon?

[3] The “Connect” is the self-appraisal part of Microsoft’s semi-annual performance review process. It’s designed to be a lighter-weight check-in between employee and manager, and an opportunity to evaluate progress and align on goals for the period ahead. The Connect that comes before the end of the fiscal year is a major input into the rewards process that determines things like promotions, raises, and bonuses. As you can imagine, completing my Connect is my least favorite task of the year, and it always seems to take me 10x as long as it takes everyone else, which feels very on brand for this blog post…

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