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Lessons from MDs at Goldman Sachs on how to write a great self assessment

Buried among the 900 pages of exhibits provided to the Senate for yesterday’s Goldman hearings is something rarely available for public consumption: the annual self assessments of three Goldman MDs.

Daniel Sparks, former head of Goldman’s mortgage business, Michael Swenson, an MD in Goldman’s mortgage business, and Joshua Birnbaum, a former star structured products trader who’s since founded his own hedge fund, all make their pitches for why 2007 was such a wonderful year for them – and why they ultimately merited an enormous bonus.

As well as providing lessons on self-aggrandisement, the exhibit underlines the complexity of the Goldman review process. Sparks is reviewed by 15 people in total, including 3 peers, 9 seniors, one junior, and 2 ‘primary reviewers’; Swenson and Birnbaum are reviewed by 12 others.

Fabrice Tourre’s self-review is also included, but as a mere VP he doesn’t appear to have fully mastered the art of self-promotion, so we won’t be dwelling on his document (you can read it yourselves on page 246). Instead, here’s we’ve gleaned from the rest.

1) Go heavy on the superlatives

Don’t just think good: think great, exceptional, outstanding, or unutterably awesome.

“We didn’t just survive – we excelled,” says Dan Sparks..

“On the leadership front I performed exceptionally well over the past year.,” says Swenson. “My ability to assess and manage the risk in the rapidly changing mortgage market has been another tremendous achievement,” he adds.

2) Wherever possible, claim personal responsibility for team outcomes

The secret here is to make it clear that you’re a team player whilst emphasising that the team’s achievements were almost entirely attributable to you.

Dan Sparks has a go at this, saying, “I led a great team through an incredibly volatile and challenging market.”

However, Swenson is the master in this area. “I can take credit for recognizing the enormous opportunity for the ABS synthetics business 2 years ago,” he writes. “I recognized the need to assemble an outstanding team of traders and was able to lead that group to build a number one franchise that was able to achieve extraordinary profits”

In case any doubts about his contribution remain, Swenson goes on to say: “Though this extraordinary year is attributable to a total team effort, my commercial contributions over the past year are numerous.”

He also clarifies that his team wouldn’t have done nearly as well were it not for his interventions: “I am extremely proud of the traders that I have developed under my leadership….I have been an extremely effective mentor for numerous traders and salespeople within the firm.”

3) Make full use of adverbs

Liberal use of adverbs will highlight your greatness. Hence, Sparks didn’t just communicate, he communicated, “promptly and efficiently.” He didn’t just deal with originators and counterparties, he dealt with them “swiftly and firmly.” He shut down businesses “quickly;” and he made writedowns, “early”.

4) Illustrate your brilliance with a list of your achievements

Birnbaum specifies how her personally cultivated six clients. However, Swenson – the master of self-promotion – offers three significant “commercial achievements” to explain why, “it should not be a surprise to anyone that the 2007 year is the one that I am most proud of to date.”

These commercial achievements include the generation of $1bn P&L through a single name convergence trade; another $1bn of P&L through a single-name CDO short; and $250m of P&L from a capital structure trade.

5) Be rather vague about your own personal goals

Don’t say, “This time next year I’d like to be managing a larger team, possibly doing the job of my boss.”

Do say (as Sparks says), “I want to grow in my career with respect to opportunity and responsibility.”

6) Avoid modesty at all costs

None of the men reviewing themselves make much effort to restrain themselves when it comes to self-congratulation. All had something akin to, “the best year of their careers” in 2007

Swenson is the most immodest. Birnbaum makes the mistake of admitting fallibility by highlighting missed opportunities. Having read the Swenson’s self-assessment he may well conclude that this was a grave and unnecessary mistake.

Comments (15)

Comments
  1. Let this be a lesson in life….. up sell your self. The meek even if they are very very good, will often get left behind. As sad as it may be for some, this is reality…. and people then wonder why such things as the GFC occur.

  2. The biggest lesson to learn from this is that everyone’s self assessment remains the same however high you go, only the numbers change.

    If you replace Swenson/Sparks/B’baum and replace it with “Junior Trader X”, he will also say his “ability to assess and manage the risk in the rapidly changing _______ market has been another tremendous achievement”. And he will also have “responded swiftly” to an “incredibly volatile and challenging market.” Why I think that “it should not be a surprise to anyone that the 2007 year is the one that I am most proud of to date.” You’re only as good as your last year, right? And therefore, in conclusion, “I want to grow in my career with respect to opportunity and responsibility.”

    Completely worthless – if you’re honest (“kept my head down, tried not to do too much, the money was just there for the taking, frankly”, you get fired, if you’re not, you may as well use the previous years’ paper.

  3. Very nic – I like :-)

  4. year end assessments are like a nuclear arms race… everyone has to outdo everyone else and its mutual assured destruction.

    I have never found them to be useful….

  5. It’s pretty sad that even senior traders at GS with outstanding PnL numbers behind them, still have to engage in this kind of tedious self-assessment nonsense. Pathetic.

    Not.a.fan.of.appraisal.BS Reply
     
  6. Hi everyone, I’ve been told that that kind of attitude is rather standard in the US business world and more specifically that when you apply to MBAs in the US you need to use that sort of super-self-assessment when talking about your (tremendous) achievements even if it sounds arrogant.

    I was actually wondering if it is true or is it just a received idea? Is there an american citizen or a MBA-graduate who could give me his opinion? As you may have understood, i’m interested in an MBA in the US and i wonder if i need to use that kind of goldmanite-language too :)
    Thanx

  7. @ Swissbanker – don’t go crazy, but yes that is typical in American business culture. People tend to shamelessly self promote over here and if you don’t you really do get left behind. You can’t count on your work results to speak for you.

  8. I take credit for identifying the huge potential from being able to position the firm around global trading flows. In the course of two years, I have assembled the market leading team, and our “take no prisoners” approach has enabled us to leverage on the global growth of trading, transportation and logistics.

    Somali Pirate MD Reply
     
  9. @ Swissbanker – to some extend yes, but people can still see through it, so it only works when its backed by real achievements. It is just a different way of expressing yourself. You’ll definitely be left behind if you don’t advertise your successes though.

    Every Ivy B-school will continuously tell its students that they are the cream of the cream, and that will boost MBAs “self confidence” factor to a great extend.

  10. appraisal processes at all banks that i’ve worked for have been virtually useless.

    i find it amazing that supposedly intelligent people persist with such a system of determining (and hence rewarding) performance.

    alternative suggestions not overly forthcoming, i’ll accept, but more work needs to be done.

  11. Really funny to read . . . great article Sarah!

  12. appraisal is highly subjective and what ever you do the bosses decide hence really of no use. however as a need indulge in self praise.

  13. @fxo man – I think performance reviews/appraisals are used to justify rewards, not assess performance. Looked at that way, blowing your trumpet is simply rational behaviour.

  14. their time of honoring themselves will soon be at an end…

  15. Surely the only self assessment that counts is that of a certain L Blankfein: “managed to convince the world’s richest man and my former buddies running the world’s largest economy to bail us out otherwise I and all my uber-narcissistic colleagues would have lost everything they own (and then some).”

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