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

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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.

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