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Reinvent Your Career With a Personal 360 Interview

Asking key people about your strengths and weaknesses will help you take the next professional leap forward

By Dorie Clark | April 17, 2013
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Dorie Clark is the author of Reinventing You and a marketing strategy consultant. An adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, she is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Visit her at dorieclark.com and follow her on Twitter @dorieclark.

Thinking about reinventing yourself professionally so you can switch fields or move up the ladder in your current career?

A good way to start is by giving yourself a "Personal 360" interview.

At some corporations, employees receive performance reviews based on what are called “360 reviews” (360, as in all directions). In a 360 review, the key people you work with — your boss, peers, subordinates and clients — provide anonymous, aggregated feedback about you and your performance. Firms do these reviews partly to uncover the suck-ups who get along perfectly with their bosses but are tyrants to everyone below them.

What a Personal 360 Interview Can Do For You

By pulling together your own Personal 360 interview, where you talk with assorted people about your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be able to begin leveraging your best talents for the next stage of your career.

These people are not only your best hope of receiving honest feedback, they’re the ones you’ll turn to for mentoring and (eventually) new business and referrals. It may seem like an imposition to reach out, but the truth is, it takes a village to reinvent yourself.

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The Personal 360 Process

Here’s how to conduct a Personal 360:

First, create a list of questions you think would be helpful in enhancing your self-knowledge.

Executive coach Michael Melcher of New York suggests “paired questions”: “What’s my strength? and What’s not my strength?” “What career can you see me in? and What career can you definitely not see me in?” That format, Melcher says, “gives people permission to give the full picture; they don’t want to be too negative.”

A few good questions that aren’t paired:
  • What three words would you use to describe me?
  • If you didn’t already know what I do for a living, what would you guess and why?
  • I’m trying to go from field X to field Y. What steps would you suggest?
  • What are my blind spots? 


Who You Should Interview

Next, identify the people you’ll be tapping for your 360 review. You need to be careful, especially if you don’t want to tip your hand to co-workers that you’re considering a career change.

Focus on friends, trustworthy colleagues and family members you can depend on to provide honest feedback (no frenemies need apply).

Phyllis Stein, a career consultant in Cambridge, Mass., and the former director of Radcliffe College Career Services at Harvard University, suggests identifying up to 20 people who exemplify the interests, skills and values you admire.

Ideally, you’ll want to corral a diverse assortment of men and women in different fields so you can get a broad perspective.

Once you’ve selected potential members of your 360 posse, it’s time to approach them.

Melcher suggests making it clear that you want them to set aside time, but not for friendly chitchat. “If you tell your friends you’ll be interviewing them, they’ll take it much more seriously,” he says.

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Explain that you’ll be spending about 20 minutes asking them about your personal brand so you can see how you’re perceived.

The Advantage of Face-to-Face Interviews

Face-to-face interviews often yield better responses than phone calls, emails or Skype chats because they let you probe answers further. But they’re not always possible. You might be in Miami and the interviewee in Mumbai, for instance. Or the person you want may be so busy that the best you’ll get is an email pecked out on a smartphone between layovers.  

You’ll need a thick skin to conduct face-to-face interviews, though. Sometimes the truth can be painful. So if your poker face isn’t up to snuff, you might just want to stick to doing your Personal 360 electronically.

No matter how you conduct the interviews, be sure the people you’re talking with agree to be brutally honest. New York–based career coach Alisa Cohn says you almost have to be forceful about this with friends because their desire to protect you is often so strong.

“Say, ‘I’m trying to develop myself and I know you love me, but I’d appreciate your candid feedback about my limitations,’” Cohn recommends. If your friend says, ‘You don’t have any,’ insist he or she takes your request more seriously.

How to Get Honest Answers

One trick, she says, is to bring up negatives about yourself so your 360 team won’t have to do so.

“You can say: ‘I’ve gotten feedback in the past that I’m a tactical, not a strategic, thinker. I’m wondering if you’ve seen that and what you think?’” Cohn says. “When you rat yourself out first, they can add on.”

Holding a Group 360 Interview

In addition to (or instead of) one-on-one conversations, another possibility is hosting a group gathering in your living room with eight to 10 trusted friends and colleagues, assuming your network lives nearby.

The benefit of doing this is that you can leverage the wisdom of crowds when one person’s idea sparks another. Think of it as a focus group where the focus is you.

Make sure you have enough comfortable chairs and, just as in real focus groups, bribe people with dinner and/or copious, high-quality snacks. If you’re able, it’s a classy gesture to provide each attendee with a small token of your appreciation, like a gift card for a coffee shop or bookstore.

Keep the whole shebang to 90 minutes max, with 30 of those minutes upfront for mingling and to accommodate late arrivals.

The Essential Jobs for a Group Interview

Two roles are critical: the facilitator and the scribe.

If you’re a terrific moderator — you can keep meetings going efficiently, politely hush ramblers, probe interesting statements — take on the facilitator role yourself.

But for most people, this can be a tricky assignment when the subject is you. So you may want to ask a friend or co-worker to fill the role. Just work out an arrangement in advance with the moderator so you’ll be able to slip him or her notes for follow-up questions.

You might, however, be comfortable as the scribe. If so, sit silently in the back, don’t interrupt and just take notes. It’s a good idea, with your group’s permission, to record the session so you can play it back and review it in the future.

You may want to set aside five minutes at the end of the session to ask attendees to write down a short summary of their perceptions — three words that describe you, the most important skill you should develop and so on. Since some participants may be too shy to offer their thoughts out loud, this is a good way to ensure you’ve captured their insights.

It could also be useful to supplement your 360 interviews by reading over previous performance reviews and recommendation letters you’ve received at work as well as by seeing what people have said about you online, positively and negatively (a Google search can do the latter).

How to Interpret What People Say

Once you have all the information, it’s time to synthesize your data.

Be sure you’re assigning the appropriate weight to what you’ve heard. Rather than obsessing about something one person mentioned in a 360 review, look for consistent comments you heard.

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It’s easy for something negative to stick in your craw. But the power of one harsh appraisal can cloud your understanding of how you’re perceived in general. Remember, you’re trying to find patterns.

To uncover them, ask yourself the following questions:
  • What adjectives did people use to describe me?
  • What skills did they say I have or lack?
  • What aspects of me or my brand were most frequently talked about?
  • Were any of those aspects cited as unique or unusual? 


Now you have to determine what it all means. Be careful not to confuse kind words with traits that will serve you well in your career reinvention.

“People may say, ‘I see you as thoughtful, methodical, and nice,’" Cohn says. "Those are lovely professional qualities, but they aren’t describing a leadership brand like the word ‘decisive.’ They’re not going to get you to the C-suite."

 
Reprinted by permission of permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Copyright 2013 Dorie Clark. All rights reserved.
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