by Rick Gillis

Discovering Your Accomplishments that Made a Difference

Feb 26, 201510 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Your actions can be compared to a pebble tossed into a pond that causes ripples to cross to the far bank. These ripples, your actions, may go deeper than you ever knew. (Serialized from the soon-to-be published, "PROMOTE!")


By now, you have should have done all you can to track down accomplishments from your memory, performance reviews and resumes. The second way to discover past accomplishments is through all the people you know—both personally and professionally. This is the heavy lifting part of the process not because it is difficult but because it requires you to get on the phone and contact people you may or may not have remained in touch with. No worries. This is a great reason to reconnect.

I know that some of you will attempt this part of the process via email. I can tell you categorically that email does not work. People will respond, if they respond at all, not with accomplishments but rather with a general job recommendation. “Joe, you were a great employee” does not speak to achievement. That’s a reference. With a phone call you can manage the conversation around what you really want to learn from them.   

Another point in favor of making the call over sending an email is this: once you have sent an email and received a useless response, will you have the nerve to then call up that individual and ask them for more information?

Even with that, I know that some of you won’t believe me about the power of the live, in-person telephone contact. Here’s a true story about that:

A woman called on me to help her move out of self-employment and back into a position that offered benefits—retirement benefits specifically. I asked her to begin the accomplishments process and even before she had paid me for my services—which at that point had been only about an hour of coaching—she had her old job back. And when I say old, I mean it.

She had reached out to her former boss whom she had not spoken with in the eight years that she had been working for herself.

After her former boss learned that she was seeking accomplishments to find her way back into a corporate position, the boss told her that they had never been able to successfully replace her in the eight years she had been gone.

Then the boss asked if she would she like to come back to the national company where she had previously worked? She did.

Something similarly amazing happens so frequently to people who make the effort to personally contact friends, family, former employers, etc. that it no longer surprises me. The process works that well.

There is a long list of people you can contact in support of your accomplishment investigation.

Let’s start with FAMILY, especially your mother. It’s likely that you have told at least one member of your family everything good that has ever happened in your career or job. And your mom remembers everything good thing you have ever told her. No kidding. Moms are an amazing source of accomplishments and they are always eager to help! 

If you have kids, ask them if they recall anything you’ve told them about work. Kids are a sponge who will recall things that you may not have considered such a big deal at the time.

Obviously ask your spouse or significant other. The truth is that you can probably acquire 30 percent or more of your accomplishments from just those members of your family who remember you bringing your work home with you.

FRIENDS—both on and outside the job—are good sources for pretty much the same reason as family. Close friends, coffee or drinking buddies—let’s face it, we tell our close friends a lot more than maybe we should. Now go back and try to get them to remember some of your wins.

SUPERVISORS are obviously a great and important source to discuss professional achievements with. They will especially remember the ones that made a positive impact on their own careers. Whether or not you want to discuss any of this with your current supervisor is something you need to ask yourself about prior to taking any action. Once again I defer to the chemistry discussion. If your current supervisor might consider your crafting such a list as a threat to their own well-being on the job, then maybe you should skip him or her. 

CO-WORKERS, not to be confused with on-the-job friends, particularly those you worked with in teams or shared office space with. Don’t leave out anybody on your list even if they have moved on and you may not have stayed in touch with them. Like I said earlier, this could be the ideal way to reconnect. Not sure where they might be? Start with LinkedIn and/or Google them. 

CLIENTS/CUSTOMERS are a great source for seeking accomplishment-worthy stories especially if you helped solve problems they were dealing with in their own businesses. 

VENDORS are similar to clients and customers but in reverse. They may have provided you with service and support and/or materials to make a project come to fruition. Think about those vendors and suppliers who have been there for you in the past and give them a ring. 

ASSOCIATIONS can be valuable places to seek out information on previous achievements, particularly business associations. Check with those you meet with on a monthly or annual basis. They’ll remember war stories you may have told over chicken dinners. 

MILITARY, for those of you actively serving, live and work with an accomplishments mindset daily. I’m a veteran and I know every job in the military is directed toward a goal. Veterans and active duty military have access to their performance reports and should keep copies. Beyond that, reach out to former service members you worked with and after reconnecting, ask about those achievements of yours that were above and beyond the call. 

An important side note: Military engagement, combat readiness and the training required to make that happen all fit into the (ironically) soft-skills aspect for detailing an accomplishment. Leadership, command, teamwork and team responsibility are highly admirable qualities that deserve mention and recognition in your accomplishments. 

PROFESSORS AND TEACHERS can provide a lot of support for this cause. Every teacher and professor (assuming they remember you) is pleased to participate in this type of activity. They are motivated by your success because your success is theirs too. This applies to new and recent grads as well as to time-in-grade professionals.

COACHES. Are you, were you an athlete? Reach out to former coaches for stories of teamwork and the personal assistance you offered teammates during your playing days. This also applies to life, business and career coaches you may have worked with. It is their job to detail this sort of information. 

CLERGY. Are you active in your church, synagogue or mosque? The same applies as it does in coaching. Religious leaders may be able to spark memories of events you participated in, from working with a fund-raising committee to volunteering in the community.

VOLUNTEER/CHARITY. As I mentioned, most items on your list should be business and/or professional accomplishments but there is a place for past and current volunteer work. Call them. Reach out. Take notes. I’ll come back to this when we talk about organizing your accomplishments for presentation.

THE QUESTION TO ASK Now that you have a list of who you might approach, let’s talk about how to initiate the conversation. When you connect with professional, non-family contacts, you don’t need to conduct a complicated interview. In fact, there is only one question—but stay with it until you get an answer: 

 When you and I worked together what difference did I make?


    What impact did I have on the organization when we worked together?

All right—two questions that are actually two ways of asking the same thing. Note how easy it would be, if you email the question, for the person to respond with a generic job reference answer.

That is why I insist that you speak by telephone. On the phone, if you get the generic reference answer, you can say, “I appreciate that but what I am really looking for are some actual incidents, specific events or projects where we successfully worked together or maybe you remember something I did on my own that was noteworthy.”

This exercise, although it takes a little time, is worth the effort. The fact is, you did things, probably more than you realize, that have made positive impacts on others’ lives, business outcomes and futures. In addition, you have undoubtedly forgotten some outcomes or never knew about them to begin with.

Our actions can be compared to a pebble tossed into a pond that causes ripples to cross over to the far bank. These ripples, your actions, may go deeper and move farther than you know.

Let me illustrate with another true story.

I was conducting one of my full day job search workshops where I presented this Accomplishments Worksheet exercise. One candidate, Joe, was so taken with this idea that he decided to text it out while I was still speaking.

He texted 10 people—nine former co-workers and his former boss—asking them what difference he might have made during the time they had worked together.

Joe’s back story is that he had recently retired from a community bank in Texas and after a few months, had determined that he wasn’t cut out for retirement. He attended my workshop hoping to pick up some new tactics to put himself back on the market.   

In a flash, Joe got a text back from his former boss saying that he had “saved the bank.”


During the next break, Joe ran out to call his former boss to ask him what the heck he was talking about.

At the time of Joe’s “saving the bank,” we were in a national recession and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was running around the country shutting down under-capitalized banks. Joe’s boss had been informed that his bank, with no way of acquiring additional funding to meet reserve requirements, was potentially in danger of being taken over by the agency.

At about this same time, Joe had pitched a new program and product. Joe’s boss told him to run with it. Joe created the program, implemented and sold it to the public. It was an overwhelming success. Effectively, and without his knowing it, Joe had saved the bank.

So why didn’t Joe know about this before now? His boss had never told anyone in the bank for fear that the staff, in all likelihood, would have jumped ship and after the crisis was over, why bring it up at all? In this case, he believed that ignorance of what nearly occurred truly was bliss.

The moral of the story is this: Had Joe not asked his previous employer what impact he had made, he would never have known about this colossal accomplishment.

I don’t expect you to learn that your efforts prevented a ship from sinking but you never know what you may find out.

Next week’s installment: Chapter 7, “How to Craft a Compelling Accomplishment” from PROMOTE!