Pulse Checks

If you are a leader, it’s almost a sure bet that your people aren’t getting enough feedback from you.

High on the list of the feedback that leaders receive most often from their followers is: “I need more feedback from you. And more coaching on how I can be more effective today and develop myself for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.”

For many organizations, the end of the calendar year is the time for performance reviews. While the purpose of the performance review is to provide people with developmental feedback and insights, in reality those messages often get lost because they go hand-in-hand with compensation decisions. (Given the choice of hearing “How am I doing?” or “What am I getting?” where will most people focus?)

Furthermore, since performance review processes are usually managed by the HR function, too many leaders and managers essentially abdicate their roles. (If you don’t think this is true, think of your own experiences as the recipient—or non-recipient—of performance reviews from your own boss.)

Your absolute most important job as a leader is to develop people. To create other leaders. Development is aided by dialogue, and often the best developmental dialogues are like a finger on the pulses of your followers to assess together how things are going. Short and informal—that is, the exact opposite of most performance review forms.

Schedule regular pulse checks with the people you’re responsible for. A good cadence can be the end of the first quarter; a bit after the midpoint of the year; and toward the end of the year but not at the same time as any performance review conversations.

Pulse checks should be simple, open, dialogic, and non-transactional. That means they should be unlike the normal one-on-one meetings you hold with your direct reports, where you are acting in your role as manager. In a pulse-check you’re acting as a coach. One way to signal that this is a different kind of conversation is to meet in a setting other than your office, such as over breakfast or out for a coffee or walk.

You can frame the dialogue around three simple questions. Three is really all you need.

  1. What’s going generally well, and how can we build on that?
  2. What hasn’t been going so well, and what can we do to address or change that? (Or if we can’t change it, then what can we learn from it?)
  3. What do you need from me to help you be more effective?

The trick to making pulse checks work is that both your direct report and you should answer each of the three questions. Your direct report always goes first, and you listen carefully, don’t interject, and take notes. After your direct finishes, ask probing questions and seek to understand. And then when you in turn share your answers to the same questions you will as much be summarizing and validating as you are enhancing, sharing new ideas, and then helping shift to “so what should we do now?"

If you trust the process and stay fully present, pulse check dialogues are highly productive. Sometimes you even can open up important topics that are more difficult to get at: What are her longer-term aspirations? What is he worried about? What does she see in terms of opportunities or threats to the business? What’s the level of morale in the organization?

Pulse checks can help you add a more powerful developmental dimension to your relationships with your followers. Pulse checks will also change for the better how your people see you as a leader. These conversations will have benefits for your followers’ performance and their potential. And they’ll enable you to reach your own best potential as a leader who develops other leaders.

AND the same three-question framework works brilliantly for all your stakeholders, not just the ones who work for you. Try it with your peers, your business partners, and your own boss. And watch those relationships transform.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with pulse checks. Drop us a note: newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com.

For more ideas like this one, look for our new book What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You which will be published in May 2018.