If you study the best team leaders, you’ll discover that many of them share a sense-making ritual. It’s called a check-in, and in simple terms it’s a frequent, one-on-one conversation about near-term future work between a team leader and team member.
How frequent? Every week. These leaders understand that goals set at the beginning of the year have become irrelevant by the third week of the year, and that a year is not a marathon, planned out in detail long in advance, but is instead a series of fifty-two little sprints, each informed by the changing state of the world. They realize that the key role of a team leader is to ensure that Sprint Number Thirty-Six is as focused and as energizing as was Sprint Number One.
So, each and every week these leaders have a brief check-in with each team member, during which they ask two simple questions:
1. What are your priorities this week?
2. How can I help?
They are not looking for a to-do list from the team member. They simply want to discuss the team member’s priorities, obstacles, and solutions in real time, while the work is ongoing. Making sense of it together can happen only in the now. The generalizations that emerge once the passage of time has blurred the details are not the stuff of good sense making. So, doing a check-in once every six weeks or even once a month is useless, because you’ll wind up talking in generalities.
Actually, the data reveals that checking in with your team members once a month is literally worse than useless. While team leaders who check in once a week see, on average, a 13 percent increase in team engagement, those who check in only once a month see a 5 percent decrease in engagement. It’s as if team members are saying to you, “I’d rather you not waste my time if all we’re going to do is talk generalities. Either get into the nitty-gritty of my work and how you can help right now, or leave me alone.”
Each check-in, then, is a chance to offer a tip, or an idea that can help the team member overcome a real-world obstacle, or a suggestion for how to refine a particular skill. Check-ins can be short—ten to fifteen minutes—but that’s plenty of time to do a little real-time learning and coaching. And, like all good coaching, this has to be rooted in the specifics of the particular situation the team member is facing, the psychology she is bringing to it, the strengths she possesses, and the strategies she might already have tried. Again, the only way to surface these sorts of microdetails is to make sure that the conversations are frequent.
Now, you, the team leader, might think, Well, I would love to check in with my people every week, but I can’t. I’ve simply got too many people! If that’s you, then yes—you have too many people. One of the longer-running debates in the world of people and organizations is the span-of-control debate, which grapples with exactly how many team members every team leader should manage. Some say between one and nine employees. Others say between one and twenty. Some nurses manage staffs of forty, some call-center managers lead seventy or more.
But by pinpointing the weekly check-in as the single most powerful ritual of the world’s best team leaders, we can now know the exact span of control that’s right for every single team leader: it’s the number of people that you, and only you, can check in with every week. If you can check in with eight people, but you can’t fit nine into your schedule, your span of control is eight. If you can find a way to check in with twenty people, then your span of control is twenty. And if you’re one of those people who can legitimately manage a weekly check-in with only two people, your span of control is two. Span of control, in other words, isn’t a theoretical, one-size-fits-all thing. It’s a practical, function-of-team-leader’s-capacity-to-give-attention thing. Your span of control is your span of attention.
In the service of intelligence, then—in the service of making sense of real-time information together—the weekly check-in is the anchor ritual. You need to design your teams, and their size, to enable it. And if ever you become a leader of leaders, you’ll need to ensure that your leaders know that this check-in is the most important part of leading. Checking in with each person on a team—listening, course-correcting, adjusting, coaching, pinpointing, advising, paying attention to the intersection of the person and the real-world work—is not what you do in addition to the work of leading. This is the work of leading. If you don’t like this, if the idea of weekly check-ins bores or frustrates you or you think that once a week is just “too much,” that’s fine—but, please, don’t be a leader.
— Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press from NINE LIES ABOUT WORK: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Copyright 2019 One Thing Productions Inc. and Ashley Goodall. All rights reserved.
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