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The 3-3-1 Assessment

A woman working on a computer in her home office.

Looking for a good way to assess company leaders, managers or individual workers? The following method works as an intervention or as a check-in on performance. And it's fast and to the point.

From New York Times bestselling author Marshall Goldsmith, I learned a quick, simple, yet highly effective assessment method: the 3-3-1. Goldsmith developed it for his coaching work with corporate CEOs. The coach asks three questions of the CEO's reports and others with whom he or she has important interactions:

  1. What are this person's three greatest strengths as a leader?
  2. What are the three most useful areas this leader should consider in choosing to be a more effective leader?
  3. If this leader were to change one behavior starting tomorrow (more of, less of, start doing, stop doing), what would it be?

The 3-3-1 is time-efficient. It prioritizes efforts: What change will be most productive of good results? It's positive, focusing on strengths and growth opportunities. It promotes what Goldsmith calls "feedforward," a much more recipient-friendly method than "feedback."

"Feedforward has a positive impact for growth potential and development," said Julie Rowan, SHRM-SCP, corporate employee relations manager at Orlando Health. "The recipient receives more than improvement suggestions; he or she also receives an affirmation that the organization is anticipating and appreciative of a continued contribution."

Nathan Childs, chief marketing officer for OtterBox in Fort Collins, Colo., added, "The 3-3-1 highlights strengths more than weaknesses. Although it's good to be aware of weaknesses and to mitigate them, usually it's a better investment to focus on strengths."

"It cuts through the noise to get at what's important," said Rafi Bortnick, director of operations at Fort Point Beer Co. in San Francisco. "Focus is a huge topic for us. As we're growing, there's always temptation to take on fun new projects, but we have to make sure everything we're working on is driving toward our goals."

A critically important point is confidentiality. People who are asked to give input must be assured that their responses will remain anonymous. Rather, their input will form part of a composite portrait to help the executive maximize his or her leadership effectiveness.

"To help ensure individual anonymity, survey groups of five or more are preferable. And to ensure focus, the group size is probably best capped at eight or 10," said Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, with the state of Arizona.

The 3-3-1 can be used for individuals and groups. "We are currently using this tool for our company overall and for each member of our executive leadership team," said Diana Stephens, senior HR and general affairs manager at Precision Tools Service Inc., in Columbus, Ind.

Applications for HR

In working with HR professionals, I have found the 3-3-1 to have value in several ways. Here are three examples.

  1. Assess how the HR department is perceived. The 3-3-1 can help HR maximize its internal effectiveness and garner respect and appreciation in the process. Whether of the whole company or of a representative group of executives, managers and employees, ask the following: 1) What are the HR department's three greatest strengths? 2) In what three areas could HR improve that would be most beneficial? 3) Of those three, which one should HR focus on first and what practical suggestions do you have?
  2. Assess how HR business partners are perceived by the people with whom they interact. Many organizations assign HR professionals to work with specific groups or departments. For example, let's say Lisa has been the HR business partner assigned to work with the marketing department. Marketing department employees or a representative sample would be asked: 1) In Lisa's work with you and your department, what do you view as her three biggest strengths? 2) In working with your department, if she got better at three things, what would the most beneficial be? 3) Of those three, which one should Lisa focus on first and what practical suggestions do you have for her?
  3. Resolve the conflicts of others. Readers of my column know I stress the value of HR as conflict resolution facilitator. Let's say the head of marketing asks Lisa to intervene in a conflict between two marketing department employees, "Bob" and "Sara." In her initial (separate) interviews of Bob and Sara, Lisa can use a version of the 3-3-1. She'll elicit what each thinks are the strengths of the other, what each thinks the other should do differently, and what practical suggestions each has to resolve the conflict. When I've used this approach, almost invariably I find the building blocks on which to construct a reset relationship. Through feedforward, instead of remaining stuck in the past (feedback), the parties are primed to focus on creating a better future.


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