I was asked to be the manager of a small team of 5 people about a year after I finished college. At the time, I was sure this was due to my management skill, but in hindsight, I believe the promotion was largely due to my performance as an individual. Very often, managers are promoted under similar circumstances, and this practice is not just limited to software companies. Many of the Property Managers and Regional Managers I meet were at one time the best leasing agents in their office now promoted to be managers.
Being a new manager is difficult, not in the least part because now all of a sudden you’re accountable for the work of other people. And people can be so… unpredictable. New managers all go through a phase where they ask themselves, “how can I be a good manager?” To add to the proliferation of opinions on the internet, I’d like to share one more through the lens of a simple weekly meeting: the 1:1.
(my perspective; name changed to protect the innocent)
Sam was one of the first employees I managed. He was bright, fun to work with, and methodical. Previous to my promotion, we had been peers. As a new manager, I just presumed that since Sam was such a nice guy, he was surely being productive. We didn’t really meet to discuss his work, but I was able to observe his output. We were good friends, and often went to lunch as a team to laugh and joke about everything from politics to funny YouTube videos.
Over time, however, Sam’s productivity fell. Even without meeting with him regularly I could see his output was low. Over the course of months it didn’t improve, until one day I made the determination that we needed to part ways. I called Sam into my office to let him know. I was really surprised to see the shock on his face— surely Sam recognized he wasn’t being productive, right? He didn’t fight back, but instead pleadingly asked what he had done wrong. I gave some generic answers and, ultimately, I ended the meeting.
Working For Josh
(Sam’s perspective; I’m guessing but hopefully this makes my point)
I can still remember the day Josh was promoted to be our team manager. The team had seen his output and the promotion seemed justified, although it didn’t seem like he had any real management experience. Nothing really changed when Josh was promoted with the exception of a weekly team meeting. The team meeting was fun and creative, but no real management happened. Over the course of several months, it seemed like Josh and I had very few conversations about real work. He never met with me to review what I was working on, and I often questioned whether the effort I was putting in was even appreciated.
Then one day, out of the blue, I was let go. I’m still not really sure what happened and didn’t get a lot of detail from Josh in the final meeting. In hindsight, I think if we had been talking more, Josh would have seen the things I was working on. Because we never met, Josh had no idea that the majority of my team each day was spent in areas that I felt were productive.
Both as an employee and a manager, this story makes me sad. I can confirm that Sam is gainfully employed with a new company now and happy with his role, but I do believe I lost a valuable team member due to my lack of managerial skill. If I could change one thing, I would go back and hold weekly 1:1’s with Sam. In these meetings, I would have focused on 3 things:
- What assignments/tasks have we agreed you will accomplish, and how are they progressing?
- What goals are you working on for this 6-month review period, and how are they progressing?
- What questions/concerns/thoughts do you have for me?
If you look at these three agenda items through the lens of accountability, they gain more purpose and context:
- What am I holding you accountable for?
- What are we jointly accountable for in your role?
- What are you holding me accountable for?
Hundreds of 1:1’s later, this format continues to work very well for me. I learned this format from my colleague and good friend, Jon Soldan. This weekly meeting keeps me aligned with my employees and my employees aligned with me. We discuss roadblocks and challenges, small and large successes, and get to know one another better in this setting than in team meetings.
Logistically, I try to do these meetings at the beginning of the week, allowing my team members to share with me what they plan to accomplish during the week. I course correct if I feel they are not allocating their time productively, but honestly that rarely happens. To some, a process like this might sound like the crazy hatched scheme of a micro-manager. I would argue that these meetings allow me to give my team members 39.5 work hours of autonomy in exchange for .5 hours of discussion.
Secrets to True 1:1 Productivity
If you want to go beyond the simple outline I’ve presented above, here are some additional thoughts:
- Have the employee prepare the agenda. See my example here.
- Don’t remove any assignments from the list until both agree they are done.
- Consider archiving a printed or digital copy from each meeting to review in performance reviews.
- Try not to reschedule or cancel – it sends a strong message the meeting isn’t important.
- Listen more than 50% of the time.
- Focus the meetings on the results you want to see the employee accomplish rather than how the employee spends their time.
- Ask the employee what would make the meeting more productive for them.
- Perform skip-level 1:1’s with the direct reports of people you manage to gain real perspective once a year or once every six months.
I Don’t Get To Have 1:1’s With My Manager
I believe wise employees will realize how important these meetings are and request that their boss hold them with them. The agenda above should be created by the employee anyway, so why not also take the initiative to make the meeting happen. As long as both show up and are engaged in the conversation, it doesn’t matter who scheduled it.
Don’t let the good employees in your company go because you’re not aligned. Don’t believe that just because you were a high-performing employee, you’re going to be a good manager. High-performing employees often believe that the harder they row, the the better their team will do— good managers know that a team rowing in sync is better than a team out of sync, regardless of the individual performers.