I once worked for a distracted boss.
This boss was constantly working on “important matters” and never had time for employees.
When staff approached this person, they were always told to come back later or schedule an appointment. And when they sat in meetings, this person was always looking at their laptop or checking their cell phone.
The way this person behaved, we assumed their job was filled with never-ending emergencies and ongoing crises. “That’s why they get paid the big bucks,” staff would say when noticing how "busy" this person always appeared to be.
Now that I’m on the other side, I realize this person had us fooled. Certainly, there will be incidents that require an immediate response. However, school leadership is not the constant chaos that some bosses would lead us to believe.
One of the most valuable gifts leaders can give employees is undivided attention. Leaders who invest time in employees foster strong relationships and improve employee engagement. Furthermore, leaders who prioritize listening generate greater buy-in on new ideas and are informed of developing situations before they become bigger issues.
Many educational leaders say, “I’m a good listener. I listen to my people all the time.” But while bosses think they are good listeners, their employees often feel the opposite. Recent studies indicate only 12 percent of employees rank their boss as a highly effective listener.
If you think effective listening is a strength of mine, you’re wrong. Two of my biggest flaws are a lack of patience and an inability to focus … which makes giving someone my full attention very difficult.
These shortcomings caught up to me when I became a high school principal. Upon finishing my first year, I reflected on the employee relationships I had formed. While I was certainly “friendly” with employees … I was struggling to build deep, meaningful relationships with staff.
Eager to build more meaningful connections, I asked colleagues for a resource that would allow me to engage staff in deeper conversations. That’s when someone suggested I read Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
Immediately, Scott’s book resonated as she presented several ideas for fostering strong relationships. Specifically, she introduced the idea of regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports: “1:1s are your must-do meetings, your single best opportunity to listen, really listen, to the people on your team to make sure you understand their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working.”
I was intrigued by 1:1 meetings. Sure, I was constantly meeting with individual employees. But these meetings functioned as status updates, coaching conversations, and evaluative discussions drive by my agenda. Rarely did I meet with employees … just to listen.
Eager to give 1:1s a shot, I scheduled conversations with our four assistant principals and ten department chairs. Shortly before the meetings were slated to begin, I started having doubts. “What will be talk about?” I thought to myself. “This is going to be awkward!”
These fears quickly disappeared when I realized staff had plenty to talk about. We discussed everything from resource allocation and curriculum mapping to family happenings and leadership aspirations. The topic of conversation didn’t matter. What did matter was staff had their boss’s undivided attention.
The feedback was so positive that I scheduled quarterly 1:1s with all 14 direct reports. Although they took time, the rapport I developed with each leadership team member had a significant impact on relational trust and school culture.
1st Year as a High School Principal; I had no idea what I was doing!
Three years later I was a superintendent and still doing quarterly 1:1 meetings with all ten of my direct reports when I read The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman. In his book, Horstman promotes the use of 1:1 meetings. However, instead of quarterly meetings, Horstman says that 1:1s should occur weekly.
“Weekly meetings?” I thought upon starting the book. “That’s ten 1:1 meetings a week!! I’ll never find time in my schedule.”
Then I came across the following passage:
Part of the reason your schedule is so full is because you’re not spending enough time with your directs. Time spent with your directs is the most important time that you will spend at work. If you implement 1:1s you will get more time back in your calendar than you spend having them.
I floated the idea of weekly 1:1s with our leadership team and was happy to hear they were willing to give this idea a shot. And – almost immediately – weekly meetings paid dividends.
Weekly 1:1s gave me a better pulse on what was happening in the “trenches” of our organization by making me aware of what was going on within each of our departments. Not only was I more knowledgeable of our organization, the additional insight allowed me to make more informed decisions.
Furthermore, weekly 1:1s gave employees an opportunity to share their biggest challenges. By creating a safe space for brainstorming solutions together, we were able to eliminate most small issues before they became bigger problems.
Needless to say, implementing weekly 1:1s was one of the best leadership decisions I’ve ever made.
Thinking about starting weekly 1:1s in your setting? Here are six ideas to consider:
Surrender Control: Leaders must remember that 1:1s are the direct report’s meeting. Employees must be empowered to share their most important items while supervisors actively listen and ask clarifying questions. Only after employees are finished should managers share their updates. As a rule of thumb, direct reports should speak at least 75% of the time during 1:1 meetings.
Sacred Time: For 1:1s to be successful, supervisors and employees must get into a routine of meeting weekly. When a meeting is canceled, it should be the responsibility of the person canceling to reschedule the meeting. While you may occasionally skip one week, groups should never go more than two weeks without meeting during the school year.
Keeping track of my 1:1 meetings holds me accountable for meeting regularly with direct reports.
Note-Taking: Supervisors are responsible for taking notes during 1:1 meetings. Google Docs are perfect for creating a running list of items discussed that can be transparently shared between both parties. For managers who participate in several 1:1 meetings, written records are crucial for revisiting previous conversations and holding employees accountable.
Running List: Managers and direct reports are both guilty of interrupting each other’s daily work with minor issues. Rather than create unnecessary distractions, both individuals should get into a habit of writing their nonurgent items into the Google Doc as a reminder of what to talk about during the weekly meeting.
Timely Feedback: 1:1s are ideal for providing performance feedback. Managers should notice employee actions throughout the week and share those observations during the meeting. While most feedback should be positive in nature, 1:1s are perfect for providing constructive feedback without having to schedule an awkward one-off coaching conversation.
Ongoing Evaluation: The beauty of 1:1 meetings is that they serve as a continuous measure of employee performance. At the end of the year, supervisors should have dozens of pages of notes which serve a comprehensive performance review artifact. Rather than write a new employee evaluation, supervisors save hours of time by printing their meeting notes and using those documents to drive the annual review.
Considered by many to be the book on building relationships, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie takes a deep look at the importance of listening.
In his 1936 classic, Carnegie suggests, “Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is very important. Nothing else is so flattering than that.”
Consider the way you treat your employees.
Are you giving employees your full attention?
Or, are you "too busy" with other matters?
Unfortunately, leaders who never listen are eventually surrounded by people who have nothing to say.