Have you worked for a distracted boss?
Have you worked for a preoccupied boss?
Have you worked for a disengaged boss?
I once worked for this boss. This boss was constantly working on "important matters" and never had time for employees. When people approached him with questions or concerns, he was too busy to chat and brushed them aside.
When staff managed to secure time with him, conversations were brief. He was notorious for listening for a few minutes, only to be interrupted by a phone call or his secretary. And during those rare moments of discussion, his attention was elsewhere. Whether his eyes were locked on his cell phone or computer screen - both of which were always out during meetings - he was never truly engaged in the conversation.
The way he behaved, we assumed his job must be filled with never-ending emergencies and ongoing crises. "He's a busy guy," staff would remark, attempting to justify his behavior. "He's got more important things to do."
Now that I have experienced school leadership from his chair, I realize he had us fooled. I don't know if it was poor allocation of resources, misalignment of priorities, or some sort of underlying attention deficit disorder, but school leadership is not the endless stream of emergencies and chaos he led 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.
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." He continues, "If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. Remember that people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems."
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, employees often feel the opposite. A recent poll indicated only 12 percent of employees believe their employer genuinely listens to and cares about them.
What is the source of this disconnect? Unfortunately, bosses and employees view listening as two different things. Whereas most leaders believe chit-chatting with staff in hallways or promoting an open door policy count as listening, these passive actions do not count as the active listening employees crave.
When I finished my first year as high school principal, I reflected on the relationships I had formed with employees. While I had forged basic relationships with most employees, our conversations rarely went beyond "Up to anything fun this weekend?" or "Did you see the game last night?" surface-level dialogue.
Eager to build more meaningful relationships, I asked colleagues for a resource that would allow me to engage staff in deeper conversations. That's when a colleague 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 the thought of regularly scheduled meetings with direct reports. Sure, I had previously facilitated countless conversations with individual employees. But these meetings were status updates, coaching conferences, and evaluative discussions driven by my agenda. Rarely did I meet with employees ... just to listen.
Eager to give 1:1s a shot, I asked my secretary to schedule conversations with our four assistant principals and ten department chairs.
Shortly before the meetings were slated to begin, I started having doubts. "What will we 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 I received was so positive that I scheduled quarterly 1:1s with all 14 direct reports. Although they took time, the trust I formed with each leadership team member had a significant impact on relational trust and school culture.
Two years later, another colleague introduced me to The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman. In his book, Horstman promotes the use of 1:1 meetings. However, instead of the quarterly meetings I had adopted, he argues 1:1s should occur weekly.
“Weekly meetings?" I thought upon starting the book. "That's crazy!"
At this point I had moved into the superintendent role had ten direct reports: three building principals, five directors, one curriculum director, and one secretary. "That's ten meetings a week! I'm 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 communicating with your directs. Time spent with your directs is the most important time that you will spend at work. If you implement 1:1's, you will get more time back in your calendar than you spend in 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. During my first year as superintendent, I understood very little about non-academic departments such as transportation, custodial and maintenance, and food service.
Weekly meetings with directors increased my awareness of the performance in those departments. Not only was I knowledgeable when speaking with stakeholders, the additional context allowed me to provide better support and make more-informed decisions.
Furthermore, weekly 1:1s gave employees opportunities to share developing issues in their building or department. During my first year as a district leader, another struggle was containing "problems" before they reached the school board's purview.
Weekly meetings provided an opportunity to discuss challenges with leaders before they turned into bigger headaches. By brainstorming solutions together, not only did we develop effective action plans, I also limited the number of school board complaints.
Needless to say, implementing weekly 1:1s was one of 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 1:1s are the direct report's meeting. Employees should share their items while supervisors actively listen and ask clarifying questions. Only after employees are finished should managers share their updates.
Sacred Time: For 1:1s to be successful, supervisors and employees must get in a routine of meeting weekly. So when directs try to cancel meetings (which will happen), remind them they are responsible for rescheduling the meeting in the near future.
Make a List: Managers and direct reports are both guilty of interrupting each other’s daily work with minor issues masked as “emergencies.” Rather than create unnecessary distractions, both individuals should save non-urgent items for the weekly meeting.
Feedback: 1:1s are ideal for providing timely feedback. Managers should collect observations throughout the week and share those comments during meetings. 1:1s are great for constructive feedback, but sharing positive news is ideal for building relationships.
Note-Taking: Supervisors discover when they take notes, the importance of the meeting is elevated. For managers who run several 1:1 meetings, written records are crucial for revisiting previous conversations and holding direct reports accountable.
Evaluation: In addition to keeping a running record, 1:1 meeting notes serve as an excellent performance review artifact. Rather than complete a new evaluation, supervisors save time by printing notes and using those documents to drive the annual review process.
Rather than sit back and assume staff will come to them, leaders must create opportunities for employees to share their thoughts and opinions.
Leaders who routinely give staff their undivided attention create an environment where staff feel supported and trusted. Alternately, leaders who are too busy for staff develop a reputation for being distant and unapproachable.
Don't be that boss.
As author and pastor Andy Stanley famously warned, "Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”