What is the single most impactful action managers can take to improve employee performance and increase retention?
Spend time getting to know their direct reports.
I spent nine years in educational leadership before discovering 1:1 meetings.
1:1 meetings are regularly scheduled 30-minute conversations where the direct report talks and the supervisor listens. Despite the simple concept, I had never seen these meetings modeled nor had I been invited to participate.
Sure, I had taken part in many conversations with my supervisor, such as impromptu "I need this done" briefings or end-of-year performance reviews. But regularly scheduled meetings where the subordinate drove the discussion was a foreign concept.
Several years ago I was finishing my first year as a building principal when a colleague introduced me to Radical Candor by Kim Scott. In her book, Scott suggests, "One on one conversations are your must-do meetings - your single best opportunities to 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 idea of one on one meetings. Believing they could help me better-connect with staff, I scheduled my first round of 30-minute meetings with all assistant principals, department chairs, and my secretary (15 people in total).
Shortly before the meetings were scheduled to begin, I started to have my doubts:
"What will we talk about?"
"I don't want to micromanage!"
"Am I wasting their time?"
"This is going to be awkward!"
These fears quickly disappeared when I realized staff valued these meetings. They appreciated having face time with the boss and the opportunity to share their questions, concerns, and ideas. Conversation usually focused on professional matters, but often we delved into less-formal topics.
Whereas I was nervous heading into the conversations, I emerged energized by the process.
The positive impact of these meetings led me to increase the frequency of these meetings from once a quarter as a principal to once a month as a superintendent.
After finishing my first year as a superintendent another colleague introduced me to The Effective Manager by Mark Horstman. In his book, Horstman argues 1:1 meetings should be held weekly with all direct reports.
"Weekly meetings? I've got ten direct reports! How will I find the time?"
Then I stumbled into a passage in the book that put those fears at ease: "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. In the end, you will get more time back in your calendar than you spend actually having the 1:1 meetings."
I decided to give weekly meetings a chance.
It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Weekly 1:1 meetings help school leaders get a pulse on their people, buildings, and departments. By understanding what is going on in the trenches of their organization, leaders are able to make well-informed decisions.
Weekly 1:1 meetings provide direct reports with an opportunity to discuss pressing issues with their boss. Not only does this process enhance problem solving, it also lessens the chances of the boss being caught off-guard by future surprises.
Most importantly, weekly 1:1 meetings provide opportunities for rich conversation and timely feedback. Open and honest dialogue fosters a strong relationship between supervisor and employee.
Thinking about implementing 1:1 meetings? Here are some items to consider:
Direct Reports Run the Meeting: The key to the agenda is letting direct reports speak first. When employees share their items supervisors actively listen by taking notes and asking clarifying questions. Only when employees are done should supervisors share updates.
Sacred Time: Some employees will push back on 1:1 meetings. This is normal. It is vital for supervisor and employee to get into a rhythm of weekly meetings. So when a direct report must postpone a meeting, he is responsible for quickly rescheduling the meeting.
Keep a List: Too often, managers and direct reports interrupt each other's daily work with minor issues masked as "emergencies." Rather than interfere, both employees should keep a list of non-urgent items to discuss during weekly meetings.
Feedback: 1:1s are ideal for providing timely, specific feedback. Managers should notice the good things employees are doing, and be prepared to share those observations. Providing constructive feedback is fine, but leaders should aim for a ratio of three positives for every one negative.
Note-Taking: Supervisors are tasked with taking notes. Written records allow previous conversations to be revisited and commitments to be documented. While notes can be hand-written or typed, Google Docs allows for transparent sharing of comments between supervisor and employee.
Evaluation: By the end of the year, the supervisor will have dozens of pages outlining employee performance. Wise bosses don't let this work go to waste by using the notes as a guiding document for the employee end-of-year performance review.
There are those who argue weekly 1:1 meetings take too much time.
While regular check-ins take more time initially, investment in people saves time in the long run when leaders have an accurate understanding of the problems and issues their employees are facing.
Time spent with directs is the most important time you will spend at work.