One-on-one meetings

I’m going to put on my team lead hat for a minute. Many moons ago, I stumbled across and read Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby’s excellent Behind Closed Doors. One of many great managerial practices and recommendations in the book is to do one-on-one meetings: a regular (weekly) meeting between a manager and each of her charges to discuss project statuses, job satisfaction, progress in and reevaluation of professional goals, etc.

I’ve done and seen this done with two different mindsets, each with their own uses and problems.

A chance for the managed to have face time with the manager

I suspect this is most likely to happen when the manager isn’t directly involved in the oversight of the projects the managed is on, because she isn’t going to care about the nitty-gritty of project statuses and scheduling. This approach can work as an initial stop-gap if the team’s in trouble. If the managed folks hold a lot of resentment or just plain don’t communicate with the manager, this gets doors open faster than a blanket open-door policy that no one wants to use.

These still need structure, though, especially when they’re triage for a bigger team problem. Just sitting and saying, “So, what are we complaining about this week?” won’t work for the more quietly resentful or those who feel their job’s in danger. They’ll need to be drawn out a bit.

The main issue with this is that it’s easy to skip these meetings when the managed person doesn’t think they have anything to say, or when the manager starts to see smiles. If the mindset of the meetings doesn’t switch to the second style (below), then they’ll stop altogether.

These meetings have to be phrased carefully, too. It shouldn’t seem as if the manager is gracing her charges with her time, or as if the meetings are for the charges’ benefit (solely) rather than the manager’s. They should be held as important by manager: project deadlines should be managed around them, the discussion shouldn’t just kill time, and when the natural topics run low or become more frivolous, the manager should start taking a long-term approach to the topics.

Long-term view: statuses and goals

It’s a mixed-term view, really. Status and discussion of current projects and short-term goals, as well as longer-term discussion of multi-month goals. Remember those goals you set at every yearly review and never touch again? This is where they get touched.

This is pretty much exactly what Rothman and Derby describe in the book. Keep a regular schedule, a regular meeting structure, and take them (the meetings, the contents of the meetings, and the people in the meetings) seriously.

I really like this type of meeting. It does what the first approach strives for (making managed folks feel listened to) and is good for architecting a long-term strategy for team growth. Imagine being able to groom your managed folks to fit certain roles in the team in a regular way that doesn’t leave them in the dark or bumbling around. Because the manager has the 10,000-foot view of the team (or at least the 1,000-foot one), they need to know when and how to maneuver people and resources. These meetings (when done properly) make that happen.

Speaking of doing them properly, one way to muck these up is to institute them to try to “rehabilitate” someone. Like instituting code reviews once someone’s already on the chopping block, this is not a good tactic; it’s a witch hunt. I’ve been a part of one of these, and I’ve made it a career goal to handle situations like this better if they come up. A teammate was shifted so that I was leading his one-on-ones for the sole purpose of “fixing” him. Everyone knew how the process was going to end, but there was a difference in opinions on whether the gent in question even needed to be “fixed” or whether the type of work we did just wasn’t right for him, etc. It resulted in awkward, desperate meetings and a lot of stress for me and the fellow.

Issues with these meetings in general

Here’s a doozy: the communication break that can occur between managers. If the manager holding the one-on-one isn’t the manager that handles project assignments and statuses (maybe it’s the hiring-and-firing manager instead, or the employee-satisfaction manager), then the meeting-manager will have to speak authoritatively to issues the employee is having, even if those issues are with other managers. She’ll then have to discuss with the project manager (for lack of a better term) about those same issues, and stuff will inevitably get lost in translation.

That results in a weird breakdown in communications where in the one-on-one meeting the managed can leave feeling like something’s solved, but find out later that the managers got together have a different understanding of the problem or decided to use a different solution.

Once that trust is broken — once the managed is inconvenienced or harmed by that dissonance — it’s going to be crazy difficult to rebuild. Good luck with that.

My question for that scenario is, “Why isn’t the PM running the meeting?” Yes, it needs to be run by someone with the authority to make changes happen, but if the PM can’t do that or isn’t supposed to care about the managed’s goals and development, the organization might need to take another look at how it’s structured.

Then again, I have (thus far) only worked in small organizations where roles and power were fairly fluid. I may revise my opinion on how this should be done when I get to Wachovia.

If the non-PM needs to run the meetings, then one idea I’d like to see done (especially if there’s only one “project manager” involved) is a two-on-one meeting. It’s much harder to have a “safe” environment in this case — an employee could easily feel cornered and get their back up. But the above communication issues could be nixed in this case, although managers are definitely put on the spot in terms of solution-generation since they can’t collude privately.

The thing to remember about this entire meeting idea (and hell, the entire Rothman/Derby book) is that managers’ jobs are to manage people. These meetings should be geared towards the people more than the projects, more than checking off goals, and more than just feeling good about being a “manager”. If the manager can’t be bothered to care deeply about their team’s well-being and growth, these meetings will just be killed time.