The Secret That Top Managers Use to Create Exceptional Employees

I have been in my industry for over 30 years. During that time, I have had the honor, privilege and responsibility of managing hundreds (maybe thousands) of people directly or indirectly. To be honest, it’s a lot of pressure. I want to be able to have my department deliver quality for our company. I want to be able to reward those who do a good job. I want to treat them well. I know that my employees have lives and families outside of work but I want them to be committed to and challenged by the job that they are doing. And I can be very demanding.

Truth is that I could not be successful without the people who worked with me. And I really mean “with” and not “for”. As a manager, it’s important to remember that your employees are part of your team – your co-workers, not your underlings. They can tell the difference in your attitude, and casting them as an extra in a story where you’ve given yourself a starring role will quickly lead to well-deserved bitterness toward you.

But that’s only part of the secret.

The real secret is about how to turn them into true partners in your team’s success. The absolute best way to do this is to meet with each of your direct reports individually every week. Yes, really. It sounds so simple, and so surprising, that most managers will never implement this strategy, arguing that it takes too much time with no measureable return on the investment.

Let me explain.

When an employee is new to your company or team, they are in a new environment, with new responsibilities, new co-workers, new terminology, new rules, and even new places to have lunch. As long-timers, we forget what it was like when everything was new and we didn’t know if we were going to fit in or be able to do our job well.

However, I am no fan of coddling new people. I want to be a resource for them as they begin their career, but I’ll only have hired them if I believe that they can do the job well on their own initiative and skill.

The one-on-one meeting is on my calendar for the same day and time each week. I schedule an hour for the meeting. Yes – an entire hour for every one of my direct reports. (If you can’t accommodate this in your schedule, you have too many direct reports – a topic for another time). Some argue that weekly is too frequent, but I have learned from first-hand experience that the meetings sometimes get canceled, especially if someone is travelling. If the meeting had been scheduled for every other week or even once a month, missing one sets you even further back and the gap between meetings becomes far too large.

So what happens during that hour every week? First of all, I get to know the employee as a person. I learn what makes them tick, what keeps them challenged, what frustrates them. We just talk. At the beginning, I ask them to bring a list of all the questions that they have. I ask them to write down all the terms and acronyms they hear in their first week. We get so used to our jargon that we forget that it is, in fact, jargon. It’s important to initiate the new person on terminology they aren’t familiar with so communication is as clear as possible. This is a great way to give them the opportunity to ask questions early without any fear of looking stupid.

During our meeting, we review the projects that they are assigned to. They know that they have the responsibility to give me an update. I may assign them new tasks that I will ask about the following week. This process keeps all initiatives moving forward, makes me aware of problems, delays, and pitfalls, and allows for prioritization of the employee’s work – all in a one hour meeting.

Eventually the business side of the meeting gets shorter and shorter and we end up talking about other things, like children’s troubles at school, or the Red Sox’s new pitcher. This is good. This means that we know each other and are comfortable working together.

The largest benefit is that the familiarity and comfort of regularly scheduled meetings creates a space in which to have a conversation. Because of this, I have caught little problems early enough to prevent them from becoming big problems.

Regular meetings are not the same thing as an open door policy. Not. At. All. I can’t tell you how many times I have coached a manager who boasts about their open door policy and that all of the employees feel comfortable coming in to talk to him.

Then I talk with the employees. They have a completely different view of the policy. Sure the door is open, but because the manager so rarely initiates conversation, the employees are uncomfortable ever going in and “bothering” their manager with problems. By the time they do go in, it’s because a little problem has become a big problem. The manager then must put out a fire rather than blow out a match.

When an employee is meeting with me on a regular basis, trust is built over time. They can let me know about small issues whether it is with a co-worker, another department, or that the air conditioning vent blows directly on them all day long. Together, we can figure out the solution so that they can focus on getting their work done. As a manager, my job is to remove the obstacles so that the team can do their work effectively.

Oh, and one more important thing, when you are meeting with the employee, close your door. You must be in a private place. I never know where the conversation will lead. It may be about a sensitive topic. Getting up to close the door at that point is a signal to everyone else in the office that there is a sensitive topic being discussed. But if the door is always closed for the one-on-one meetings, then whether something sensitive is being discussed or not, privacy is maintained for every employee.

I love getting the most from my employees and I love watching them be successful. My success is theirs and theirs is mine. By investing the time every week, I am in the best position to be prepared to support employees, help them grow, address issues and get to know them as a person. This creates an environment where the very best work is done, and everyone enjoys doing it as much as is possible. It gives purpose and meaning and a collaborative spirit to the team, and that is a beautiful, and profitable, thing.

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