How Sheryl Sandberg keeps one-on-ones personal and efficient

Hold the small talk.
Hold the small talk.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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When Sheryl Sandberg served as chief of staff to US treasury secretary Larry Summers—prior to her six-year stint at Google, and current role as chief operating officer at Facebook—she found it frustrating that Summers’ table always seemed to fill up with old men.

Junior employees and women are the future, she thought. Instead of griping, she beckoned junior staffers, including women, from the sidelines. “We’ll make room,” she said, literally scooting over so they could sit alongside her at Summers’ table.

“A key part of what Sheryl does in her life is helping people advance, to be seen, and to be heard,” longtime colleague David Fischer observed in Ken Auletta’s 2011 profile of Sandberg in The New Yorker. (Fischer was Sandberg’s deputy at the Treasury Department, worked for her at Google, and now serves as vice president for business and marketing partnerships at Facebook.)

Such personalized mentorship isn’t easy when you’re overseeing tens of thousands of people, as Sandberg did at Treasury, or hundreds of thousands, as she presently does at Facebook. Nor is it easy when you’re managing just a handful of people, as she did in her first role at Google. After all, every employee has individual strengths and weaknesses, along with anxieties they may or may not share with you. Plus, as a manager, giving direct feedback can be extremely stressful.

Even if you do enjoy an open, accepting, and communicative office culture, life gets busy. It’s hard to remember all the details you want, and need, to discuss in mentorship and managerial one-on-one meetings.

Sandberg has a solution to these obstacles, which Fischer recently shared with the Wall Street Journal:

“[Over 20 years of working together] she has gone through I don’t know how many thousands of these little notebooks that fit nicely in the palm of your hand,” he said. “She has lists for each person as well as herself so when I go in and have my one-on-one with her later today, she will flip to my name and there will be a set of issues. It’s effective.”

As a reporter, this strategy is familiar: Write down the questions you have, the problems you observe, and the behaviors you notice, in the moment. If you don’t, you’ll forget them. This also enables you to discuss highly specific  memories, instead of falling back on vague recollections or blanket statements, which is particularly important if those statements could be construed as accusatory or offensive.

For example, if you, like Sandberg, can turn to a section in your notebook and ask a direct report why they didn’t speak up in a specific meeting, or why they seemed upset on a specific day, you set yourself up for an efficient, solutions-oriented one-on-one. Plus, such personalized observations communicate that you, as a manger, are invested in your employees’ individual experience, and are able to discuss difficult topics (you had a down day) without extrapolating individual behaviors into generalized personality traits (you’re a downer, and we don’t want you on our team).

Feeling supported by your manager is the top indicator of employee satisfaction. So even if a physical notebook feels old school, you’d be smart to make like Sandberg, and start jotting down employee observations on iPhone notes, Evernote, Google Docs, or whatever digital system you prefer. You, and your employees, will thank you.