Editor’s note: Ken Hardin, TechRepublic’s director of editorial development, is filling in for Bob Artner this week.

Managers here at TechRepublic recently completed two days of corporate training dedicated to our annual personnel review process. As you might expect, we spent a lot of time role-playing through uncomfortable review scenarios in which employees become upset or confused. Friction like this usually arises when managers’ assessments don’t synch with team members’ own opinions of how well they are doing or, even worse, what they are supposed to be doing in the first place.

Of course, these things happen. They are a lot more likely to happen if you wait for a formal yearly review to really get down to brass tacks on how your team members are coming along. No IT manager would let a project go for a year, a quarter, or for that matter even a month, without some sort of credible checkup on its status. Their organizational (and self-preservation) instincts are just too strong.

So why are tech department heads notorious in HR circles for mishandling ongoing staff development issues? Often, for the same reasons they are successful at the tactical, quantifiable components that make up the bulk of their jobs: IT pros like numbers. Sure, it’s tough to plot out a Gantt chart for corporate competencies, such as “building relationships,” “leading change,” and “developing others,” just to cite a few examples from TechRepublic’s parent company, CNET Networks, but as a manager, it’s your job to prod your team members along toward these fuzzier standards, even as you’re pushing to make that release deadline under budget.

My best advice is start handling your employees’ ongoing development in much the same way as you do a code release. And the only way to do that is with regularly scheduled sessions devoted to tracking team member’s growth in areas that don’t equate with product deliverables. In management jargon, these meetings are often called one-on-ones.

Forget about deadlines and forge a plan
As I first began thinking through ideas for this column, I decided to ask a few of TechRepublic’s development and IS pros what they think is most important to cover in one-on-one sessions with their manager. All of them, with the exception of a team manager, cited project status as a primary concern for such meetings.

After this epiphany, I decided to ask our members their thoughts on the question. In a quick poll of both our IT Manager and Developer communities, more than 40 percent of both groups cited project status as the most pressing issue they want discuss during one-on-one meetings. That’s better than double any of the poll’s other options. You can see a comparison of the two community’s priorities in Figure A.

Figure A
Project status weighs heavily on the minds of both managers and developers in our quick poll.

In all candor, such inability to separate the objective goals of a project and the often more subjective goals of personnel development is at the heart of most HR breakdowns.

Think about it: You have three developers and a project manager working a key site revision that’s now 10 percent behind its phase-one deliverable timeline. To get this project back on track, are you going to:

  • Patiently determine which of your four key players are dropping the ball, and then work out a constructive plan to build strengths that will help them catch up with their teammates over time?
  • Juggle and reassign tasks like crazy, regardless of hurt feelings and missed opportunities for staff growth, to get back that 10 percent?

That was a rhetorical question. You’re going to do whatever it takes to get your product out the door. But without some parallel track of staff development checkpoints that’s not driven by real-time product delivery, what are the odds that you are ever going to get back to those personnel problems?

Like everything else, you’ve got to have a schedule and a plan to deal with these issues. If you don’t, your team will keep repeating the same mistakes and you’ll lose what should have been key resources, either through defection by disgruntled employees or dismissal of once-promising staffers who just never quite made the grade.

Keys to a successful one-on-one session
Unfortunately, one-on-one sessions were a pretty fashionable management gimmick during the dot.com madness, so they’ve gotten something of a bad rap. I once worked with a Dev manager who literally would walk into a team member’s office, say “OK, what do you want to talk about?” and then leave if the employee didn’t have a great, hour-long agenda. Like I said before, you have to have a plan.

Here are some practical do’s and don’ts for planning and running a useful one-on-one meeting.

Have one-on-ones about once a month. Of course, other demands on your time will affect how often you can set aside an hour for each employee, but about once every four or so weeks should be enough. In my informal survey of TechRepublic IT pros, the most common desired frequency was once a week, but that was in the context of using the sessions for updates on project status. Have as many project meetings as you need; people don’t change quite so quickly as site upgrades.

Do them in the team member’s office or a “neutral” space. You’ll also hear this advice from HR pros about formal reviews. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, employees tend to be a little intimidated by their bosses, and nobody likes criticism, even the constructive kind. Putting the team member at ease to speak his or her mind is a huge key to success in any developmental session.

Block out about half the hour for some highly structured review process, with monthly milestones to achieve. Again, you must always have a plan. If you’ve got a developer who’s slipping deadline, set aside 30 minutes to Gantt out his individual milestones for the month, and then review ways he can improve for the coming month. If you’ve got a teamwork problem, ask the employee to head up an informal effort to accomplish some housekeeping task that will require input from several team members. Clearly identify the items you’ll be reviewing a month from now, and set a couple of broad expectations for the employee to meet. This gives the one-on-one a sense of purpose and prevents the reviews from slipping into hour-long “rap” sessions that seem to go nowhere.

So what is “career development,” anyway?

The importance of career development varies widely among different IT pros. In a future column, Ken Hardin will ask a few HR pros for their definitions of “career development” and how managers and team members can connect on the issue. Where does it rank on your list of priorities? Is it more important than salary or vacation time? Post a comment or send us a letter.

Be sure the monthly goals you set correlate to the team member’s formal job performance goals. A big part of one-on-ones’ upside for you as a manager is that they are a great litmus test for your HR job review plans. If you find that an employee is struggling with timeliness, that should certainly be reflected in his or her formal job goals for the review period. If it’s not, you’ve got some updates to make.

Block out about half the session as the employee’s time. On the surface, this can drive busy managers crazy, but team members need an opportunity to vent about what’s bugging them. Just make sure the “rap” doesn’t degenerate into a conversation about movies, fantasy football, or other distractions that have nothing to do with the job at hand.

Never put off addressing a real-time problem until the one-on-one. If a team member is bothered enough to come to you with a problem, you can make a few minutes to listen. Remember, one-on-ones are a structured approach to ongoing staff development; they aren’t an excuse to cut down on the time you spend on the people who work for you. In the worst case, managers try to jam all their staff management duties into a nice little pigeonhole, and the one-on-one invariably deteriorates into a “woodshed” where little that’s productive happens.

Let the team member do most of the talking. For the most part, when you speak during a one-on-one, it should be to ask the team member a question or to give advice after asking a couple of questions. The employee gets a sense of ownership of the process, and you get a clearer picture of what’s really going on in his or her world before you start popping off suggestions. Remember, one reason you are having such a structured management session is because you’re too busy to keep up with all the team member’s individual issues on a daily basis. So listen and learn.

Don’t talk about how hard your own job is, or “big picture” issues, unless asked. You’ll see in the poll results chart above that there’s a huge expectations breach between our Developer and IT Manager communities on the matter of “team member/manager dynamics.” When you get down to it, IT pros are a pretty practical bunch; how you handle project status meetings and work assignments will determine their opinion of you, not any interpersonal points you might want to deconstruct during a one-on-one. Basically, your employees just want to talk about their individual work environments; they are willing to wait until the company-wide meeting for the quarterly earnings report.

Of course, most of these pointers boil down to common sense. But then again, so does personnel management. After a few one-on-one sessions, you’ll find that employees not only are more willing to communicate openly in private, they’ll also be more active in team meetings and brainstorming sessions.

And you’ll be able to worry a lot less about any big surprises when annual reviews roll around.