Field Notes

A Cardinal Sin

It’s not often that I get firm with a client. But last week I had to.

We were having a conversation about this client’s cadre of direct reports, and some of the developmental challenges and opportunities across them. Part of this conversation turned to the directs’ view of our client and her leadership skills, and it was then that I heard her describe what, to me at least, is a cardinal sin of leadership.

“One of the things they complain about,” the client said, “is how I cancel our one-on-ones.”

“Excuse me?” was my reply. I asked not so much because I hadn’t heard, as much as I was struck by how casual she was in saying it.

So we talked.

Turns out this is a pattern. She has many reasons why it happens, most of which relate to her having a role that puts a primacy on responsiveness. She must accommodate the schedules of many other internal stakeholders. She works hard (keeping a brutal schedule). She has a larger number of direct reports.

Those are good reasons, but not one of them is a reasonable excuse. And after I heard them, and suggested that those meetings needed to stay on the calendar, our client again was persistent in her excuses. It was then that I had to get firm in the conversation. “I get it,” I said, “but none of that matters. You cannot cancel your one-one-ones with your direct reports … and if you have to, it can’t happen more than once or twice a year. This is a cardinal rule. You cannot break it.”

Few symbols are as powerful a measure of the importance of a person and the significance of a relationship as the time you make for those you lead. It sends a powerful message about your own predictability and integrity. If you can’t keep the small promises people will never trust you to keep the large ones, and the best leaders know that their credibility flows in part from honoring all the small commitments in their lives.

Beyond signifying integrity, though, we all know that if we care for someone, we give them time. And the more busy and crowded and chaotic your life, the more meaningful the time you make for others becomes. Busy leaders can’t afford to cancel one-on-ones precisely because they are so busy — making time for those conversations among a crowded schedule is what says to other people that they’re important. Anyone can make time for others when there’s time to spare. It’s those we care for most that get our time when there’s none to give. Almost all leaders know this. But the best leaders live it and ensure it, and you need to, too. Keep your one-on-ones sacrosanct, and do whatever you need to do with your schedule to make that so.

When my wife and I were expecting our first child I asked people I cared about for advice on parenting. One said, “Love is spelled ‘TIME.’” That’s true. And I would add that trust is spelled “DEPENDABILITY.” Your ability to make time, each week, for the people you most directly lead — in your whole life — is one of the most important things you can do as a leader. To break that commitment is a cardinal sin of leadership. Make and keep that time for your subordinates and colleagues, but more important, for your friends, parents, lovers, partners, siblings, or children. They want the time with you. They notice when you take it away. And you’ll be much better for keeping it with them.

– AN