Why Managers Need to Take Notes to be Successful

“I have a very specific management style. I put my team in charge of it all.” He said as he put his feet on the table, leaning back with his hands crossed behind his head, elbows out to either side.

He didn’t believe he should take notes, and believed his hands-off approach allowed, “a very specific kind of person to thrive.”  The rest, as he put it, “weren’t a fit to my management style.”

A few months ago I was in the office of a VP at a Silicon Valley, ventured backed company where I heard the above.  While I’m sure, for a certain kind of employee, his form of self management may work, he’s missing out on the value of a diverse team that way. I also doubt his team was as satisfied as he thought.

It’s a simple behavior that has a big impact for you and your team: take notes. Taking notes is critical to you as a manager, and often very helpful for your team. And it has nothing to do with whether you’re a micro-manager or not.

take notes either electronically or by hand.

Why Managers Should Take Notes

Of course, you don’t want to be a micro-manager. Letting your people determine their best approaches to work goals you discuss with them is great. And whether you write that down or not has no impact on them taking ownership of the work. Instead, if you take notes, you get a series of benefits:

1) Organize your thoughts

When you take notes, you’re pushing yourself to organize what you heard into a structure that you understand now and in the future. The simple act of trying to take them will make it much less likely you miss something important or get back to your desk and think, “wait a second, what did they say about that?” or “Shoot. We didn’t cover X.”  If you had notes, those thoughts are more likely to be caught in the meeting, or avoided altogether.

And research on how the brain works seems to agree:

“…when we write — we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering the information that we are receiving. That process…is what helps fix ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line.”

Notes also can help you with preparation. By being able to review *your* thoughts from the last meeting, you’ll have the best chance of recalling what was discussed last time. That ensures each meeting you have is about moving forward with next steps, not rehashing the last meeting.

A study of students in a psychology class showed exactly this result:

“Taking and reviewing notes yeilded maximum retention, while listening only, without review, resulted in poorest performance.”

The advantage of note takers who reviewed their notes scored significantly higher on tests both immediately after the lecture ended and 1 week later.

While you may not be taking tests any more, the busier your schedule gets as a manager, the harder it will be to stay on top of everything. Having notes gives you a much better chance of effective recall, and saves you from needless meetings where part (or all of it) is spent rehashing past discussions and decisions.

2) Have a record

As a manager, you’re expected to make decisions that impact your team, and often the company as a whole. If you want to make a good decision, having notes to fall back on is important. It’s also a big help if you need to justify a decision to others (your boss, the CEO, another department, your team, etc), so it doesn’t appear to just be a gut instinct or opinion.

Could you use someone else’s notes for that purpose? Maybe. But you run a number of risks:

  • Did the person who took the notes have a bias on the outcome that could influence your decision?
  • Can you understand their notes? Can you find and access them when you need them?
  • Did the note taker have the same responsibilities and interests so they didn’t miss anything important for you?

The bias of who took the notes is particularly risky when you consider potential competing politics in your company, or simply someone’s self interest.

Especially for one on one notes, it’s essential you have your own notes. Whether you’re justifying someone is ready for a promotion, firing them, or simply need talking points for your next performance review, you can’t have the person you’re evaluating taking the notes you’ll use for that. They have every reason to emphasize the positives and omit or downplay any negatives that would come in those notes.

The last thing you want to create is a “he said, she wrote” situation with HR. There can be serious liability issues if you think a discussion went one way and the only notes agree with the employee saying another.

These risks and pitfalls can all be avoided if you simply take ownership of taking your own notes.

3) Demonstrate what’s important

If you want to be more than a manager, if you want to lead your people, it’s important you bring the right mindset with you.  And a key part of that mindset is that of Servant Leadership:

“The basic belief of Servant Leadership is that, we, as leaders, are here – first and foremost – to serve our organizations…To live Servant Leadership effectively; we start with the view that we are going to treat our staff as our “customers.”

If your staff are your “customer” then suddenly, it becomes clear that notes are something you should do to help them. You have commitments you’ll make to them and you want to be helpful. The best way to serve your team is be prepared, be thoughtful, and follow through on your promises.  You can’t do that if you don’t have any notes.

Taking notes is also more than just a benefit for you to do the best you can for your team. It’s also a strong symbol, as Andy Grove wrote in High Output Management:

“Equally important is what “writing it down” symbolizes…the act implies a commitment, like a handshake, that something will be done.”

You send a strong signal when others see you taking the time to diligently write something down. You can then further reinforce that value by using the key phrase“…that sounds important to you, let me write that down.” 

Combined, you make it clear that what’s being discussed is valued, whether it’s something bothering them they mention in a one on one, or input in a big meeting.  You are also then much more likely to remember to follow through on it, which is critical to them maintaining their trust and confidence in you.

In the end, your job as a manager is to help make critical decisions and get the most out of your people in a sustainable way. If you take notes, you can make more informed, defensible decisions, and remember what matters most to motivating your team.

Repetition is your friend

If you want to be true pro, then you should add the power of repetition to your note taking skills. While you do not want to badger your team over simple tasks, making the effort to ensure you’re on the same page and to reinforce what was agreed to will actually greatly improve your team’s effectiveness.

As a study in the Harvard Business Review reported:

“Managers who were deliberately redundant moved their projects forward faster and more smoothly.”

If you’ve made the effort of noting something, especially if it’s a follow up, take a minute to reinforce it with them.  The simplest way can be in the moment verbalizing what was just agreed. Later, a simple recap email after a one on one covering the things you’re both going to do by next time can go a long way to ensuring your discussions aren’t a waste.

An extra nudge across a different medium (in person to email, call to chat, etc) can be just what you need to make sure they (and you) haven’t forgotten as they get back into other tasks, meetings, and distractions.

As a manager, the demands on your time only grow as you advance in your career. You will have larger teams, then one day layers of leaders below you. The sooner you accept responsibility for keeping notes and thoughts organized, the better positioned you will be to handle that growth.

If you’re looking for an easy way to stay on top of what matters most to your team, to have effective one on ones that boost morale and motivation of your team, and give you a simple framework to follow, then sign up to give Lighthouse a try. It was built from the ground up to serve busy managers like you, to help you better lead, motivate, and serve your team.