My most embarassing 1:1 meeting - its your job to take ownership of your role

June 06, 20247 min read

I really screwed up. It was the summer of 2018 and I just landed my first internship. It was at a big company in their marketing department and was my first “professional” job. I was excited, but scared as hell. 

I had just completed my sophomore year of college where I spent most days going to the beach and hanging out with friends, an existence far from the serious and professional atmosphere you’ll find inside a fortune 500 company. I was hired as a marketing intern supporting the team that ran the company’s email campaigns. I didn’t know a damn thing about email marketing, but I was eager to learn as much as I could.

After a week of sitting in on meetings that I didn’t understand, I made it to Friday. For the first time, I got to feel that well-known “Friday feeling" after a long week. I didn’t do much work at all that week, but it felt satisfying nonetheless.

But there was something between me and clocking out to go home that day. I was scheduled to have my first solo meeting with my manager. It was the only meeting I had that Friday, scheduled for 10AM.

It was my fifth day in the corporate world, so I didn’t know what to expect. There was no agenda and no formal instructions. I assumed he would just give me some more tasks, but I was about to find out the hard way that this was not the case.

At 9:58AM, I walked nervously down the hallway on the fourth floor to a meeting room where he was waiting. I turned the corner and peered through the glass into the room. He beat me to the meeting and was already waiting. The room had a massive conference table in the middle and large windows overlooking the courtyard below. It was probably 10 times the size of the room that we needed, but it felt serious and professional.

I pulled up one of the fifteen odd chairs around the table and sat down. We did the obligatory small talk: weekend plans, the weather etc. It was casual and easy.

But after the small talk came to its inevitable end, his tone and demeanor shifted. Play time was over and business was now starting. The shift felt serious, but I was just glad for him to take the lead in the meeting. I didn’t know how these meetings were supposed to go. I assumed he’d start to walk me through some tasks I was going to have to complete the following week.

He looked at me and said “So, what do you want to talk about today?”

Hmm...that’s a good question, I thought.

I was completely caught off-guard. Having prepared absolutely nothing, I knew this was bad.

My heart sank and my mouth got dry. I could tell this wasn’t a courtesy offer that I could bypass by just saying “I have nothing specific”. He was expecting me to lead this meeting.

Scrambling, I tried to think of something, but nothing was coming to mind. He waited patiently for me to answer, but I was frozen completely. My face filled with blood and I gave him a blank stare, hoping that somehow he would answer the question for me. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, let alone a topic related to work.

He wasn’t going to break the tension and pull me out of the awkwardness. I had to sit there and think. The silence was probably for only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

“Uhhh I don’t know,” I said.

(I’m not sure I even said that. I may have actually said nothing at all. I don’t know. I blacked out).

At that moment I knew I had really screwed up. Here I am in my first meeting with my manager and I came empty handed. And boy was I embarrassed. For the first time in years, I felt like a true idiot. I hadn’t had that feeling in quite some time, probably since getting yelled at by a coach in youth sports. It’s a feeling you don’t feel too often as an adult.

After a few seconds, he broke the silence and educated me. He explained that 1:1’s were supposed to be time for me to discuss exactly what I needed from him. This was the time for me to have an open line to him and get some help. 

That this 1:1 meeting wasn’t for him, it was for me. And it was my job to run it.

It was my meeting. I owned it and was supposed to dictate exactly how it went. If I wanted to talk about my career I could. If I wanted his advice on a campaign, this was the time to ask. It wasn’t his job to bring my agenda to the meeting for me. After all, I was the one who needed his time and he didn’t need mine.

After the tension faded and his lecture on my ineptitude completed, he spent the next 25 minutes giving me a formal structure for how I would show up to future 1:1 meetings. I felt like an elementary school child, but it was probably needed.

I left that meeting with my tail between my legs, feeling a combination of anger and embarrassment. I began to think that this whole corporate thing wasn’t for me and that I had chosen the wrong career path.

I kept thinking, “How could he expect me to come to this with a bunch of things to talk about? I’m just an intern and have no clue what I’m doing. He’s a terrible manager and should be here to help me, not make a point by embarrassing me in my first week.”

But I eventually realized the value of this lesson and let go of the frustration I initially felt. His intention wasn’t to embarrass me. He wanted to teach me one of the most important lessons of working at a big company while the stakes weren’t high.

As an employee, it’s your job to take control of your role, take ownership, and tell your manager what you need and where you want to go. Not the other way around. When you get their time, treat it with respect and make the most of it. Your success is up to you. Your manager is there to support you, not own you.

It was a painful lesson, but I was lucky enough to learn it on day five of my first internship. 

I never showed up to a 1:1 again unprepared. I wrote out everything I could. I even printed out that damn meeting framework we came up with and brought it to our meetings every week from there on out. I wasn’t going to feel that feeling ever again.

You could see this story as a manager being a bit rough on a clueless intern, or see it as an effort to teach a valuable lesson to a young professional who had potential. I choose to see it as the latter and it’s helped me to this day.

You own your role, initiatives, and career. Your manager doesn’t.

Some people in the corporate world call this “managing up.” I’m not a fan of the corporate jargon, but I don’t have a better name for it.

While your manager may “manage” you, you also manage the relationship and have control over it. It’s not your manager's job to know and understand everything you’re doing and what you need. It’s your job to take matters into your own hands. If you don’t take ownership of your role, you won’t be steering the ship in the direction you want it to go.

Since that Friday in 2018, I’ve always made it a point to lead the relationship, to come prepared, and to tell my manager what I needed from them. If you leave it to them to drive you forward, you won’t get to where you want to go.

Also, come prepared to your 1:1’s, genius..

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