Bursts of Color - Effective 1:1s
Most of us working in startups have come to know, if not love, 1:1 meetings. Here's how Andy Grove described them in High Output Management:
At Intel, a one-on-one is a meeting between a supervisor and a subordinate, and it is the principal way their business relationship is maintained. Its main purpose is mutual teaching and exchange of information.
Managers sometimes complain that we spend too much time in 1:1s. But if we're doing them well, the 1:1 should be very high leverage:
What is the leverage of the one-on-one? Let's say you have a one-on-one with your subordinate every two weeks, and it lasts one and a half hours. Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for eighty-plus hours, and also upgrade your understanding of what he’s doing.
So what's the formula for an effective 1:1? Of course there is lots of variety, but here are some of my proposed defaults:
The standing 1:1 is primarily for direct reports with their managers. There are sometimes other special relationships (e.g., a Lead Product Manager with the Lead Engineer) where an ongoing 1:1 makes sense. But "skip level" or other occasional catch-up meetings should generally not be considered 1:1s.
Most direct reports should have a standing weekly 1:1 block with their manager for ~45 minutes (basically an hour with buffer). By scheduling weekly, we can avoid any long breaks between 1:1s given that occasional cancellations happen. Some managers prefer to schedule 1:1s for 3o minutes... and while that's better than nothing, I find that this translates to about 20 minutes, and becomes more of a quick check-in than a real opportunity for depth. Whatever you choose, the key is for the manager to be on time and mentally engaged with her direct report. When we're late or reschedule at the last minute, it signals that we don't care about the other person's time.
Whenever possible, I prefer 1:1s out in the world - walking, driving, biking, at a coffee shop or restaurant, etc. This makes the 1:1 a shared experience beyond the meeting content itself. Second choice is an office or conference room -- and sometimes this is necessary when we need to review documents or such. For remote teams, obviously we often have to make do with zoom or phone. I recommend keeping video on in most cases, unless there is a special situation and/or very tight existing relationship... otherwise it's just too easy to miss signals, or for either side to tune-out.
The goal of the 1:1 is to keep the lines of communication open -- so we can resolve a wide range of issues in a timely manner and suss out potential problems early.
The 1:1 is a kind of "parking lot" for all the things that come up each week and aren't addressed elsewhere. This includes everything from minor admin items (I'd like to take PTO next Wednesday) to much thornier topics (I'm concerned about this client interaction). It's a good place to go into depth when needed (let's walk through that spreadsheet together). And it's also a natural forum for coaching and career development.
Both parties come prepared with a list of topics they wish to discuss, though in most cases the direct report goes first and drives the meeting. One of my longtime managers would often start with "how are you feeling?" to get me going. And of course if the manager has brought a meaty topic , it's always good to flag that with "let's allow at least 15 minutes to cover XYZ."
Common Red Flags
If you're regularly dreading or trying to avoid a particular 1:1 , that is telling you something.
If you're not getting anything from your direct report in the 1:1 (they never bring agenda, don't seem to be sharing anything), that's a sign too... address it before time passes.
The last minute "zinger," as described by Andy Grove:
The supervisor should be wary of the "zinger," which is a heart-to-heart issue brought up at an awkward time. More often than not, these come up near the end of the meeting. If you let that happen, the subordinate might tell you something like he's unhappy and has been looking for a job and give you only five minutes to deal with it.