6 questions you should ask in your next 1-1: the “Stay Interview”

Brad Vogel

CTO at Mixmax



As a new manager, keeping your team happy means understanding what motivates them. I struggled with this initially as a new manager at my previous company, and wasn't motivating my team as much as a manager should. I knew I had to "dig deeper" to understand the employees on my team.

Actions taken

I started using what I call the "Stay Interview". You should treat the Stay Interview like a preemptive "exit interview". It will provide you with a way to learn about what motivates your team so you can reinforce those factors. Here are the questions I ask:

"Of all of the projects and features you have worked on in the last six months, which was your favorite? Which was your least favorite?"

Learn what motivates your employees. What kind of projects do they like working on? Do they like working alone or on a team? Which aspect of the project did they like the most? Was it the rare opportunity to start a project from scratch, an experience of being a project leader, or was it the outcome of winning an award? Set them up for success by putting them on projects that align with their unique desires.

"If you could get rid of any task, project or responsibility currently on your plate, what would it be?"

We all have tasks that we dislike, such as weekly status reports or engineering on-call duty. Listen to the reasons your employee gives for disliking those tasks. Was the business rationale unclear or was the technical challenge unsatisfactory? Make sure you understand which tasks they value and which they don't value. It will help you make informed decisions to maximize their success.

"How do you like to be recognized?"

We are, of course, all very different and this is reflected in how we like to be recognized. Some employees enjoy public praise and recognition from their peers. Others absolutely hate being congratulated in public. Some employees see a job title promotion as the leading indicator of their success, while others are just happy with a silent equity grant or cash bonus. Learn what motivates your employee. It will go a long way in making sure they're happy.

"What would you change about a previous manager? What did you wish they did a little more of or a little less of?"

Asking team members about how they interacted with prior managers is a great way to deepen your understanding of their work and communication styles. Have them evaluate the behaviors of their prior manager (without revealing the person's identity of course, as it's not a reflection on the competency of the manager). How did the manager resolve conflicts? How did they communicate priorities? How did they provide feedback and career development? It's also a fantastic way to pick up best practices for helping your team perform at its best.

"What would you like to be doing five years from now?"

Figure out where they want to be and optimize them for it. If they want to be CEO, get them involved in all aspects of the company (sales, marketing, product). If they want to be CTO, give them the opportunity to learn about all of the parts of the tech stack. If they want to be external-facing (such as in an evangelist role), get them talking to customers today. Don't accept a non-answer of "I want to still be doing the same thing". Five years is too long to be doing the same job and doing the same thing. As an engineering manager, you are responsible for the career growth of your employees.

"What might entice you away from your company?"

This is an admittedly uncomfortable question to ask, but it is a very important one. You should understand what might lure your employee away before it actually happens (and it will happen someday). Is it their current role or compensation package? Is it joining their dream company? If so, why isn't your team their dream team? This question is at the core of the "stay interview" — it preempts your employee's desires to move elsewhere.

Lessons learned

Being a great engineering manager is not just about innovating and finding a product-market fit. Maintaining excellent communication with your team will help both them and you to grow. The questions above serve that important purpose, and it's never too early to ask them. After implementing the "stay interview", team retention dramatically improved.

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Brad Vogel

CTO at Mixmax

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