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How to run effective one-on-ones

Mark Kinsella

VP of Engineering at Opendoor Labs Inc.

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Problem

Typically, one-on-ones involve an engineer and their manager. All too often, these meetings involve discussions about random subjects, rather than discussions about important, meaningful topics.

Actions taken

"I see one-on-ones as one of the most important times that I get for talking to engineers on my team."

I start off by telling every engineer that the meetings happen every week and last for 30 minutes, that I'll always attend them, I'll never cancel them and that I see these as my most important meetings. This really helps to set the stage and ensures that my engineers understand that this is something that's important and something that's worth putting time into.

We always have a shared agenda. For this, we have a Google doc for each engineer. Throughout the week, we can both add agenda items to it, so we then know what we're going to talk about before going into the one-on-one. I always come prepared with at least one topic that I want to discuss, but I expect the engineer to have a few things that they also want to discuss.

While I like to avoid too much random conversation, I do usually start the conversation by asking a random question, such as how their weekend has been to start the engineer talking. If you go straight into serious topics, the meetings don't tend to go well. Once they start talking, I then switch gears to the one-on-one agenda, and start discussing work, projects and performance.

If you, as the manager, feel uncomfortable about one-on-ones and act uncomfortably, then the meeting will be awkward and won't go well. If you go into it with a set agenda and stress the meeting's importance, the engineer will understand its importance and will choose agenda items to make it worth their time.

Lessons learned

Effective one-on-ones are incredibly useful, but ineffective ones end up being a complete waste of time. Working out how to ensure they are effective is key to managing your team successfully, as one-on-ones are crucial for managers, as they help you with managing, as well as growing and developing, your team.

"It's better to book a conference room to have you one-on-one, as this provides a specific space to discuss issues."

While I occasionally do have walking one-on-ones they tend not to be as effective.


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Mark Kinsella

VP of Engineering at Opendoor Labs Inc.


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