Make sure you have efficient one-on-ones

Willem Avé

General Manager at Square



"One-on-ones are a gold mine of information."

I was having regular one-on-ones with my team members, during which I always asked the same questions. These included questions such as "How's it going?" and "How was your weekend?". We also would talk about current sprint work and some technical issues. My direct reports seemed to be doing fine, and I thought that my one-on-ones were productive.

I was thinking about promoting one of my engineers, named Nicole, and asked some other team members during their one-on-ones what they thought about her as a manager. Joe, one of my others engineers, totally blew up when I asked her. She was craving a management role and I hadn't ever drilled in enough to find this out, and it had never come up in our one-on-ones.

Actions taken

Unfortunately for Joe, it was too late. He decided to move to another team and we lost a great engineer. However, I decided to change the way I was holding one-on-ones, and to stick to some new principles:

  1. Prepare for the one-on-ones. I have a log (on Google Docs) for each of my direct reports where we can both log the questions we want to cover and can set goals.
  2. Have a set of questions to help structure the one-on-one: For example, "What could we be doing better?", "How can I help?", "Is there something personal going on?", "Do you need a day off?" and "How did you like working with this person?".
  3. Be diligent in providing performance feedback. Feedback is best given shortly after the incident.
  4. Don't talk more than 30 percent of the time - let your direct report do the talking.
  5. One-on-ones are inherently related to your report's career path, so make sure you bring their aspirations up.
  6. Never reschedule one-on-ones. If you can't make time for your report, you're doing it wrong.

Lessons learned

"This failure made me think a lot and I realized - among other things - that my one-on-ones were not efficient or productive."

While they felt good, they didn't accomplish their goal. They hadn't enabled me to know what Joe's professional aspirations were. In this particular example, I remember realizing that we never had career discussions together and I was doing more of the talking during one-on-ones. What's more, I also rescheduled our one-on-ones pretty frequently, as if they were less important than other meetings.

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Willem Avé

General Manager at Square


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