What to Expect When You Start Having 1 on 1s

Ben Horowitz advocates for 1 on 1s. So does Marc Benioff, the team at Bufferapp, and many, many others. Yet, in many ways they’re still shrouded in mystery.

Some people see them as a waste of time. Others are unsure how to make the most of them. Ask 10 managers and you very well could get 10 different answers.

If you’re convinced to get started with 1 on 1s, and never done them before, you’re in for a few surprises. Here’s a few tips for what your should expect:

1) They are different than any other meeting

As a manager and leader, you’re in a lot of meetings. Probably more than you should. And in most of them you’re being asked to give your opinion, make decisions, and answer questions that all focus on driving the business forward. One on ones are nothing like that.

As Ben Horowitz suggests after he took some heat for his firm stance on the importance of having 1 on 1s,

“The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.”

It bears repeating: One on ones are all about the team member, not you nor the company. You need to flip your mindset to thinking about what’s important to them and how you can help. This context switch can be difficult, but the payoff is huge. Set the standard that you recognize that these meetings are different from other meetings and you’ll be on your way.

2) You will learn important things you won’t hear any other way

You may think you know your team really well. You may think you know everything they’re thinking about for work and have addressed all their concerns they’ve aired publicly. If you’ve put in some effort to listen to your team in a group setting, that’s a great start, but there is always more they’ll bring up privately in 1 on 1s.

As URX CEO John Milinovich recently said in his interview with First Round Capital,

“There will always be things that people won’t bring up in a community forum that are still so important to address, especially before they become bigger issues.”

Build a trusting environment in your one on ones and follow through on what you hear and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn people are thinking about or have concerns with. The more you act on what they confide in you, the more they’ll share that will improve the company, your team, your management, and them as an employee. For the introverts on your team, who are less likely to bring up any issues publicly, this will be especially important.

3) They should bring things to talk about, and so should you.

It’s easy to put the obligation on your team member to drive the 1 on 1. It’s definitely important to let them talk about things that are important to them. However, especially early on, you need to bring some questions as well.  There’s a ton of different 1 on 1 questions you can rotate through and you can also use 1 on 1s as great coaching opportunities.

As Jason Lemkin (CEO EchoSign, VC @ Storm Ventures) writes,

“You may think you know if you have drinks together, or go see movies together, or whatever…But you don’t.  Even if people complain in that context, it will be general complaints.  You won’t learn what your top people need to find their growth path at your company.  Where they feel stalled out and frustrated.  You have to ask.

By mixing up the questions you ask, you will ensure you’re not missing anything they may be afraid to bring up.  You’ll also avoid 1 on 1s getting into a rut where certain topics become safe and easy, at the expense of never discussing any elephants in the room. You get out what you put into your 1 on 1s, so prepare, listen carefully, and follow through.

4) They may be a little awkward at first

Your first one on one won’t be easy. It can be especially awkward if you recently got promoted and now you’re having a one on one with a former peer. Fight through the ‘fight or flight’ urge to not ask the questions a manager should ask in a one on one. Those early questions will break the ice and give you your first opportunities to build deeper trust and rapport with them. Over time, you’ll get in a rhythm and build trust. Then you’ll probably even look forward to them.

Stick with them. The benefits are huge as Michael Wolfe (PipeDrive, Vontu, Kana) wrote,

“Over time you can build up a very good relationship with most people simply through this time investment. Even though you may need to discuss tough issues, try to build up enough trust and openness between you that you can enjoy solving problems and working to make the company better.”

It’s a relief when a problem at work is solved. If you form a real partnership with your team member to address the issues they bring up, they’ll trust and respect you more even if you don’t always give them the answer they want to hear.

5) You will quickly learn why this is a manager’s best tool.

The conversations in one on ones are the keys to understanding your people and motivating them.  Everyone has different drivers and idiosyncrasies; the better you understand them, the more effective you’ll be able to work with them.

As Ben Horowitz notoriously recalls when he almost fired two people over a manager not having one on ones,

“Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong…and things always go wrong.”

Unfortunately, if you don’t do one on ones, Ben continued,

“…there is no possible way for him to even be informed as to whether or not his organization is good or bad.”

You can fix so many problems and improve the morale of everyone on your team with these meetings. You’ll find out about issues before they blow up. You’ll be able to help people when they’re struggling, and give them good and bad feedback regularly.  You can talk about career goals and growth opportunities regularly. Bit by bit you’ll see improvements across your company and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do them sooner.

black_alphaWant help getting started with one on ones? Want to build a better relationship with your team members?

Lighthouse keeps you organized and prepared for everything that matters to your team members including goals and 1 on 1s. Learn more at GetLighthouse.com

2 thoughts on “What to Expect When You Start Having 1 on 1s

    • Honestly, that’s a tough question to answer. There are THOUSANDS of companies in the Valley so you need to narrow it down to find the right company.

      1) What size company do you want to work at?
      2) Do you have any preferences on industry?
      3) What kind of internship do you want? What kind of role are you looking for?

      There’s a big difference between being an engineer that wants to intern at Facebook or Google or being a marketer looking to intern at a startup with 10 employees.

      So what are you looking for?

      Thanks,
      Jason

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