Silicon Valley runs on 1:1s. They are the first meetings getting set up on someone’s calendar when they start a new role — weeklies with their manager and reports and closest collaborators, biweeklies with other cross-functional partners working on a related area, monthlies with people to keep in touch with.
You would think that by now we would have the art of 1:1s down to a pat, but every other week I still hear of someone doing status updates in their 1:1s.
This post has some practical recommendations for high output 1:1s happening up or down the management chain.
First: What NOT to do
Can we talk about some anti-patterns first before diving into best practices?
1. Status updates
Not doing status updates in 1:1s is the most common advice you’ll get if you google for how to have good 1-1s, AND YET! So why does no one follow it?
Simple: status updates in 1-1s are not a problem of poorly conducted 1-1s — they are a problem of poor management style. If you are asking your report for detailed status updates, you are not managing effectively.
Andy Grove’s High Output Management (yes, the title of this post is a riff on it) — the ultimate book on managing organizations — describes the production process as a black box: You need to find the “vital few” indicators of performance of the black box rather than peeling it open entirely. Managing a person is similar: you want to find ways to assess their ongoing performance and be able to direct it or course correct effectively, rather than going into the details of everything they are doing. Status updates mean you don’t know how to do the former.
If you find yourself asking for status updates, take a step back and re-think your management style or find a coach (the right coach can be game changing). If you find your manager asking you for status updates regularly, you might just need to find a new manager.
2. Non-urgent but important topics
Using 1:1s for “important but non-urgent topics” sounds great until you think twice about what it means and realize it is a nice platitude. Very often people walk into a 1:1, open up the shared agenda doc and start listing topics that might fall into this category.
The problem with this approach is that in the fast paced world that we live in, the universe of important but non-urgent topics is small. There is a thin line separating important and non-important, usually on a temporal dimension, i.e. something blowing up right now will seem more important than it actually is. If people are coming up with topics to talk about last minute, they are almost always on the wrong side of that thin line.
The inverse of this advice is actually pretty solid: do not wait for the regularly scheduled 1:1 to discuss something urgent. But simply making your 1:1 a parking lot for everything else is not helpful guidance. You need to have a goal and a plan for these conversations.
Three things that regular 1:1s should drive towards: (1) Achieving a state of “mind meld”, (2) Building relationships, and (3) Coaching / Feedback / Input.
The weight and the exact contents of each of these will vary depending on who that 1:1 is with, but at a high-level here is what they mean:
1. Achieving a state of mind-meld
If you’re not a Star Trek fan, this is what Mind Meld refers to.
By mind-meld in a professional context I mean truly understanding where the other person is coming from, what they are trying to solve or achieve and the hurdles they are facing. You may not need to understand the full breadth of this for everyone you have a regular 1:1 with. Develop a point-of-view on what part of your minds to meld.
2. Building relationships
Professional relationships are not social relationships, and are rarely formed by talking about your weekend activities or playing foosball together. While social activities help build trust which in turns sets the stage for a stronger professional relationship, it is important to find uninterrupted time to talk about work, find alignment on goals, ask for or offer help on an ongoing basis to foster that professional relationship. This is especially important if it may help you find non-obvious opportunities intersecting both your domains or if it will help your teams collaborate more easily.
3. Coaching or Feedback
These are both along a spectrum of the same thing: helping your colleagues improve. The single biggest benefit of working with smart people who get to observe you from close quarters is being able to get their perspective on your work and effectiveness. If you know how to solicit that perspective and leverage it, it has massive compounding payoff. No institutional performance review process even comes close in effectiveness.
Coaching is narrow — you may be coaching only a few people, perhaps those reporting to you or mentees. But feedback should be continually flowing up, down or sideways in an organization. Most feedback is not the urgent kind where you need to pull someone aside and point out what went wrong while it is still fresh. However, most feedback is indeed best delivered in person. Regular 1:1s are a great vehicle for this.
Three: Tactics and best practices
There are a lot of great articles on 1:1s, but it is clear that the majority of people are still not getting it right. Here are some very specific tactics from my playbook, that you can start adopting tomorrow!
1. With your reports
This is the most involved 1:1 of all, where you have the greatest leverage on the outcome. This is also the one deserving its own dedicated post, but let me distill out some essentials:
Weekly, not biweekly, and never skip it. Exceptions always occur, but apply your judgement there.
They say 1:1s are your report’s time, not yours. That does not mean you are laid back and let them do the driving. By “your report’s time” they mean the time is meant for both of you to focus on things that benefit them.
Create ground rules with your report on how to use this time. Solicit their input on what ground rules they’d like to include. My main rules are:
No status updates
No missing this meeting
Require up front preparation from both parties. This can be as simple as filling in the agenda template (see below) throughout the week as things come up, and avoiding adding topics last minute.
Get through the entire list of topics each week, even if it means finding more time. Drop any topic you cannot find time for. Carrying these over to the following week is a slippery slope of losing discipline on the importance of these topics.
I like to set up a template that serves as prompts to create an ongoing agenda:
Feedback: from both sides + any feedback that has come in from the organization around them. Any coaching I want to offer goes here as well, and typically coaching takes the form of picking a subject and going deep into it.
What is going well or not: the bulk of this is things not going well or retro-ing things that did not go well. The “going well” gives me a sense of what they are excited about.
What are you worried about: can be micro-level like a specific customer complaint that is going unaddressed or broader things like company strategy.
Career: This is not a topic for every week, but the placeholder makes it easier for people to speak up with asks or concerns more regularly. But once a month the entire 1:1 is dedicated to a career chat: overall trajectory, progress towards goals, new opportunities and where they may need additional help.
Context from me:
- Going-ons that I have visibility into and want to share with them, so they feel plugged in and wise about state-of-affairs.
- Historical context or external information about things they are working on and can save them from repeating previous mistakes or otherwise accelerate them.
- Things that I’m working on, just because transparency should go both ways. Sometimes I ask for their input because they have a unique perspective which is valuable. Things I’m working on may end up becoming things they work on too or otherwise affect their work, and the history is helpful.
(If this sounds like a lot to cover every week, remember that this is just a list of prompts to create an agenda beforehand: the actual topics end up being much fewer in any one session)
As you discuss these topics every week, look for patterns: where do they need coaching, where do they need more block-and-tackle help, would you be comfortable with them representing you (for certain areas) and how to get to that level of comfort. Direct your future conversations based on this.
Find ways to get some casual social time just to get to know each other better: lunches, etc.
2. With your manager
How your 1-1s with your manager go depend greatly on your manager. That said, you can still adopt the fundamental principles from above, just inverted, because now you’re the report. Do the following:
Share what’s not going well in your world and use your manager as a sounding board. Too often I find people hesitating at sharing bad news because it might make them look weak. The opposite is usually the case. It is good for your manager to be aware of what is in danger of going off the tracks, rather than to be surprised when it does happen. Often (not always, but often) your manager may have historical knowledge or expertise or organizational context that can provide breakthroughs as you problem solve. It is useful to get to a comfort level with them where you can leverage them as a sounding board when needed without it seeming like you always need help.
Ask for context: Starting from general questions: “anything I should know about from Monday’s exec meeting” to specific questions like “how did the board react to our plan for the new product” to “what is top of your mind these days and what are you trying to solve”.
Proactively offer and ask for feedback: this doesn’t need further elaboration!
Offer your insights from what you see: Your manager will not have the level of visibility into the product or workings of the team that you have. Don’t assume that they will know it already (they often don’t!) or that the detail may be irrelevant. Develop a sense of what information will be helpful and important to them, and keep them informed.
3. With a skip-level or elsewhere up the chain
Skip-level 1-1s are a level of management discipline rarely observed in practice. Growing organizations, particularly flatter ones, simply run out of time for this. People, especially ICs, often shy away from proactively reaching up their chain to talk to their VP or the VP of an adjacent function / organization. Yet, it is important to build those relationships and understand their perspective, especially if you are a PM who is influencing the direction of organizations adjacent to your own.
Do the following:
Instead of asking for a recurring 1:1, which may not be a time commitment an exec would want to make, set a reminder for yourself to reach out every couple of months (6 week? 8? 12? you decide!) and ask for an ad hoc 1:1.
Don’t wait for an important agenda item to ask for time. So many people feel hesitant about asking for time unless they have something very important. Fact is, if there is a burning need for you to discuss something with an exec, it is probably already a fire, and your manager and potentially other people are also involved.
So what’s on the agenda for this casual chat? I’ve found things along three lines to be interesting for these discussions:
- “Here is this frustrating problem I’m facing that is larger than I can solve myself and you should be aware of it”. You’ve already shared it with your manager, but it is very interesting for people up the chain to hear about these things from people directly facing these challenges.
- “I’m worried about <something big> and want to get your point of view on it”. If you are worried about something an exec is responsible for, it is best to hear about their point of view directly instead of letting that worry taking up important cycles in your mind.
- “I’d love to hear directly from you on <big decision> and why you went for it”. Getting additional context in a 1-1 that goes beyond a company-wide announcement is very informative and helpful. It also helps you be more aligned with your leadership at a more fundamental level.
Trust me, execs want to hear from people all around the organization. And trust me, if you’re a PM you don’t want your first or only touchpoint with key leaders around the org to be at formal presentations or reviews.
There is a lot of great reading out there on having effective 1:1s. Here are two that I’d recommend, if you’d like to dive in more: The unreasonable effectiveness of one-on-ones and Take your 1:1s to the next level.