Better one-to-ones

Scott Baldwin
May 29, 2015 · 6 min read

Of all the things I do in my job, one-to-one’s are my favourite – yeah I know, crazy eh? I love talking with my team about their ideas, challenges, goals; giving (and getting) feedback; and helping them (and me) grow. And I’m sure they were Captain Kirk’s favourite too.

How can you make your one-to-one’s better? Read on.

1. Pick a frequency and stick with it

It’s easy for many managers and staff to kill or continually move these meetings. Don’t! Set a rhythm and be religious about sticking to it. Not meeting regularly means that you don’t know when there is a problem, until there is actually a problem. If you have to re-schedule, make a point of doing it in the same week and try to look ahead at people’s availability and work on their plate so you can adjust when needed.

What’s the right frequency? Ask your team. Right now I meet bi-weekly with my team, anything longer than that I find to be too large of a gap.

2. Set some structure.

Have an agenda. I have a rough agenda in my back pocket that I like to run through. Having some consistency in the structure allows staff know what to expect.

I usually start my one-to-ones with some discussion on current work, priorities, and recent accomplishments. While I might already know a lot about this, it’s surprising how often other details come out when talking one-on-one. If I have anything I can share about their work (e.g. feedback, things I’ve noticed, kudos) and I haven’t done that already, I’ll do that here too. Dig into any issues/problems that may be standing in their way of being successful in their work asking “why” – our job is to get those obstacles out of their way.

3. Take time to get to know each other too.

Take time to just talk about lives, family, kids, the dog, interests, and life. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! Be human.

4. Check-in on career development and learning plans.

Career development and learning often takes a back seat to other priorities (hey we all have lots of work to do). I like to use questions to poke at their plans and progress and solicit commitments (e.g. due dates, next steps) to help them keep on-track.

5. Get ideas about what they think things could be improved — in the team or company.

I guarantee you’ll get some insights you never heard before in other meetings. If there’s good stuff, figure out how to get them involved in making the change happen.

6. Show up.

One-to-ones require two people to show up. Both of you have to be engaged. But this can be easier said than done.

7. Show some candor.

Like Jesse Hertzberg said “Build a culture centered around speaking the truth…[and] have their best interests at heart…[and] push them to being their better selves.”

Share what you know, be honest and open and forthcoming. Welcome candor in your discussions. People like that and it’s remarkably refreshing.

8. Listen.

Honestly. Just shut up and listen. As my colleague and Stuart McLean look-alike Ken Bellous likes to say “you have two ears and a mouth, use them in the same proportion”.

If nothing is coming out that you can listen to, use silence to your advantage and wait – I guarantee you won’t be the one to break the silence.

9. Have some questions you can pull from when needed.

Have a list of potential questions at the ready. Use them to start discussions, encourage more forthcoming answers, or just to get over those “what else should I talk about” moments. Keep the questions open-ended, so you can draw out more details not just a “yes” or “no” that you’ll get from closed questions.

Here’s some of the questions I use (by no means exhaustive). You don’t have to do all of these every time. Pick some regulars, swap in others, consider the blind spots or places you want to know more about.

Questions that can tell you about their balance and satisfaction at work:

Questions that can tell you what their focussed on right now and where they might need help:

Questions that can help you draw out accomplishments:

Questions that can give you insights into how they are feeling:

Questions about career and learning plans:

Questions that can give you insights on what to improve:

Questions that can illicit feedback:

Another method I like to use is called “Stop, Start, Continue”. You can use this approach to either give or gather feedback.

Example when giving feedback:

Example with seeking feedback:

I hope these ideas are helpful. Now go off and listen (then talk). If there are things that work for you, contact me, I’d love to hear them!

Scott Baldwin

Written by

Dad, husband, ultrarunner, and drummer. By day: #prodmgmt #ux and other hashtags but I'd rather be in my shoes trail running.