The Most Useful Tool in Management

This post is one of a series which covers common questions about where startups come from, how they work, and how to navigate a career in the startup world.

Q. Do I really need to do 1–1s when I’m a manager? They take a lot of time.

Most startups scramble to get off of the ground, scramble to raise some money, and scramble to get a team in place. Most don’t even make it this far.

  • Startups are busy and are always scrambling and making deadlines and don’t have a lot of time for “management stuff.”
  • Many startups have an aversion to “big company” processes, especially anything that involves lots of meetings, HR, and “processes”. Many people join startups precisely because they want to get out of this world.
  • Keeping those people engaged and productive.
  • Making great decisions about what these people should work on.

The operating system

The “operating system” is the set of regular practices that a company uses to keep forward momentum (thanks to Jack Welsh for the term). I’ll illustrate with a hypothetical small company that has settled on the following weekly schedule of meetings as part of its “operating system”:

Coaching and feedback

We all know that coaching and feedback is imperative, but most of us struggle with doing a good job of it. We know that feedback should be:

  • Continuous — feedback should happen year round, not just around performance review time.
  • Informed — by feedback from peers, subordinates, even customers. Never rely solely on your own observations.
  • Jan feels like her opinion is sought and valued.
  • Shun and Niraj gained valuable feedback.
  • You may have headed off escalating tensions between Shun and Niraj.
  • You learned that you need to improve how you are asking your managers to work with each other.

Better and faster decision making

Imagine that in your Monday management meeting, your CEO tells the executive team that is concerned about slowing revenue growth. He wants to create a new plan by next Monday that slows spending growth. You take a note to work the problem with your team. Your week may then look like this:

  • Did not panic anyone — you didn’t have to schedule any last-minute emergency meetings.
  • Gave your team time to generate ideas and contribute.
  • Got a pulse on how your team is feeling and soothed concerns they may have.
  • Came into the following Monday management meeting with a new plan and, more importantly are ready for a discussion of how the team took the news and what you can do to improve morale.

Communication and transparency

Quick, accurate, and transparent communication is the lifeblood of any startup. Everybody needs to know what is going on at the company so that they know best how to contribute and feel invested in the company’s success.

  • They felt trusted and more engaged going forward.
  • Your CEO got input on what issues to address on Friday.
  • Your managers were equipped to walk their teams through the news the following week.

Team engagement

Now let’s look at what is happening at this company:

  • Everyone get regular feedback while they can still act it.
  • The team sees that decisions are made quickly.
  • Managers are improving quickly since they are trained and included in what is happening.
  • Managers are seen to be in sync with each other and are delivering a consistent message.
  • Engage and retain people — the team stays at the company and is excited about contributing.
  • Make good decisions — as issues are worked quickly with input from many team members.

OK, how do I do them?

Hopefully you are convinced that 1–1’s are important, and some of the examples above lead to a few conclusions about how to run them:

  • Don’t skip them — your team can feel unvalued and feel frustrated that the issues they want to cover need to wait another week.
  • Go offsite — go for a walk, go to a cafe, sit on a park bench. It is hard to have a good conversation over a conference room table, so take a break from the office and get outside. (At my last company, I was notorious for scheduling 1–1’s at 5pm and having them at the pub over some drinks).
  • Take notes and prepare — in all of your meetings take notes on follow up items. Use those notes to prepare for the next meeting, roll the notes from that meeting into the next meeting, and so on…
  • Seek enlightenment — 1–1’s should not be feedback blasts from you to your team member. Go into them fully intending to learn something, and plan to split the time talking about both your concerns and theirs.
  • Go off script — if an interesting topic comes up that needs some attention, or if the team member needs some therapy, go off script and go deep.
  • Give feedback — pick a few items that have happened in the immediate past, give your feedback on them (which has now been informed by the other 1–1’s you’ve had). Get their input on it, discuss.
  • Get feedback on team members from each other — it will equip you to better coach and manage them, will head off surprises, and will give you a wealth of ideas when performance review time comes.
  • Get feedback on yourself — ask open-ended questions to allow the person to air anything on their minds, but also come prepared with some specific questions like, “did you think I was clear in that meeting?” or “am I spending enough time with your team?”
  • Relax and enjoy — 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. Too much tension gets in the way of problem solving.

Co-founder, Gladly. Advisor at Point Nine Capital. Five startups. Endurance athlete, SF dweller. Quora addict. Fanboy.

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