The Most Useful Tool in Management

Michael Wolfe
Jan 14, 2015 · 9 min read

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.

But for the ones that do, they often hit another wall: they realize, “oh my, we need to actually manage all of these people!” This usually comes with a few challenges:

  • Many founders haven’t managed teams before, and many haven’t even worked for a manager before (or at least not a good one).
  • 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.

Because of this, many founders look at me quizzically when I explain to them that regular 1–1's with employees are a startup’s best friend. They can facilitate a culture that moves quickly, makes faster and better decisions, and minimizes meetings and formal processes.

The reality is that 1–1’s can add a whole new level of speed and agility to your company. They are perhaps a manager’s most effective tool to accomplish what needs done, comparable to the steering wheel on a race car.

Let’s first talk about why 1–1’s are a crucial part of the “operating system” of any company.

A company lives or dies by:

  • Getting the best people to join the company.
  • Keeping those people engaged and productive.
  • Making great decisions about what these people should work on.

We’ll cover why 1–1's are crucial for all of these.

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”:

This company has management meetings on Mondays, team meetings on Tuesday, then has regular 1–1's during the week.

If you are tiny and everyone reports to the CEO, the Monday meeting would be with the whole team, and the 1–1’s would be between the CEO and each team member. There would be no departmental meetings.

If you have another layer of management (VPs or department heads), the CEO would have a 1–1 with each department head, and each department head would have a 1–1 with each team member who works for her, and so on.

For an example, let’s say you are the VP of Engineering at a company with a couple of layers of management and perhaps 50 people. Your weekly engineering department cadence might look like this:

And each of your managers would be having 1–1’s with their direct reports as well.

This does represent an investment in time for you, perhaps 6–8 hours per week. And this is on top of the other work you have to do, like interviews, daily scrums, project meetings, and the other day-to-day of startup life.

But let’s think about what you get for that investment:

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:

  • Immediate — the best time to give feedback is right after you observed the job performance. Did someone do a great job in a meeting? Tell him that right after the meeting.
  • 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.

The regular cadence of 1–1’s can allow you to offer feedback regularly, and it can ensure that feedback is informed by other team members.

Let’s take a typical week where you may discover a problem in your team meeting and then work it via your 1–1’s:

You found out that a project was running late. Jan gave you her input on how to fix it. You spoke to both Shun and Niraj in their regular 1–1’s and gave them feedback. Let’s think about what happened:

  • You addressed the problem quickly, so the project may get back on track.
  • 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.

Without the regular heartbeat of your 1–1’s it may have taken several weeks for you to gather the information you need and work the issue. In the meantime, the problem may have blown up beyond repair. An investment of a few hours may have saved the company hundreds of hours down the line.

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:

You shared the problem with your team, worked it with them in your 1–1’s, then came prepared with a new plan the following Monday. And you:

  • Did not have to scramble — you used meeting time that you already had scheduled.
  • 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.

This is what rapid and efficient decision-making looks like. This is what keeps companies marching forward week after week, never getting bogged down by indecision.

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.

You never want your team to hear important news through the rumor mill. But in many cases you do what to give your more senior team member a heads up on important news so that they can help you deliver it and manage the aftermath.

Let’s imagine your company is about to pivot. You can use your 1–1’s to work the issue in the following way:

What was accomplished?

  • Your most senior people had opportunity to help with transition, given them alearning opportunity.
  • 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.

This will help you weather a rough patch, and it provides invaluable training to your direct reports on how to handle this when they are running their own engineering department someday.

Team engagement

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

  • Everyone at the company gets time with their manager regularly. Issues don’t fester, and emotions don’t get pent up.
  • 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.

This helps the company:

  • Recruit — as it gains a reputation for being a well-run place where the team is valued.
  • 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.

This seems like a pretty good outcome for less than an hour of investment per employee per week, with a few more hours of investment from each manager?

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:

  • Do them at the same time each week — make them recurring meetings so you can get into a weekly rhythm. Schedule them for an hour, although you can shorten them during weeks when you have little to discuss.
  • 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.

Happy 1–1’s!

(Many thanks to Joseph Ansanelli, our CEO at Vontu, and Margie Mader-Clark, our VP of HR, who did an amazing job putting this culture in place and training our managers on how to operate within it).

This answer originally appeared on Quora and was republished onto the Forbes Quora Blog.

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