For Ideas to Flow Up the Org

If the Leader’s most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company, one-on-one’s provide an excellent mechanism for information and ideas to flow up the Org and should be part of the communication design.

While I have always relied on them to understand my teams, their expectations and needs, and their emotional well-being, when I read Ben Horowitz’s views on them in “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, I felt he stressed their need in any Org context and not just let it be a policy decision left to a Manager, many who consider them useless. A well designed One-On-One may end up convert even the most obstinate?

Here are some Ben’s views.

  • 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
  • If you are an employee, how else do you get feedback from your manager on an exciting but only 20% formed idea, without sounding like a fool? How do you point out that a colleague you do not know how to work with is blocking your progress without throwing her under the bus? How do you get help when you love your job but your personal life is melting down? Through a status report? Or email? Slack? Really? For these and other important areas of discussions, one-on-one’s are essential.
  • A good practice is to have the employee send you the agenda in advance. This gives her a chance to cancel the meeting if nothing is pressing. It also makes clear than it is her meeting and will take as much or as little time as she needs.
  • During the meeting, Manager should do 10% talking and 90% listening. Note that this is the opposite of most 1–1s.
  • While it is not your job to set the agenda or do the talking, you should try to draw the key issues out of the employee. The more introverted he is, the more important this becomes. If you manage engineers, drawing out issues will be an important skill to master.

Some questions that can be very effective in 1–1s:

  • If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
  • What’s the number one problem with our organisation? Why?
  • What’s not fun about working here?
  • Who is really kicking ass in the company? Whom do you admire?
  • If you were me, what changes would you make?
  • What don’t you like about the product?
  • What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re missing out on?
  • What are we not doing that we should be doing?
  • Are you happy working here?
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