By Ben Horowitz
After I wrote A Good Place to Work, people flooded me with feedback about one-on-ones. About half the responders chastised me, saying that one-on-ones were useless and that I shouldn’t put so much emphasis on them. The other half wanted to know how to run more effective one-on-ones. It seems to me that both groups are likely talking about two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps the CEO’s most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company. The architecture might include the organizational design, meetings, processes, email, yammer and even one-on-one meetings with managers and employees. Absent a well-designed communication architecture, information and ideas will stagnate and your company will degenerate into a bad place to work. While it is quite possible to design a great communication architecture without one-on-one meetings, in most cases one-on-ones provide an excellent mechanism for information and ideas to flow up the organization and should be part of your design.
Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. 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 do you get feedback from your manager on an exciting, but only 20% formed idea that you’re not sure is relevant without sounding like a fool? How do you point out that a colleague that 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? On email? Yammer? Asana? Really? For these and other important areas of discussions, one-on-ones can be essential.
If you like structured agendas, then the employee should set the agenda. A good practice is to have the employee send you the agenda in advance. This will give her a chance to cancel the meeting if nothing is pressing. It also makes clear that it is her meeting and will take as much or as little time as she needs. During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening. Note that this is the opposite of most one-on-ones.
While it’s not the manager’s job to set the agenda or do the talking, the manager should try to draw the key issues out of the employee. The more introverted the employee, the more important this becomes. If you manage engineers, drawing out issues will be an important skill to master.
Some questions that I’ve found to be very effective in one-on-ones:
If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?
What’s the No. 1 problem with our organization? Why?
What’s not fun about working here?
Who is really kicking ass in the company? Who 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?
In the end, the most important thing is that the best ideas, the biggest problems and the most intense employee life issues make their way to the people that can deal with them. One-on-ones are a time-tested way to do that, but if you have a better one, go ahead with your bad self.