We all know that having 1:1s with our direct reports is one of the most indispensable tools available. It enables us to check in on progress against set goals, provide inspiration and guidance, and gain insight on what’s really happening in the organization. But while it’s important, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get right.
So how do you do it? A 1:1 primer:
Setting up your 1:1s
The sole purpose of 1:1s is to get alignment on, then calibration against, what success looks like. Weekly 1:1s are a chance for your reports to receive dedicated access to you, which ensures they can ask for help where needed, and helps you to avoid any surprises.
This can take a lot of work upfront. In the beginning, you have to train people to communicate more openly. Most of the 1:1 time should be spent on getting alignment on what’s expected and how excellence will be determined, providing clarity on next steps, offering encouragement and understanding problems on the employee side.
1:1s may need to be customized based on the role, the style of the direct report and an implicit understanding of how both parties can best communicate and receive feedback. How do you do that? Just ask directly: “How should we communicate when there are hard things to discuss?” Offer how you would like to receive tough feedback if needed as well.
Preparing for 1:1s
Successful 1:1s require proper prep upfront. Both parties should come with a list of 4-5 things they need to connect on, including anything the employee needs help resolving or guidance on. Over time, as you reach greater alignment, these 4-5 points will often be the same for both parties.
Structuring the 1:1
These are some of the essential 1:1 questions for alignment and tracking performance:
- What does success look like a year from now? Three months from now? Next week?
- How aligned are each of your employees with your thoughts on success? How aligned are your thoughts with the company’s overall vision and plan?
- Are you meeting due dates?
- Are any cross-functional issues blocking your success?
- Are there any other gates to your success?
- How can I be helpful to you?
By the end of a 1:1, actions should be clear on both sides, and agreements made on when they will be done.
Once you have alignment, have weekly check-ins where you monitor progress on what was committed the week before, discussing the issues and potential solutions and then re-setting the goals for the following week.
1:1s are not performance reviews
1:1s should feel informal. Formal check-ins on performance should still be done once a month or quarter, and their metrics and goals should be recorded and shared. If you do 1:1s and formal reviews well, annual performance reviews should become unnecessary. (This is a good thing; annual performance reviews are often painful and often misguided!)
I make it clear from the beginning with anyone I manage that their performance will be judged by themselves, their customers, their peers and their bosses. I ask people to grade themselves and I appreciate when people are harder on themselves than I am. With new people, I find that happens 30% of the time, even when I communicate that it is my preference. Other times, they have given themselves more credit than I would. This can lead to big problems if there is a big difference in perceptions and it is good to get it clarified quickly.
As the employee and I get to know each other, we generally are so in-sync on the business and issues, that it takes very little of the 1:1 time, and we can spend more time focusing on additional strategic issues such as their career and company direction.
1:1s are a crucial tool for teamwork
1:1s are important for individual performance, but they are also essential for ensuring team compatibility. Leverage 1:1s to gauge performance as well as how the individual gets along with his or her peers. You should listen for grumpiness between people and hear stories of them not working well together. While people are often intimidated to bring up topics in a staff meeting, they’ll do so in private.
Sometimes you may have to probe when direct reports avoid discussing a hard topic, such as when working with a colleague isn’t going well. If they’re hesitant about talking, reassure them that you are interested in the company’s and your employees’ success, and it’s better to discover and address issues quickly rather than let them fester. Listen to words, body language and tone, and then later seek out the other team member’s insight on how things are going.
1:1s are essential for relationship building
As time progresses, I try to keep things human (without getting overly personal) and check in on the employee’s family members and life outside of work. Once people know you have a genuine concern for them, and what’s important to them, and they are confident that you have their backs, you’ll find they will often move mountains for you.