1x1s: Getting Started & Making Them Effective
So you believe 1x1s are a necessary, high-leverage activity in your startup. Great! Don't wait for the perfect plan to get started. Here are strategies/tactics I've used with dozens of direct reports.
In part 1, I outlined several reasons why 1x1s (done well) are one of the highest-leverage activities in a startup. Don't skip reading it! Without understanding the magnitude of the gains, it can be easy to de-prioritize 1x1s the second urgent matters come up. And let's face it, startup life is filled with chaos.
So now we need to get started, build momentum, and reap the benefits.
I encourage you to refrain from following these lists verbatim. Experiment with them. Figure out what works for you, and discard the rest. Make it your own.
I'll finish with the exact format I use at my current company, which you can use as a template. But first, let's begin with the end in mind.
My 1x1 Wishlist
Suppose YOU were on the receiving end of a 1x1. What would the best possible outcomes be?
I have clear targets on what success looks like.
I'm set up with a clear path to winning.
They understand my larger career objectives and, when possible, align my work responsibilities against those goals.
I feel heard and understood.
I feel safe and supported.
I have the opportunity to ask hard questions.
If I get feedback that stings, we can talk it through.
I can surface issues.
I can propose ideas.
I feel appreciated and connected.
We don't just make empty promises, but we revisit our previous commitments.
We admit if we fucked up, but forgive (as long as this isn't an unfixable pattern) and figure it out.
We re-align if day-to-day work doesn't match our key objectives.
I feel like they have my back.
I feel like they are genuine human beings.
I can trust them, and they can trust me.
And so on.
Yes, this is an extensive wish list, and no, you can't nail all of these in a single 30-minute meeting. However, you can make progress towards a handful of them each time.
Strategies and Tactics
Rapport: It can't all be about business. The other person needs to feel a connection, which isn't always easy. Besides small talk, you can use ice-breakers like "Ask Deep Questions" to create novelty and surprise in the conversation. Heck, you may find out you both have a secret passion for 80s arcade games or baking artisan bread.
Running 1x1 Document: I use a private 1x1 Google document for each direct report. It should go without saying, but this file MUST be confidential and never opened up to anyone. Break this rule, and trust is shattered. The benefits of this document include the following:
Capture: It's not always appropriate to address issues as they happen. Having a place to capture them between meetings ensures they don't get swept under the rug.
Accountability: If decisions and commitments are made at previous 1x1s, they should be reviewed upfront to ensure progress was made. Otherwise, trust in the process is eroded. Say what you'll do; do what you say.
Evidence of Progress: In the day-to-day hustle, it can be easy to lose perspective regarding how much time has passed between topics. This 1x1 document can help anchor these milestones over more extended periods.
Checks: Similar to ice-breaker questions, it's possible to have a set of recurring prompts to surface any issues across various factors. Examples:
Clear Target? On a scale of 0 to 10, how certain are you that you know the highest and best activities you could work on? How can we increase that 1 unit higher?
Flowstate: Are you feeling in the zone on the Challenge/Skills balance? Bored? Stressed? How can we pull you back into the sweet spot?
Team Check: On a scale of 0 to 10, how well is your team hitting its targets? How could you (be specific) help make that 1 unit higher?
Leadership Check: How are your direct reports doing on a scale of 0 to 10? Are there any challenge areas that need to be addressed?
Company Check: How's your overall sentiment of the company and your position within it?
Feedback: In the checks above, we mainly focused on the direct report and wanted to hear from them and draw out wins and challenges. Here we flip that around.
Conversation for Commitment: Surface any new/updated needs from the direct report. Once there is mutual clarity on the ask, ensure an explicit ask for commitment and a clear agreement. If something else has to be negotiated to take on that new commitment, do this now.
Conversation for Complaint: If a previous commitment was made, but isn't being met, revisit. Drill down any factors that can be contributing to it and figure out a way around them. Once again, get mutual clarity and an explicit ask for commitment.
Again, this is a lot to cover in a single conversation. You may get stopped anywhere along the way and may need to take the rest of the session to address that one thing. That's ok! If both sides are doing the work and holding themselves accountable, there may be fewer and fewer things to discuss in future conversations. Many of these items become optional or a simple gut check.
However, it's better to linger on one part to resolution than to just bulldoze through the list.
My Current 1x1 Template
So what do I do?
In my current role, I use the following agenda:
Unstructured chat time to catch up (10 minutes max).
Ask if anything is missing from their conversation capture list.
Review any commitments from the last conversations.
Flow state check-in
Any burning comments, questions, ideas, or needs?
Feedback: Any new asks or areas to address.
Ultimately, you want to grease the wheels to get the conversation started and only rely on the prompts when you feel things stalling, OR you want to be comprehensive / not gloss things over.
Do this every 2-6 weeks for a few months/quarters, and you should start to experience the ROIs discussed in part 1.
Questions? Let me know!