Strengthening Bonds in a Growing Team : One on Ones

Vikas Joshi
April 11, 2011

As a start-up grows from a few dozen employees to several hundred employees, and then to thousands, the founding team needs to devise scalable and resilient ways to foster relationships up and down the hierarchy. In a small setup, relationships are natural – everyone is physically together, and feels together in the venture. Growth can change all that.

One-on-One (O3) meetings with direct reports encourage relationships through regular communication. The rationale goes to basic psychology. Relationship is based on trust and regular communication improves trust, particularly when it is about things that the direct cares about.

Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne are co-founders of Manager Tools LLC, a management consulting firm, providing consultancy and training to managers around the world. Both co-founders are United States Military Academy graduates (West Point) and former US Army officers. I am impressed with their work in this area. You can access their free and premium podcasts at manager tools website.

In this post, I summarize some of the lessons learnt about conducting effective O3s with one's directs. These are based on my own experience for over a year.

Great managers build relationships with directs by communicating regularly. The O3 is scheduled as a recurring appointment in my calendar, every week, for 30 minutes. This appointment is rarely missed, never cancelled and only rescheduled when there is a conflict. The meeting can be over phone, IM or in-person, in the manager’s office.

Every time before the O3 the manager needs to tell himself or herself: This O3 focuses on the team member. Not you, not your work, nor your issues! This half hour belongs to my direct. The rest of the week is for me.
The suggested format of the 30-minute O3 goes something like this: 10 minutes for them, 10 minutes for you and 10 minutes for their development.

Preparation for the O3 can take about 30 minutes – sometimes more. Trust me, the prep time is worth it. Review all deliverables and communication. Decide what you need to tell. Write down positive or adjusting feedback. Figure out what to delegate. Write down questions you want to ask. The questions could be about their weekend, week, work, family, project, questions, worries, etc.

Auzenne and Horstman suggest you start with the same question each time, and write down the answer your direct gives. I have not always followed this.

Listening: This is the most important skill for a manager conducting O3. Clear your desk, focus, stop doing other things, and listen. And remember, do not interrupt!

Take notes. O3 must be documented. The Manager Tools site provides a free O3 form that can be used for writing your notes. After about 10 to 12 weeks, you can review your notes and they will be a rich treasure of information on the direct’s work performance, behaviour and development. This makes periodic appraisals more powerful and real easy.

There are two aspects of O3 that need separate discussion. How to give feedback, and how to coach your direct. I will write about these separately at a later date.