I spoke earlier this week to a roomful of young entrepreneurial leaders, each of them already well underway with their startups, on the topic of building strong teams. As I discussed various aspects of selecting and managing a startup team, I polled them at various points to gauge their progress in evolving their respective approaches to the task. Interestingly, while they interact constantly with their team members in the daily flow of business, few of them make one-on-one meetings with these key subordinates a systematic part of their leadership practice. A similar finding is quite prevalent in the broader population of organizational leaders in my experience, and so it is understandable that such a convention is not yet part of these young entrepreneurs’ repertoire.
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Archimedes famously said ‘Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I can move the world.’ One-on-ones provide just such powerful leverage for leaders in managing their companies’ performance.
The notion of one-on-one has admittedly a set of connotations that would not seem positive for team-leader : team-member interaction on first consideration. In many if not most sports, one-on-one is the core element of competition. Think about pitcher and batter in baseball, where the former wants to either overpower or fool the other, and the latter wants to knock the other’s offering out of the park. Or consider wrestling, where two players equal in size and weight grapple one-on-one until one of them forces the other into submission.
Neither of these modalities is appropriate for the boss-subordinate relationship, yet these and other competitive sports experiences are the first resort for considering one-on-ones in the business world, and contribute to their scarcity. Let’s face it: CEOs and other organizational team leaders want to encourage seamless coordination and strong team play, ‘one for all and all for one.’ One-on-ones by contrast connote conflict, putting people head-to-head with each other.
In the startup world, where cash must be rationed carefully and team members are frequently compensated with promises more than substance, leaders frequently (and understandably) tend to minimize conflict. Happy team members are less likely to complain about their pay.
In larger organizations, whether built directly off this pattern or not, conflict frequently has a bad name. One-on-ones are often not scheduled or deferred, nominally in the interest of time, but the hidden reason is that they can seem, and sometimes unnecessarily become, confrontational.
But a team is composed of individuals, and team performance depends on the performance of each member. A team is only as strong as its weakest member, a chain only as strong as its weakest link.
The core purpose of one-on-ones is to strengthen these links, to give the team its best shot at high performance.
Effective one-on-ones have a three-point foundation: job definition, performance goals and the regular meetings referred to above. The first two provide the fulcrum and the latter makes the lever for the team leader’s work.
Job definition is very straightforward, as no one is hired without there being at least a rudimentary job definition in place. Keeping it straightforward can be a challenge: describing the job’s purpose as part of the whole team or department, indicating key interdependencies with other jobs, and most importantly, defining what must be accomplished for success in the role. When such definitions are written with an eye toward including anything that could possibly be part of the job in the future, rather than written with a succinct focus on the performance requirements of the job at hand, the jobholder can be lured into tangential activities that undermine impact, e.g. Chief Marketing Officers setting up customer councils to the detriment of lead generation.
Appropriate performance goals are a second part of the fulcrum for the leverage provided by one-on-ones, and there are three important criteria for them. First, each goal must be SMART – specific, measurable, actionable, result-oriented and time-bound. Instead of ‘evaluate competitive water recycling systems,’ a SMART goal is ‘analyze technology and performance of top three market share competitive water recycling systems, and determine their sources of competitive advantage and implications for our company’s action by the end of Q1.’ A simple difference, frequently overlooked, requiring diligence to practice effectively.
Second, each individual’s set of goals must be established in the context of the whole team’s goals. The team leader’s responsibility, eg the CEO on behalf of the senior leadership team, is to ensure that the team’s goals cascade down to individual team members, such that the parts add up to the desired whole. This becomes of necessity an iterative and group process, but the team leader must own the overall architecture and effectively distribute the accountability for results.
Lastly, the specific measures associated with goals should be wherever possible defined and owned cross-functionally. Individuals understandably want to put their heads down and focus on their own jobs, leaving the team leader accountable to coordinate their interplay. Effective shared goals build appropriate interplay into the day-to-day work. A good example is contract renewals in a SaaS business. While primarily the responsibility of a Customer Success organization to solve product usage problems and help customers optimize their utilization of the product, the CS department’s success will regularly depend on engineering to refine product features, marketing to develop promotional material, and / or sales to support pitches to target prospects within the customer organization. Establishing sub-goals for each of these, and a proportional ownership of the overall renewal metric helps to channel work activity appropriately and optimize organizational performance.
With these two elements in place as a fulcrum – straightforward job description and appropriate performance goals – one-on-one meetings are positioned to provide optimal leverage for the leader. Here are the three questions that make one-on-one meetings work:
- How are you doing against your goals?
- Where are you encountering problems?
- How can I help?
Sounds simple, no? And, perhaps not so surprisingly, it is.
Question 1 allows for celebration of success and highlighting challenges. It also allows for ongoing discussion of whether the goals established are the right ones. As CEO, you want achieving goals to require some ‘stretch’ on the part of team members. Doing so puts some tension into the task, stirs the competitive juices and induces creativity. Establishing goals that appear initially out of reach is an art and a negotiation. Effective CEOs get better and better at this over time.
Question 2 is the opener for two minds to have fun problem solving. Not being quite as close to the action under discussion, the CEO is ‘outside the box’ and will frequently bring thinking from a broader perspective to the topic. This question leads to considerations of resource levels, organizational interdependencies, and company vs. competitor capabilities that may have bearing on the individual’s ability to accomplish goals.
Question 3 is embedded in all the foregoing discussion, but serves as a useful close to the one-on-one meeting. It is often a place to summarize what the CEO is going to do to help, but also what the individual is going to do differently going forward to improve performance.
A final topic I touched on in my talk to these young entrepreneurs was the difficult but inescapable challenge of letting someone go. Few top management teams have the same intact membership year after year. Individual initiative accounts for much of it, to take a different job, transition to another career, or depart for other personal reasons. But when there is a mismatch between task and talent, performance shortfall is the result, and it’s the CEO’s job to make the call.
The announcement to someone that they’re being let go – heard inevitably as ‘you’re fired’ – while never welcome, should never come as a complete surprise. Effective one-on-ones regularly spotlight shortfalls in performance and attempt to rectify them. If such shortfalls persist over time, however, there is no recourse but separation. The CEO’s final job in one-on-ones is to provide clear signals about this.
This is a sober note to end on, but guess what? Regular one-on-ones are the best guarantee of reducing unwanted separations, and one of the CEO’s strongest levers for improving company performance. And they’re much easier to do than you think.
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