Effective one-on-ones for people leaders

By: CriteoLabs / 16 Aug 2018

The role of a people leader if often viewed as a coach tasked with helping his team perform optimally by focusing on the individuals and their needs. In the Criteo context, this often means removing roadblocks, facilitating communications or reducing friction. The performance of each individual, combined with how they collaborate with their team mates, can have massive impact on the overall team’s performance. Focusing on improving on each individual’s performance provides the best return on investment of your time as a team leader, in order to maximize your team’s impact.

The critical pre-requisite for being an effective people leader is having access to relevant data. We are Criteos, we love data! The data in this case is about the problems our teams are facing as well as opportunities for personal growth. One of the most important tools to get such rich data is frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports, and perhaps less frequent, but regular meetings with non-direct reports. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are not doing weekly regular one-on-one meetings, you are missing a key opportunity to get in touch with real organizational challenges facing your employees.

A small example: In one particular one-on-one meeting, an employee expressed a slight frustration at the assignment of a new senior engineer to a team which on the surface didn’t need help, while another team badly needed the new resource. As we dug into the situation, I realized that there was much more than a resource issue at the heart of the problem. We had a lot of work to do on scope management and  prioritization for this team. As a result of our one-on-one discussion, I also realized that we needed to do a much better job communicating WHY the team getting the new resource deserved the additional support. In this particular case, we were strengthening a team with a skill gap in technical design. Once the employee understood the full rationale, things made sense and the appearance of sub-optimal decision making was dispelled. Normally, this type of communication would not happen in a timely manner or perhaps not happen at all. That would likely result in internal frustration built up over time, which could ultimately come out at inopportune times and sometimes, in an inappropriate manner.

To be clear, I am not saying that one-on-one meetings are the sole way to expose all organizational challenges. We also need to maintain a supportive environment where it is encouraged to ask tough questions. One-on-one meetings turn out to be a great forum to instill the right kind of company culture, promoting open communication and a healthy discourse. By exploring questions that are uncomfortable to discuss or by asking probing questions on the rationale for contentious decisions, a one-on-one setting is certainly one effective way to foster such culture.

Having a one-on-one regardless of whether an employee asks for it or not is in the category of “important but not urgent.”Or  You can always cut the meeting short if there is not much to discuss but knowing that there will be some time to have an open discussion is very important. The key to making a one-on-one meeting effective is to recognize that this is employee time, so he or she should be setting the agenda and doing most of the talking. This is a forum to discuss anything that would inappropriate in a larger group setting e.g. intra-personal issues, nascent ideas that need early feedback or any topic not yet ready to share broadly. Another really good use of this time is to provide regular feedback on the employee’s performance so that they know what they are doing well and which areas they should focus on improving. Regular, actionable feedback is one of the most effective way for an employee to improve and avoids surprises when their semi-annual performance evaluations are shared with them. Lastly, and most importantly, it’s crucial that the leader conducting the one-on-one makes every effort to bring out issues that might be festering beneath the surface that are not significant problems yet. Being capable of drawing out such issues early, in a constructive way, is a core skill for becoming an effective people leader.

Here are a few questions that I’ve found generally helpful in my one-on-ones:

• What are the big opportunities we are ignoring?
• What are the key weaknesses in our product / technology?
• How can I help you be more satisfied with the work you are doing?
• What areas can our team / department do better?
• What would you do differently if you were in my shoes?
• How can we make our work more fun?

Andy Grove, a highly respected leader who wrote the classic management masterpiece, High Throughput Management (a must read if you are curious about honing your management skills), made a number of insightful statements in his book. One statement in particular has really stuck with me “A common rule we should always try to heed is to detect and fix any problem at the lowestvalue stage possible.” Finding out and solving problems early, via one-on-ones as described above is a well-tested way of doing this. I encourage all people leaders to give it a try.


Post written by :

Mohsin Hussain
VP, Engineering


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