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Why Great 1-on-1s Are Like Perfect Formula 1 Pit Stops

Kwasi Ohene-Adu
Goodwater Capital

1-on-1s can be a real source of anxiety for both new and experienced managers. At some point, we all inevitably encounter situations where we dutifully go through the routine motions of 1-on-1s but deep down, we know that the conversation did not have the effect we were hoping for. Instead of clarifying, we confuse; instead of inspiring, we demoralize. I’ll share some strategies I’ve borrowed from pit stops in Formula One racing to inspire people and unlock their true potential.

Ooh. All right. So a little bit about myself. Some history I grew up in Ghana, I discovered computers at a very early age. Cliche. I'm going to say, I got into programming really early computer gaming, all that stuff, yada, yada, yada. Now that's out of the way. I am also obsessed by people and how groups of people come together to create companies like Microsoft and apple.

And so my two passions really in my career have been technology and people and how those two come together to solve really hard, probably. But that also gets me to a lot of trouble. But let me start with my journey. So I began my journey as an IC and big companies starting with Oracle and then Google.

So that's me at Google on the very left. I chose this photo because it really represents pretty much what it felt like to be an IC in a big company. It was awesome. It was like, yeah, just ride the roller coaster. It's great. I didn't build a roller coaster. I didn't operate it. I just wrote it. Life was fun.

It was really fun. And then, then I became a manager and things got really complex. You know, Michael talked about the gray area. Yeah. That's a really complex kind of depressing area sometimes. And so that's me, my first startup. You can see, well, clearly I'm not even in the shot. So that goes to show what it's like being a man.

You're not even in the frame. So that's me. I call it my first startup and that's where I began. I began my career as a manager pro tip learning how to be a manager in a startup is highly risky, especially when you have no mentors around. And so I was literally flying by the seat of my pants, using my natural instincts.

And well, needless to say it was a hot day. The second startup, was it a chance for me to improve as a manager and that's me at high five on the far right? That's, that's my team. I'm a goofball. You can see if you haven't noticed by now. But when I took that job, I actually, I was reluctant to be a manager cause I knew how hard it was.

And so I decided to just remain an ICM. In fact, I wasn't sure if I wanted to move out of the ICU. Yeah, there's actually going to be a talk on that dynamic of moving between icy and management. So at some point though, at high-five, it got into my head that I wanted to become a VP of engineering that became my, my goal.

And then management became really interesting, you know, it's, that's a step in that direction, but so to me, it was just a mere sideshow, you know, just something to kind of pass through to get to my destiny. So in retrospect, I became a manager for the wrong reasons, and I quickly realized that being a great manager is really, really hard.

It commanded all the technical creativity and people savvy that I could muster and it demanded my time practice and commitment to serving the needs of others. So there were no shortcuts. All right. So let's dig into one-on-ones. How many of you do want to. Show my hands. Great. That's awesome. How many of you love one-on-ones?

Huh? Okay. How many of you are excellent at one-on-ones? That's right. That's right. Okay. Right on cue. And there's a reason for that, but let's just start by saying what, what does the, what does the internet say? What, what do you text. So I list three things, right. Really what you're trying to do. The first thing you're trying to do with one-on-ones is to build trust.

You're building a relationship. It sounds nebulous and fluffy, but that's really what it is. You're building trusted lines of communication between you and your team members. Second thing you're trying to do is you're trying to align expectations. There's always this angst, you know, with team members on where do I stand?

What, what am I expected to do? How do I grow? And that's an arena to do that. And then lastly, you're solving problems. This is where you debug issues. You know, when, when you're with your team member, you're dealing with interpersonal issues, that's the arena to do that. So let's start by, I'm going to take you through my journey, how I started doing one-on-ones.

I was like this kid here, lots of hubris. This can't be the heart. I'm going to crush this.

I relied a lot on my, the fact that I like to dig into things. I like to go deep. I would read books, watch videos that works really well when you're an IC and it's, you know, programming and computer science and what have you. But when you lack experience, and I lacked a lot of experience I was missing one real key ingredient.

So I would take things that I read, you know, videos that I watch and it just like airlift them in. Yeah, the situation, which doesn't really work. So that's kind of the secret, right? The hidden secret that the fact that you read stuff and then you just kind of airlift them and apply them and it doesn't always work.

And so I did a lot of that example, I'd read about things like, well, you know, just set up an agenda before the, the one-on-one you know, list the things that you want to talk about and, you know, have your team member list the things they want to talk about. So yeah. Create a two-way street. Right. So I thought everything would be.

Well, not quite, it turns out it's not a two-way street when you're primarily focused on yourself and what you need to get done, which is essentially how I started doing one-on-ones. It was really about my perspective, you know, my goals, what I needed to get done. Part of it was also, I was anxious to get through all of that.

So I didn't pay too much attention to my teammate team members needs. But it's understandable. Right? Because when you're, and I see really, you're trained to convince, to pitch, to sell it's about what you can do. You are the hero of the story. So if you don't, if you apply the same strategy as a manager, you know, you're just, that's just not the right arena to do that.

And so I was behaving as an IC, even though I was a manager and within the one-on-one that just didn't. But I have to say, just to confess some of it was just nerves, you know, it's, it's really, really hard to just be in an awkward conversation where there's this awkward silence. Yeah. Like that. So it's no wonder then that my one-on-ones were pretty much uninspiring and unproductive and I knew I needed to connect at a deeper level, but I didn't know how.

It was pretty clear to me that I wasn't connecting and I wanted to, but you know, it wasn't quite getting there.

But beyond that, I felt like even if I connected, what would I find if I'm faced with a real problem, would I be able to solve it? And he'd hear all these horror stories about people having to deal with people's personal issues. You know, I had a friend who's, you know, a team member got divorced and had to kind of deal with that.

And, you know, person wasn't delivering at work and has to be put in P I, I was like, I don't want to deal with that type of stuff, or I'm nervous that I wouldn't be able to. So my real fear was that I would not be able to do a good job and fail my people. That's hard. And there were some interesting warning signs, right?

So if you're a team member, for whatever reason, it starts to cancel your one-on-ones for no reason. Oh, just random reasons under the weather feeling sick, I'm going on vacation, whatever it is, pay attention. Sometimes you might get it full blast. So for example, one of my one-on-ones I had the team member tell me point blank.

You suck them out. Yes. Oh, you laugh, but it's actually the best feedback you can ever get. Why? Because generally as a manager, you don't get feedback, right? It's, it's hard to really get truthful feedback. And for one thing that the one-on-one is actually really hard to get feedback on. Cause no one really shadows you.

Cause that would be weird. Right. So you don't really get feedback on the thing that you really have to do well, which is strange. By the way, if anything, I've said so far resonates with you and it's, you're experiencing that you're not alone clearly. So taking a step back, clearly things weren't working a humbling experience, all that I needed a paradigm shift, right?

And so my mental model changed when I started to study formula one pit stops just by random, by the way, is anyone into formula one? In the audience show by pants. Yeah. I failed this. Yeah. Sorry. Okay. All right. I got you though. So I'm going to explain formula one. Well, those one are European is just a form of car racing, like indie car racing and simply put the pit stop is it's a break, you know, within the race where the, the car and driver will veer off the track, go to a certain designated designated spot and the car would be serviced and tuned and then put back in.

It's really simple. The pit pitstop though itself is a complex affair. So within a period of time, maybe a few seconds actually informally on the record is 1.9, six seconds. The car will have his tires changed area and takes cleared of debris, wind screens cleaned tire pressure change, or checked brake pads replaced all within this period of time.

So it's a very orchestrated. And it's done by a highly specialized group of people now executing well on all these things, changing tires, pressures, and all that stuff is important, but what's more important is when to do these things and in what order, so it should be obvious to you by now that the driver is your team member and you are the Pittston.

Everyone in the pitstop crew, that's you? So another thing is you are not really, you know, winning the race, you're supporting the race. You're in the background you're of service to the cause, which is, you know, the driver winning the race and in the one-on-one as a manager, you're typically switching between mentoring, coaching, resolving conflict.

All of these things, just like a pitstop crew is applying all these different skillsets, changing tires, replacing brake pads, all of those things rolled up into one and that's you. So it can be very overwhelming, but you do have to master all these skillsets and more

so let's break down the anatomy of a perfect pit stop. So as I began to study pit stops, I realized. A perfect pit stop has these three characteristics, anticipation, adaptation, and achievement. I'm so proud of myself. I spend so many hours trying to get the three A's. So this is where you applaud, but but in all seriousness so anticipation is before what happens before.

The pit stop at that patient happens within the pit stop. And then achievement is what happens after. So it's very important to the one-on-one is not just the thing. It's what happens before it, how you actually orchestrate the one-on-ones and actually what happens afterwards and in car racing, F1 with anticipation, you have the pitstop crew focusing a lot of time ahead of the race.

Doing research, right? Researching the track researching the competition, trying to figure out what will be the potential strategies. And they come up with some strategy to do pit stops. This is one we're going to stop the car. This is when you're going to veer off the track. This is you're going to do it in lab two, a lab, three, or lab for all of that is predetermined, but you're in the race.

There's still more data that comes in. So this, you know, all this telemetry that is being collected with sensors out in the field. So that that will augment the information that they had from before. This is all about information gathering, and this allows him to anticipate what the current drivers are going to need.

When they come into the pitstop. Now with adaptation, the crew has to be ready to switch gears and tackle a totally new set of problems during the pit stop, whatever they thought they were going to be working on might not be relevant at that point. And so they need to. For example, it might rain start raining suddenly.

And so at some point they might need to switch the tires between dry weather, to wet weather tires and an achievement. The point there is that there's no other outcome that's important other than winning the race. And everyone is in sync on that. Nothing that happens in the pit stop has to deviate from that goal.

So the lesson I drew. From this was that my one-on-ones were failing because as a manager, I was not adequately adapting or anticipating adapting and achieving mutually agreed upon outcomes. That was my lesson. So let's break them into three. So starting with anticipation. So I have a story. I once managed an amazing engineer.

One of the best engineers I've ever met. He was amazing. He productive a great team player, just your model engineer, and, you know, he delivered on time. Just amazing. And at some point, though, things started to slip. Deliverables were getting met on milestones with slipping product managers were in really happy.

So it was clear that he was not performing, but it was clear to both of us that this was what was happening were clearly slipping on our mouth. And so I walked into the one-on-one new manager with basically an idea of how I was going to attack. Right. And so that's the key word attack not in a bad way, but I was going to attack the problem, right?

So I'm an IC, you know, you fix the problem, so I'm going to attack the problem. And so I approached it as, this is a time management issue. You need to get your stuff together and manage your time better because I know you can do that. And I have no idea why, you know, things are slipping. So we went back and forth.

It was a pretty long debate and it turned out the issue he was having was not really that he couldn't articulate it, but he really just needed help. It really was that simple. He wasn't getting much help and I needed to hire more people really was that simple, but I talked to the wrong way. So what's wrong with this picture?

I came in with the wrong person. I had certain facts, but I came in with wrong assumptions. Great anticipation requires understanding the full context around the situation, which I didn't do. I didn't have. And so it's really important to collect as much information as possible. So let's dig in a little bit, let's figure out what really makes good ends.

What would it have looked like if I had done it right. One is getting as much information as I possibly could. That is number one, collecting my own observations. Right. And so knowing that the milestones are slipping deliverables and slipping, that was easy. You know, it's pretty clear to everyone. So that wasn't a problem.

So number two is get the take of others, get other people's perspectives. So you have the facts, but there's usually a story behind the facts. And in most cases, if you are, imagine you're not really in a trial. You might not be privy to that story. And so I failed in getting more context around why this was happening from other people in the team.

And you see why in a moment. And then the last thing is empathizing. So I've been an engineer, I am an engineer. And so it should be easy for me to put myself in that engineer's shoes, knowing what I know, and then being able to anticipate or appreciate and acknowledge the struggles that he might be. It turned out.

This guy is amazing. He's an ACE engineer and everyone looked up to him and he actually made other people look good. He would help other people's his own detriment. It wasn't a time management issue. He would stay up late, helping other people, moving their stuff along and not having enough time for himself.

But he was also the kind of engineer that wanted to look like he got everything down. Like I got this. If you remember the photo from the last slide. That happens quite a lot. So people feel nervous about asking for help because it makes them look like they're not getting their work done or they're not competent.

So going into adaptation. So another story yeah, one of my team members came to me during the one-on-one and it still happened that he'd become a new dad. He wasn't needed. And he was struggling to combine being a new dad with being a good spouse and also working on a high visibility project. He was very excited about this project.

I was too, maybe that was part of the pressure, I guess. But he really wanted to do a good job and he really wanted to get it done. And so was I, but I have so much on my agenda. I had a whole list of things I wanted to do. And so coming into the one-on-one and just having that conversation, it became clear that really what he needed was support what he needed was a sounding board, which I was able to give because I'm a dad of two, but I had all this stuff on my agenda that I needed to get through.

But I had to clear that out of the way. And we spent the entire, one-on-one just paying attention to how he could come up with strategies to have a better work-life balance. That was not what I intended to get into the, you know, one-on-one. But that was what he needed. And it's so happened that he walked out of that one-on-one feeling supported and that translated into higher productivity.

So sometimes it's okay to scuttle the agenda really it's really about results. And if the results is about your people, your team members performing at the peak level or being highly motivated, then that's a worthwhile result.

So again, breaking that down. The three things that you have to be cognizant of when you're thinking about adaptation one is communicating the agenda. So of course, beforehand express the topics that you want to talk about, get that same set of a list of items from your team member, but also stress that this flexibility is actually going to be a talk soon that talks about just this one-on-one is your team members time.

It's not your time, it's their time. And so you have to stress the fact that. Hey, this is flexible. We can change. We can change the topic, whatever it's important. We will talk about it. And I do this every single time. Even with the same person, you'll be amazed. How many times do you have to repeat this?

And so you always have to like set that tone right? From the very beginning. Also spend the first few minutes listening. That's it. Just listen, ask questions, try to draw people out. This is difficult because. I remember when Michael asked, who was an extrovert, who was an introvert? Lots of us are introverts.

I don't even know what I am. Cause I just balanced between the two. That's how confusing it gets when you're a manager. Sometimes you're like, yes, sometimes you're like, God. But either way you do have to draw people out. It's very important. Some people are easy, some people talk too much. So it, you know, you're going to get the full blast.

Something like I'm even afraid to say, you know, ask how are you doing? Because I'm going to get the full blast. But some people are very closed and so you have to be, you have to pay attention to what, how, what triggers them and how you bring those, those things out. And that's part of listening, right?

Listening. It's not just standing there and just, you know, listening crickets, but it's drawing people out and listening to them. And the third thing is being open to tangents. Right. And so. This is tricky, right? Because while you're open to tangents, be careful that you don't have things derailed because that can happen real, real fast.

Right. And so make sure that you identify what's really important and make sure that you both agree that this thing is important. And then focus on that then lastly achievement. So one common thing you'll see across these exams. Is the fact that there was always an outcome or desired outcome. Right? In the first example, I, my team member were clear that the goal what's to unblock unblocking, make him able to exceed expectations.

Once again, the second example, the goal was to figure out what is the right strategy for having a good work-life balance in lieu of the fact that you are now.

So breaking down achievement, what does it really mean? What does achieving outcomes really mean? So after every one-on-one and Deborah to have one or a small set of action items, not exhaustive, just a small set of action items that are measurable and trackable. And number two, you want to put those into writing, right.

And share them with your team. And it's important. That part is really important. It has to be shared. It's not just your personal notes, but things that you agreed on that you share with each other, and you can use whatever you want. You can use private slack channels, Google docs, Quip, et cetera. What have you, but just make sure that you're sharing those, those notes.

Also, number three is make sure that you're both making progress on those action items. Don't pay lip service to action. That happens quite it's like two dues and code, right? Like, oh yeah. To do right. Nervous. Laugh. Yeah. You never really get to those to do's. Don't do that with your action items. The worst thing ever is coming into the next one-on-one and you as a manager, having your action items, haven't made any traction at all.

Nothing is more demoralizing than having a manager that walks in and is like, oh yeah, that's. Still working on it. Even if you haven't resolved it, you should have made some progress, right. To show that you're working, that you care that you actually working on this.

All right. So let's come back to the whole concept of knowing how well you're doing in your one-on-ones. Like, no one, very few people actually know that they're excellent at one-on-ones. They probably also don't know how bad they are at one-on-ones. This is a problem. And so one thing, one example of how I keep myself honest is that I have a scorecard, right?

So at the end of every one-on-one I have one of these things that I write up. I have a very simple grading, scrap strategy is binary. It's pass, fail. You can use whatever you want once. If I wanted, I dunno, fractional what, whatever you want, but make sure you keep yourself honest for me. It's simple to know if I did it or I didn't do it.

So first thing. Team member did most of the talking the pass is yes, they did. Most of the talking, if I did most of the talking, that means I was not listening. Right. So that's a very simple bar for me. And I can, it's very easy to quantify. Second one is team member and I were aligned on takeaways. Now you might discuss a whole bunch of things, but if you're not converging at the same conclusion, then you want to make sure, you know, your resolve.

So that's very important. So after every one-on-one, I try to make sure that we have the same takeaways that our understanding and interpretation of what we talked about was the same three. The, the team member leave with it, a renewed sense of purpose and motivation. This is a personal one for me, the whole point of a pit stop, right?

In a, in a car race. Is that the driver and car leaving better than became in right. If you have a team member coming in and leaving demoralized, disparate it, like, that's not the point, right. You're doing more harm than good. The point is to be net positive in your one-on-ones. How do you do that? So these top three ones you can't really assess yourself without actually engaging with your team member.

Like I would literally sometimes ask, how are you feeling? Are you feeling better than you came in? And it might even be after a tough conversation? It's not about having happy conversations. It's about making someone feel like they have the tools to go into the next week and do some damage. And number four is, did we come up with a shared action items?

That's easy. It's you did it or you didn't. Right. The last one is the team members' perspectives match. What I see and hear elsewhere. This is tricky, right? Because you might discuss things that you think you're on the same page, you hear their thoughts and their perspectives. And then all of a sudden you hear somewhere else.

You're saying something different, right? So that's, that's a bad sign that, that says they don't trust you, or they're not telling you the truth and it's not on them. It's on you to create the atmosphere, right. That allows people to come out and be vulnerable.

So in closing, I just wanted to reiterate that really one-on-ones for me are a mechanism. For creating relationships, strong, healthy relationship with your team members. Yeah. And the most important ingredient to a healthy relationship is, is trust and trust comes out of you consistently, consistently attacking the problems that your team member's face.

Right? It is it, consistency is, it's a real key word for me because you can do it once, twice and, you know, get some brownie points. The way managers become legendary is, is that they're consistent. You know, you know what you're going to get from them. They're trustworthy when they say something they're going to do it, right.

It's you're not going to be perfect. But the idea is that you want to have a track record of being consistent and that people know that you have their best interests in mind. And that's what I got from some of the amazing managers I've had in my past career. Or am I. I still have a career hope. So yeah, this is really, this is really what I wanted to leave you with the fact that you should always have trust at the forefront.

Are you increasingly building trust with your team members? And the reason why trust is important is that if you've seen, I don't know if you're into sports, but some of the Draymond green, right? The warriors, he is quite a character, right? He seems to scream at people and say, there's some weird stuff all the time, but he's considered a great teammate.

Why as a de facto captain of this team, he has so much trust that he can really say whatever he wants to his team members. And they know he, he means, well, that's what a real manager is able to do. They're able to have those tough conversations, but it's all born out of the trust. And so there's this underlying foundation.

I know you, you have my best interests at heart, and that allows you to really be able to get in there and resolve issues and really be able to move people and have them reach their full potential. Thank you.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.

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