1-on-1s can be a real game-changer when it comes to building a design team that works like a well-oiled machine. Managers can improve their team’s skills, can create trust and open communication, can give feedback that helps everyone grow in these magical sessions.

A magical silhouette of flying animals dancing with an abstract background, with realistic lighting, generated with DiffusionBee
A magical silhouette of flying animals dancing with an abstract background, with realistic lighting, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ 1-on-1s - strengthening the team with coaching

1-on-1, the dreaded weekly meeting. I’ve had my fair share of great, not-so-great, and downright bad 1-on-1 sessions and while they are often described as a manager’s most important meetings, that also means they can be also the most challenging ones.

Besides the people issues and the fact that it’s on 1-on-1s where great people managers shine (and bad ones burn), two underappreciated aspects contribute to the challenge. Most design leaders are not trained as coaches and how 1-on-1 helps in building the team.

First, about coaching. The weekly 1-on-1 might be not the place where most designers get their first exposure to coaching, but it’s definitely where most design leaders need to step into the role of coaches. Coaching should be the default behavior, as even in the most flat teams, the manager is the boss. The job is to get the most out of the team.

This is not a guide about coaching. But in short, it helps to get the right outcomes, and it also helps to build the team and grow the team members to deliver more and better. In the end, with team members we are not talking about resources, but people whose strengths and weaknesses should be acknowledged, and who need help to grow beyond their limits.

I believe in letting people learn from their own mistakes, that is people grow the most from what they experience. Coaching makes the difference between just failing again and again and actually learning from mistakes.

One challenge is how team members might not know what to expect from the coach, their expectations might be unsophisticated or they have unrealistic images of how things should go. So it might take a long time until a team member would tell their manager “Now I know how to use you”.

To get to a place where coaching and 1-on-1s can be successful, the manager needs to get a few things right:

  • Building trust: Regularity helps. By having one-on-one conversations with each team member each week, design leaders can learn about their goals, concerns, and aspirations. This can help leaders tailor coaching tools to meet the needs of each individual and help team members feel valued and supported.
  • Encouraging open communication: Creating the right space for discussions is the foundation. By creating a safe and supportive space, team members are more likely to share their ideas, feedback, and concerns. This can help leaders identify areas of improvement and implement changes that benefit the team as a whole.
  • Setting goals and expectations: Radical candor to set expectations is a great approach. By setting clear expectations early on, team members can focus on their work and strive to meet these goals. This can also help prevent misunderstandings and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • Providing feedback: 1:1 meetings are also an opportunity for design leaders to provide feedback to their direct reports. By providing constructive feedback, leaders can help their team members grow and develop their skills. This can also help team members feel more engaged and invested in their work.

As a last note, while coaching should be the default mindset, it still needs to be balanced with direction.

Second, about building a team. A thing I struggled with for some time, is how I connect the growth and goals of individual team members to the wider team strategy. The goal was to build a strong team, and strong teams consist of strong individuals for sure, but there is more to a team than just a few great individuals. This is where 1-on-1s also play a role, by fostering trust, open communication, and goal-setting, leaders can create an environment where team members feel supported and motivated to do their best work. This can lead to higher job satisfaction, better performance, and ultimately, better design outcomes.

A few ways of working on the team while on a 1-on-1 is to establish and live the culture and values (such as open communication), make connections between team members (hey, did you know that another person is working on the same thing?), work on individual goals to fit them into broader organizational goals, align broader goals and shared vision, and resolve broader problems through individual cases (like collaboration issues with other teams). 1-on-1s are also the place where more senior team members can be coached to be a coach themselves for more junior members, making them more resilient.

Overall, 1-on-1s are an important tool for building a strong and effective design team. By focusing on individual growth, culture development, team alignment, and coaching skills development, design leaders can help their team members achieve their full potential and contribute to the team’s success.

🥤 To recap

  • Coaching is an essential aspect of 1-on-1s that helps build a strong team and enables team members to learn from their mistakes and grow beyond their limits.
  • Design leaders should focus on building trust, encouraging open communication, setting clear goals and expectations, and providing constructive feedback during 1-on-1s to make them successful.
  • 1-on-1s can be used to connect the growth and goals of team members to the wider team strategy, creating an environment where team members feel supported and motivated to do their best work.
  • Leaders can establish and live the culture and values, make connections between team members, align individual goals with broader organizational goals, and resolve broader problems through individual cases during 1-on-1s.
  • 1-on-1s are an important tool for building a strong and effective design team, leading to higher job satisfaction, better performance, and ultimately, better design outcomes.

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🍪 Things to snack on

Getting started in a new team is challenging, especially when it comes to taking the first steps with the new reports. How To Start Managing People – The First 3 One-on-Ones by Csaba Okrana describes a nice simple framework for this. After agreeing on the schedule, the first 1-on-1 sets the scene, the second gets the current state of affairs right, and the third does the career check-in.

How to run 1 : 1 meetings that work for 2 is a great overview on making 1-on-1s work for both parties by David Lynch. The article has some guidelines on what to do before, during, and after.

1-on-1s are a great place to build the coaching habit, and Christina Wodtke has a great blueprint for using the GROW model in Working the Weekly 1:1. The goal comes from the topics the report brings, Reflection where the manager can dig into it, and Options where the report can come up with their solution, while W is for the next steps. The article also lists questions for each point.

Depending on how your people are doing, a 1-on-1 can differ dramatically. Besides some great general advice, Michael Lopp writes about the three types of 1-on-1s one might encounter in The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster - and what moves to do in each. The update is the all-clear type, where the manager can learn something new. The vent happens when there is something on the person’s mind that produces an emotional response and they need to get out of their system. The manager needs to work on the deeper problem involved. The disaster happens when the vent goes beyond an emotional response and turns into a full attack, the primary job here is to defuse the disaster first before turning to solutions.

There is a lot of well-intentioned advice on 1-on-1s that is not great. Claire Lew has four of such questions in Stop asking these 4 questions during your one-on-one meetings. These four not-so-great questions are “How’s it going”, “What’s the latest on …?”, “How can I help you?”, and “How can we improve?”. Besides the questions, the article gives some tips on what to ask instead of these.

101 Questions to Ask in One on Ones by Jason Evanish is a good list of questions to ask on a 1-on-1 if a manager is unsure what to ask, organized by topics.