When I joined the Financial Times as Technical Director for FT.com, I inherited a team of around 50 engineers. One of the first things I did was meet each of them for a one-to-one. I was initially resistant, but it was extremely valuable, I’m glad I did it, and I would definitely do it again in a future role.
The idea was suggested to me by a mentor, who’d been advised to do it by his mentor, a Rear Admiral, who said this was something you should do whenever you have a team of fewer than 150 people. My mentor gave me some tips:
I was initially resistant because of the time commmitment. With a team of ~50, that’s a lot of hours, and I was also working four days a week so each meeting takes up a greater proportion of time. However, once I’d made the decision to do this and announced my intention, it was important to me to follow through, so I made sure to make time.
I scheduled four of these 1:1s a week, starting with the people reporting directly to me and then on down the management chain.
Firstly I ran through everything I planned to cover, and then stepped through it.
When I asked this question I talked a bit about why I was asking. I explained that I might not necessarily see or know things that may seem apparent to them, and while they should always feel able to bring things to me, now was a good opportunity to do so. It was an opportunity to make sure I’ve heard what’s important to you, what things should change and what things should stay the same.
This question always elicited very interesting responses, from organisational issues, to personal information people felt it was valuable for me to know about them.
I put all the information in the meeting invite.
I mentioned that I wanted to have a chat with everyone on FT.com to understand how things are going, does this time suit you for this?
The meeting agenda is the same for everyone; a quick intro and then the following questions (I'll go through this in the meeting too):
Some people did not read the meeting invite and came with no idea what the meeting was about. Some people had fully prepared and written notes that they then read out to me. Actually people having prepared sometimes was less useful, because sometimes it led the conversation to solutions rather than problems. However it was great that people had really given it some thought.
Each meeting was half an hour. In the very first one, I made notes in a notebook, but I realised that created an implicit commitment that I was going to take action on everything that was said, even though I had said it was information only.
However, I do not have a very good memory, so for all the subsequent ones I made a few notes after each meeting of key themes. This meant I couldn’t do more than two in a row or go straight into another meeting, so it made scheduling slightly harder. These days, people are much more aware of the shorter meeting approach so if doing this again, I’d go for the ‘therapy hour’ – 25 minutes for conversation then 5 minutes for me to make the notes.
In my intro, I gave a potted career history. Starting from my degree in philosophy, and my first career in children’s book publishing, through teaching myself to code, my masters in Software Systems and then my 15+ year career in programming, infrastructure and operations, technical architecture, and my previous role as Open Source lead. I also talked about what appealed to me about the job as Technical Director at the FT.
I said roughly the same thing to everyone. I don’t normally introduce myself and give my background, but in this case I thought that as a new Tech Director most of them would not be working closely with me, and I would not be contributing code, so it was worth giving my credentials.
My mentor had suggested I also say something personal. I think he intended something like “married with two children” (or whatever), but instead, I tried to give a different kind of personal detail, something about my interests. I tried to come up with a different one for each conversation, for example something about my cross-stitch hobby.
This part was the hardest part for me, because prior to this I had generally enjoyed keeping a clear boundary between work stuff and personal stuff, so that definitely didn’t cover talking about cross-stitch, or my home life, on a first meeting. However, I had been trying to bring more of my personal self to work, and this part of the intro did lead to some really interesting conversations and I think helped make a better connection.
Of course, these days, when we are all at home, my personal life is in meetings with me, so it’s good I’d already started on that journey!
Giving so much information in my introduction also allowed the other person to introduce themselves how they wanted. Some talked career history, some focused on their hobbies, others were really open about their lives and aspirations.
My mentor was wrong about one thing – none of the conversations were boring.
In my first few months in the new job, I often felt really stretched for time, but I never regretted a single one of these meetings; it was always extremely interesting, my team are brilliant and it was great to meet them one on one, and each conversation always contained some valuable information.
There were two very valuable things about this for me.
The first was getting an idea of what change was needed. These meetings gave me a brilliant insight that wasn’t available elsewhere. Patterns started emerging very quickly, and formed the basis of our tech strategy.
The second was building relationships. A lot of the people I had 1:1s with I would not have come into contact with during the course of the ordinary working week. It would have taken time to meet everyone at socials, and it wouldn’t have been the same quality of conversation. I still feel, two years on, that I know a bit about all the people I had those conversations with, which has felt to me like a good foundation for our subsequent conversations.
It was also good, as someone who is a bit shy, to have names to faces quite quickly and people to say hello to when walking round the office.
About a year later, I asked some of the people with whom I’d had these conversations whether they’d been useful (in an anonymous form).
All of the people who responded said they found the conversation valuable, and some of their comments were:
One of the challenges of being in a senior leadership position is that there are lot of things you just don’t see. Issues that are completely obvious to people in teams, doing the work, are just not clear or even visible to those in leadership positions.
There are various mechanisms to address this, like staff surveys, retrospectives, making sure line managers feel comfortable raising issues with their line managers/their line managers’ managers, etc, but it’s also useful to have that direct line open in case all others fail.
One of the questions I asked people in my follow up after a year was whether “do you feel able to raise issues with me?” and the answers ranged from “yes”, to “I did at the beginning after having this meeting but less so as time went on.”
This suggests that while a one-off is valuable and creates that openness and makes it clear you are interested in feedback and input from the team, that effect doesn’t last forever.
I think the relationship-building aspect does have a longer lifespan though; each small interaction you have with people builds on that.
I would definitely do it again when starting another job. It gave me an incredible head-start on understanding the areas that needed improvement, and let me start to get to know my impressive, excellent team.
One question I have worried over (and is the reason it’s taken me so long to write this blog post) is whether it should be a regular thing. My previous mentor said he did it annually.
It would be a very big time commitment to do annually, around 28 hours, which incidentally is my working week if I did nothing else at all. But I couldn’t get it done in a week, as I find back-to-back meetings too draining, particularly intense focus ones like this. It would take probably 6-8 weeks a year to get them all done, and that would involve prioritising it above most of my other commitments.
At this stage, I have a lot of ways of gathering information about how my team are doing. I have open conversations with direct reports who keep me in the loop. We have a Peakon survey, we do a Spotify healthcheck, we have a line managers channel where we raise issues, teams have retrospectives and people do reach out to me with issues. So while I am sure there are issues that I am completely missing, I am not sure (famous last words!) that there are enough to justify the time again.
While I’ve decided not to make this a regular thing, I still want to know everyone in my team. What I do now is have a 5–10 minute conversation with new starters in their first week or so, so the initial barrier of a conversation with me is broken.
I also have a coffee with people when they leave the team or the FT. That is another great opportunity to ask the “is there anything I should know” question and get often very useful insights.
Now that we are all working from home, I arrange occasional catch ups* with people on my team to see how they are doing, and to try and replace the casual conversation in the kitchen that is now missing.
Working out how not to lose the social capital we’ve built up in the office, and building it up with new starters is something we all need to address. For a start, things like social events (in work time) are a big part of that, and I make sure to attend as often as I can, both to try to make sure I don’t become a distant, completely unapproachable figure, and also because they are often extremely fun.
*If you are on my team and want one of these, even if just for a chat, Slack me.
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