4 min read

Face Off

Face Off
Ha ha ha what a terrible/great movie.

I've been directly responsible for people for a while now.

In that time, I've realised that one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal is a good old-fashioned one-on-one. Something as simple as sitting down with someone, listening to them and showing them that they matter.

People tell me I give good one-on-ones but I'm disinclined to believe them because I am fundamentally incapable of taking a compliment. Its hard to deny it completely though, especially in the face of people continuing to ask for one-on-ones long after I'm no longer their manager.

But I'm never happy to rest on my laurels because I'm an escalator, so I want to get better and hone the skills that let me accelerate those around me.

And what better way to do that then with focused practice?

I'm pretty sure I haven't done ten-thousand-hours of one-on-ones yet, so I better get cracking.

Try One-on-ones For Hire! Its More Fun!

Doing one-on-ones constantly for the people you're responsible for is a perfect example of practice, but I don't think it counts as focused practice.

Sure, you might get a chance for some self-reflection about how the conversation went, but you're almost certainly going to keep your focus on the other person and their needs.

Well, you will if you're any good at one-on-ones that is.

Even if you ask the recipient for feedback on your approach, you might not get very much in the way of useful information. Again, if you're doing the one-on-one right, they should be thinking about themselves and not about you.

So, in order to get focused practice you need to find another channel to get that targeted feedback.

For me, the idea that I came up with was to find someone unrelated to my day to day, who also does one-on-ones for a living, and organise to give them a one-on-one, with the understanding that at the end they would critique my style and help me improve.

By setting the expectation that the one-on-one is a teaching/learning opportunity it changes the nature of the conversation, which in turn allows for a greater chance of useful feedback.

After all, what better way to hone your skills than with the help of someone just like you?

So, with that idea in mind, I set out to find an appropriate victim.

Oh Well, Plan B. Lets Just Teach Each Other?

Being Atlassian, it didn't take me too long to find someone that was interested in the concept.

As part of the initial negotiations, it quickly became apparent that the peer one-on-one should be a two way street, and that I should also offer the reverse service to the other person (i.e. get them to give me a one-on-one and critique their style).

I didn't even think of that at first. I was so focused on improving myself, that I hadn't considered helping others to improve in the same way.

After dancing the manager dance and finding some time that both of us were free, we pushed ahead and did the deed. Most of my one-on-ones go for an hour, so we did ~45 minutes of normal one-on-one and then ~15 minutes of targeted feedback.

And it was good! Being that we were both very familiar with the process of giving a one-on-one, it didn't take long to get into the swing of things.

Even just doing a one-on-one with a brand new person was interesting, let alone the goodness that came at the end. Each of us had our own style and our own way of doing things, and that in itself was a great learning opportunity.

Of course, there were some challenges.

But You're Still Not Having Any Fun!

The most obvious and immediate challenge was that the one-on-one was the titular first contact, which is not a good representation of what a regular one-on-one looks like.

From my point of view, the first one-on-one is always the most awkward and weird, because there has been little to no time available for the building of rapport. Also, you know literally the least you will even know about the other person, which makes engaging with them difficult.

If the peer one-on-ones were regular, like normal one-on-ones, that would make them more of an honest representation of process. But that requires time and time is always scarce. Of course, if you don't make time to reflect and improve, then you'll never get any better, so its a bit of a catch-22.

The other challenge was in giving the feedback itself. This was especially obvious to me when it was my turn to get a peer one-on-one, because I found that I had to be constantly switching between being engaged in the process (i.e. actually reflecting, thinking about the conversation, answering questions, etc) and being slightly disconnected so that I could evaluate the other persons approach.

Its not impossible, just challenging, and it really reinforced my original opinion that asking people for feedback as part of a normal one-on-one risks dramatically reducing the value generated in the conversation.

The upside is that being able to do two (or more) things at once is a good skill to have, so practicing it can only be beneficial.

Its Like Looking Into A Mirror, Only Not

So, peer one-on-ones.

A good concept, an interesting experiment, but something that I haven't followed up on since.

Except for this blog post of course.

I did learn some things about my own style though, like:

  • I ask good questions
  • I keep the conversation flowing
  • I have a good sense of which topics to explore
  • I'm a good listener
  • In general I give pretty good one-on-ones

Great feedback to get, but nothing unexpected or that I obviously need to work on. More of a reinforcement of my current strengths.

I wonder if additional peer one-on-ones with the same person would lead to better feedback? Perhaps with more constructive criticism and areas for improvement.

I'm honestly not sure.

Regardless, I enjoyed engaging with a new person and it was a great opportunity to take a step back and reflect.

And I'm one step closer to the magical ten-thousand-hour mark where I assume I hear a small "ding" and then I'm suddenly an expert.

That's how it works, right?