After your team introduction, one-on-one's are the next item on your agenda. They are the most important part of your job.

Through one-on-ones you will find the true story behind the scenes of your company; what the problems are, and how to fix them.

You'll discover how the team feels, how they are treated, and if they are engaged.


Meet with everyone in your first week, and pick a day/time that works for them for subsequent weeks. Ideally meet weekly with everyone on the team, and schedule for 30 minutes. Put recurring meetings on the calendar.

In case this isn't stressed enough: For the first month, meet as many people as possible, as often as possible. Look at the people more than the code.

Reschedule if you have to, but don't cancel unless it is truly an emergency. This is their chance to speak to you - even with an open door policy, your team will soon prefer making notes and saving them up for their one-on-one. Having an "open door" on its own doesn't encourage anyone to come to you with a problem.

At some number of people - probably between 20 and 30 - you'll find that you have run out of hours in the week and you need to see them less frequently. Continue to meet with senior people weekly, but you can push junior team members out to every 2 or 3 weeks. More at Team too big for one-on-ones?

Don't be tempted to see the higher maintenance team members less frequently, or those who you feel are less engaged. Listen to those alarm bells. Step in front of that train.

Pick a location

If you have an office or private space available, you can use that, but it's better where you can't be overlooked by others. You don't want them to feel self-conscious.

Surprise them with a trip to local coffee shop (pick up the tab), or a walk around the block or local park if the weather permits.

What to expect

Warning: Like a first date, your initial one-on-one's may be awkward with some team members.

Your predecessor may not have had one-on-ones or even discouraged open communication. The team may be used to a blame culture, and you'll have to gain their trust slowly.

Share with them why you're doing this:

  • These meetings are their meetings not yours
  • The meetings are confidential, private and safe
  • They can bring up any topic; what is bothering them, what could be done better, ideas they have
  • You're there to improve the situation, not blame anyone
  • It's a chance for you to Tell Them Everything too

Over time, they will bring topics to discuss, but you'll often have to seed the conversation, especially if it is obvious that something is bothering them.

In Why good leaders make you feel safe, Simon Sinek talks about creating a circle of safety where your team feels they belong.

Only when you have their trust, can you quickly find the underlying problems and fix them.

Seeding the conversation

Once I've had a few one-on-ones I usually open with "Tell me everything!" - and I'll often get a smile, and the conversation will start naturally.

You want to get to know the team personally as well as their work persona, so ask about their hobbies, what they did at the weekend, do they have any side-projects? Find what they are enthusiastic about.

Ask for their perspective on office culture, executives, or the company mission. How is their office environment?

Ask them about their team mates (more on this in Identifying personalities on your Engineering team). If they have negative comments encourage them to have a private conversation. Don't act on gossip yourself.

Without asking for project status (don't fall into the trap of one-on-ones becoming status updates), ask how could they improve their current project with hindsight?

Ask what processes are missing or broken? And be ready.. that one will usually keep you pretty busy typing notes.

Prompt them in every meeting to give you something to improve.. and of course, make sure that you follow through and improve it! The team will respond quickly if you're seen to be a problem-solver with the ability to "get shit done".

Lighthouse's Jason Evanish has a great list of 101 Questions to Ask in One on Ones that is worth a read.

Always take notes

Use a tool like Evernote or OneNote, and have a single page for each team member. In every one-on-one write down the date and make notes below in what will become a journal of your chats.

Each week you can quickly bring up their previous conversations, and the actions you took based on their feedback.

At the very first meeting ask for a quick career history. Make notes of when they were hired, where they came from, why they left there and joined here, who else joined at the same time, etc.

It's a mini-resume that you can refer back to, and since Evernote syncs and is available on any device, it's often easier to take one-on-one notes on your phone.

What to listen for

You'll get to know the team, which will enable you to dig much deeper into the real problems in your team, department and company.

You'll also very quickly get a sense of engagement, or put another way, of the poison in the team. Who is happy and who is not? How can you make them happy? Does everyone have a net positive impact on the team?

But be careful and make no assumptions; everyone has problems and it's important that you don't jump to conclusions prematurely. Personal lives affect work lives, so be sympathetic first.

Remember, that obnoxious guy who cut you off in traffic may have learned his wife has cancer that morning.

Tell Them Everything

You'll have your best chance in one-on-ones to be honest, to tell them everything.

  • If they've done a good job, tell them you noticed. Congrats!
  • If you've seen something that they could improve, tell them how. It's a coaching opportunity.
  • If there's some news or potential news that you ought to share, tell them early, because they'll probably find out anyway. Those jungle drums are louder than you know.
  • If a high-profile event happened - a team or management change for example - tell them you can talk about it.

Treat them as you'd want to be treated. Publicly praise, privately criticize. No secrets.