This is the fifth article in our new series with advice on building a business, company culture and life-hacking from Joel, CEO here at Buffer. You can grab all posts here.

andyI’ve written in the past about the evolution of our culture at Buffer. One of the things we started to do at around 6-7 people as part of the culture is that everyone has a 1:1 session with either myself or their team lead at least every 2 weeks. On top of that, I personally have a 1:1 session with LeoCarolyn and Sunil (the c-suite) every single week.

It’s been pretty powerful to put in place, and it’s something I would very much encourage startups to experiment with early on. I don’t often hear about coaching and feedback processes being in place at startups, and it took us some time to figure out how to structure it, so I hope this might be useful.

How the 1:1 sessions work

We’ve had many different iterations of the structure of our 1:1 sessions, which originated from the ‘mastermind’ format I’ve previously written about. Currently they last around 70 minutes and have quite a rigid structure as follows:

  • 10 minutes to share and celebrate your Achievements
  • 40 minutes to discuss your current top challenges
  • 10 minutes for the team lead (or me) to share some feedback
  • 10 minutes to give feedback to the team lead (or me)

Each of these sections serve a slightly different purpose and combine to create a very productive session. In addition, once sessions like this are done consistently over a period of a couple of months, a momentum builds and we’ve found the whole team has really started to move into a whole new gear.

The 1:1 is for the team member, not the CEO or team lead

You might notice that in the structure breakdown above, it translates to 60 minutes dictated by the team member, and only 10 minutes led by myself or the team lead. This is very deliberate, and in the early days the balance was the other way around. One of the key realizations for me that it should work this way was a great article Ben Horowitz wrote entitled One on One where he said the following:

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting.

When you share the structure in advance and 85% of the time is dedicated to the team member, and it is up to them to set the agenda, it suddenly becomes very empowering.

Listening and suggesting, rather than commanding

During the 1:1 session, the team lead will try her best to simply ask questions and maybe share some of her thoughts or similar experiences. The aim really is to help the team member to think about the challenge and come up with their own solution or steps forward that they can be completely happy and excited about.

This can be one of the hardest things to do – to hold back when an idea comes into your head about what the team member could do next to solve their challenge. However, this is really important. If instead of just instructing the team member as to how to solve their challenge, you ask questions to try and guide them to that answer, then you might find your own idea was in fact the wrong solution entirely. This has happened quite a number of times, and has been fascinating to see.

Even if the solution is what you have in your mind, it is a hundred times more motivating for the team member to come away knowing that they came up with a solution themselves, that this solution is theirs and they were not commanded. Galileo explained perfectly why we try to approach it in this way:

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.

The power of scheduled time for reflection, celebration and feedback

I think a reason that the weekly or biweekly 1:1s can serve to accelerate progress at a startup, is that it is a deliberate and scheduled session to spend 10 minutes purely for celebrating achievements (something we often forget to be happy about and grateful for), and a lot of time to reflect and make adjustments.Tim Ferriss put this better than I can myself in one Random Show episode:

It is important that you pay as much attention to appreciation as you do to achievement. Achievement without reflection on what you have and the gratitude for that is worthless.

In addition, having 10 minutes for each person to give feedback to the other is very freeing. The time is set up specifically for feedback, and if this time did not exist it may be hard for someone to share their concerns or suggestions for change within the company. Especially for a CEO, it can be uncomfortable for people to share feedback, so this setup is a way to receive incredibly useful information.

Embracing our cultural value of self-improvement

One of the unique values in the culture at Buffer is to “Have a focus on self-improvement”, and this can be related to your work at Buffer or (often) personal improvements.

In the challenges section of the 1:1s, the discussion may be for challenges within Buffer, or it could be working on your self: for example improving your sleep, pushing yourself to keep learning a new language, trying new forms of exercise such as swimming, or how to blog more frequently.

Do you have a process in place for accelerated improvement and two-way feedback at your startup? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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Photo credit: Jerome Carpenter

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Written by Joel Gascoigne

Joel is the founder and CEO at Buffer. He is focused on the lean startup approach, user happiness, transparency & company culture. Say hi to him anytime @joelgascoigne.

  • Pascal

    Great. Coaching is a great tool to master. For feedback, any specific approach that you are using with your team?

  • evanish

    Joel – Do you guys use an app or any tool to aid in the 1 on 1s? Do you track some of the takeaways from each meeting to make sure progress is being made and you follow up on anything that came from the discussions?

  • Heather YamadaHosley

    Hi Joel! I think these 1:1 meetings are a great idea! I can see how they would really help a person improve quickly with such frequent opportunities for feedback, thus improving the success of the overall team. Also, the structure is great as it allows the person to reflect on each of those areas as they prepare for the meeting. Taking time to reflect is not common, especially on a weekly basis. The approach to guiding team members to find their own solutions is so empowering and also likely to result in them remembering the process & solution in the future should a similar situation arise! Thanks for sharing these extremely useful posts.

  • James McKey

    Joel, you are way too young to be this smart AND wise. Please stop it.

    Great stuff. We’ve also had our 1:1 mtgs changed to being more about the needs of the team member, but I think the specific structure you give makes it even more powerful. Passing it along to our Leadership & Employee Development team.

  • Joel, great job in applying these practices.

    I’d highly recommend you check out for actionable guidance on how to do 03s as well as the rest of the “Trinity” with Coaching & Delegation. (disclosure: I’m just a big fan!)

    Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne absolutely rock when it comes to management – for me even better than Peter Drucker!

  • Excellent advice. I’ve seen many instances where the 1:1 session has great intentions but after several weeks becomes more of a weekly performance appraisal rather than a coaching session. It is often difficult for leaders to settle into a coaching role rather than the traditional leader of the past.

  • TheMikeBal

    You guys should definitely check out 15Five, sounds like your team would love it.

  • Alec Matias

    Do you follow the same structure with your initial co-founder? I imagine it’d be a bit awkward having a 1-on-1 with someone that is more of an equal. Is it?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Alec, that is a great question – actually we did and in fact still do. Joel and I have a weekly 1:1 session every Sunday, it’s been tremendously useful.

  • Jennifer Rodrigues

    Great article! Thanks for sharing!

  • Onoreno DiNardo Jr.

    Hmm… Older post, but you may find that much of the focus on this kind of coaching and behavior is contained in the book “Quiet Leadership”, by David Rock.

    The thought has been occurring to me, that the model of leadership that is confrontational, directively demanding, and authoritarian is failing in substantive ways, and does not appear to be satisfying to many people.

    Yet to go to the other pole of behavior, I’m thinking there are times, when confrontation is valuable, demands and expectations need to be made clear, and authority needs to be exercised.

    Have you any insights or thoughts on this dichotomy?

    • Hi Onoreno! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! We have been thinking a lot of about leadership and structure here at Buffer in the time since this was written. In fact, it feels like it’s time for an update on how our masterminds have evolved! Meanwhile, this post is probably a lot more indicative of where we are now in terms of hierarchy (or lack thereof): Feels like we’re leaning quite a bit toward the former of the approaches you outlined. 🙂

      • Onoreno DiNardo Jr.

        Hey Courtney,

        As much as I like the concept of no or limited leadership and hierarchy, as it tends to be empowering, I’m wondering how that fits in with different personality styles.

        I’m fairly comfortable in both hierarchical structures, but do find that the self organizing structure can allow for a degree of openness that isn’t available in many situations.

        I’m thinking that one of the groundwork items is that you’ve gone quite far at, is the creation of a culture that values trust very highly. It’s a necessary component on either side of a healthy leader / follower relationship, whether bound by hierarchy or not.

        Also seen involved is the ego-less component, which is similar to the goal in a partner relationship of maintaining the relationship as one of the three perspectives and foci. There is each individual as separate entities, and the relationship as a whole. By serving the relationship as a whole, first and foremost, it has great strength, and allows the individual events that are challenging, to be navigated with more security. (Having faith that your partner will choose the best for the relationship, regardless of the immediate cost to themselves, gives room to expect and assume the best outcome.)

        I’m still working on how this fits into the whole leader / follower preferences that people exhibit, and the control or responsibility versus acceptance and guidance choices we can make. It may be a fundamental thing, or a product of natural tendencies in becoming social beings developing a civilized and working culture.