Coaching and feedback within startups

Written on 14th July, 2013

I’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 Leo, Carolyn 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 employees meeting rather than the managers 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.

Photo credit: Jerome Carpenter