One-On-Ones Are Essential

How do you make the most of one-on-ones?

By Ken Norton

3 min read • Jul 12, 2016

Ken Norton

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One-on-ones are the most important meetings on your calendar, whether they’re with your engineering lead, designer, direct reports, or manager. They help you build relationships, clear roadblocks, and solve problems.

Many of us treat one-on-ones as expendable. Every time you cancel or reschedule, you’re sending a message that something else is more important. Start by treating one-on-ones as sacred immovable objects on your calendar, and insist that others respect that.

  • Learn to listen: PMs are action-oriented problem-solvers. We like to jump straight to the solution. We stop listening because our brain has skipped ahead and is calculating the next words that will come out of our mouth. Listening is a difficult skill to master, but I’m making an effort to work on it.
  • Try going outdoors: I find that conversations are easier and more genuine when you’re walking side-by-side with someone (or at least outdoors if you’re unable to walk). Perhaps it’s because you’re both facing the same direction; toward a common goal. Or maybe it’s that we’re not distracted by laptops or smartphones.
  • Don’t force the conversation: Sometimes when I get in an Uber I’m chatty and talk it up with my driver. Other times I just don’t feel like talking and keep quiet. Same thing goes in the workplace: not everyone wants to talk today. Respect their privacy, and don’t take it personally if the other person doesn’t open up, especially about painful topics. The best thing you can do is give them space and listen
  • Run out the clock: Another reason I like walking meetings: you continue to chat even when you’ve covered everything on the agenda. There’s no urge to end early because you both need to walk back to the office. These bonus minutes can sometimes be the most valuable. Get to know one another, or talk about less urgent but important issues, or just brainstorm about the future (what Andy Grove called “heart-to-heart issues”). One-on-ones are the only meeting type that I don’t recommend ending early.

Get out of PM mode and don’t judge whether the one-on-one was worthwhile based on the number of agenda items you checked off. You’re building relationships, which are measured over the long term. If you’re looking for topics to discuss in one-on-ones, check out this list of questions to ask your manager and questions to ask individual contributors. Read more of my advice for one-on-ones and every type of meeting in Meetings That Don’t Suck.


On September 13, Facebook is bringing together a community of Women in Product. The event is free, but space is limited. Sign up for an invitation.

Good Reads

PM career ladders. Sachin Rekhi looks at the product management career ladders at top tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

“We were up until three o’clock last night.” Watch this remarkable internal Apple all-hands video from 1997 where a relaxed Steve Jobs introduces the company to the iconic “Think Different” marketing campaign.

Solving problems with the tools at hand rather than inventing new solutions from scratch. How WhatsApp succeeded by focusing on product, not technology.

Distinct, but optimally so. Jonah Berger argues that the best products are different, but familiar. This “optimal distinctiveness” forms what he calls the Goldilocks Theory of Product Success.

The Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling. I once took a screenwriting course and was struck by how formulaic screenplays are. First 10 pages: establish normalcy, etc. Now a group of scientists have demonstrated that there are six basic emotional arcs that form the building blocks to all stories. The visualizations are a lot of fun—here’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Othello.

“The courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.” Last month I expressed my displeasure with Adam Grant’s reductionist op-ed on authenticity. A reader sent me a more detailed and articulate response by Brené Brown. As Brown writes, “‘Don’t be yourself’ is terrible advice. Trying to weaponize authenticity feels gimmicky and opportunistic.”

Originally Published: July 12, 2016

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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