Quality Bits

Effective 1-on-1s with Farai Madzima

May 29, 2023 Lina Zubyte Season 1 Episode 20
Quality Bits
Effective 1-on-1s with Farai Madzima
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

What makes an effective 1-on-1? What are the key aspects of valuable 1-on-1s? Is there a difference between a leader and a manager? Why does the language we use matter?

Tune in to this episode to learn more from Farai Madzima. Farai is a people leader who challenges our misconceptions about 1-on-1s and shares valuable tips on making these meetings much more helpful. In addition, during the conversation, Lina used the word "superior" instead of "supervisor" or "manager," and that sparked some interesting discussions on the significance of the language and different cultures people come from.

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If you liked this episode, you may enjoy this one:
Radical Candor: Effective Feedback and Helping People We Work with Shine with Amy Sandler

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- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/linazubyte/
- Website: https://qualitybits.tech/

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Lina Zubyte (00:06):
Hi everyone. Welcome to Quality Bits - a podcast about building high-quality products and teams. I'm your host, Lina Zubyte. It's been quiet to ride with this podcast and I'm happy to introduce you to the last guest episode of this season. I am planning to come back for the second season, so please let me know any feedback you have or guest recommendations. I would love to hear them. Today's guest is someone who really inspired me when it comes to people topics. Sometimes when we talk about people topics, we just talk on the surface how much it matters. But what does it actually mean? How can we make these dreadful, wasteful often 1-on-1s actually interesting and useful? Farai shares great tips and advice on creating effective 1-on-1s as well as even the use of language and why that matters. Enjoy this conversation.

Hi, Farai! Welcome to Quality Bits.

Farai Madzima (01:30):
Hey Lina, how are you doing?

Lina Zubyte (01:31):
I'm doing really well. How are you today?

Farai Madzima (01:35):
I'm okay. It's early in the morning where I live. I'm in Ottowa in Canada. It's a bit rainy and cloudy, but otherwise, yeah, I'm feeling good.

Lina Zubyte (01:42):
It's really sunny here in Berlin. It was not sunny for months. So finally we're getting some sun. I'm very excited about that and about our conversation as well. So could you shortly introduce yourself?

Farai Madzima (01:57):
I always find it weird to introduce myself. My name is Farai Madzima. I coach people managers on how to be better at looking after the careers and the work lives of the people who report to them. That's one of the things that I do. It's my favorite thing to do, I think. In terms of work to pay the bills, I also work at Shopify. I'm a UX manager and I look after a team of several folks who work on a finance product. And I live in Ottawa, Canada, as I mentioned before, but originally I'm from Zimbabwe, which is way far from where I'm am right now.

Lina Zubyte (02:33):
It is a little bit strange to introduce ourselves, right? Especially when people ask who are you? Or introduce yourself. Usually what they're aiming at is the profession. For me, what's interesting is the other parts... Like how would you answer who are you.

Farai Madzima (02:50):
Right? This is the thing. Depending on the context, it's like, you know, what is the story that's gonna be relevant to what's going on here?

Lina Zubyte (02:56):
Exactly. So when it comes to your interest about people, what sparked it? What makes you so interested about people dynamics and helping people out?

Farai Madzima (03:10):
I don't know if there's a specific thing that I can identify, but what I do know is that I have an ability to empathize with folks and I've been able to do this for as long as I, I mean most people can do this, but I'm very sensitive to how people are feeling around me, and I've always been that way since I was a kid. I guess if I look back now and in the workplace, I'm also sensitive of that. But what I've noticed in the workplace is that if folks are struggling or they're unhappy, not a lot of people care. They only care if that unhappiness has an impact on the project or an impact on the quality of output. But apart from that, there's not a lot of support and a lot of managers are not trained to look after people in that way or even within their management philosophies: how you feel is not a part of what matters to me.

But actually if I'm not feeling a hundred percent, how am I going to show up and by show up, I mean how am I going to be able to deliver the work and be my authentic self and share my opinions if I'm not feeling my best? I noticed this, and so I've been looking at it and learning about it for probably the last five, seven years now. So that's the long answer to the question. I don't know if there's a specific trigger, but I just became more and more sensitive to how managers were or were not responding to how people are doing on the team rather than what people are doing on the team.

Lina Zubyte (04:40):
Yeah, I guess we started saying more and more that people's skills or soft skills as we say sometimes are not actually that soft. They're hard, it's very hard and challenging to learn them, but maybe we do not put enough of emphasis as well of putting the heart into the work with you, the care that you're talking about, the empathy and not only look at project delivery deadlines and dates.

Farai Madzima (05:10):
I will confess to having beef with the term soft skills. So I actually was looking up like, where the hell did this come from? Why did we say this thing? Because the term soft skills is a loaded term for every single person. It means something different. We all think it means the same thing, but maybe for you and I in this conversation, we are clear that those skills, as you mentioned, are things like empathy and so on. Some people look on soft skills with derision. Softness in business sometimes is not seen as a desirable quality, but the term soft skills, I was looking it up, I forget how long ago it was, but came from the US Army and what they were looking at, they were saying that hard skills are skills to do with hardware. So if you are dealing with machines, with tools, with weapons, you are developing and using hard skills.

Any skill that is not to do with hardware was seen as a soft skill and that was the distinction they were making. So the soft skills are the skills that a leader of a platoon would need to have and would need to demonstrate and things like that. So in that, that was where the distinction came from. But I think over time, soft skills has also, now as I was saying, a loaded term taken on all these other meanings that, you know, sometimes are undesirable, but you're perfectly right that those skills that are not to do with the technical aspects of our jobs are hard. One, they're difficult to know, difficult to learn, difficult to understand and use in the workplace where the thing that's most values are those hard skills like technically can you deliver.

Lina Zubyte (06:42):
So then if we're building software, we could start saying, you know, it's only soft skills?

Farai Madzima (06:49):
You could! So I would modify "hard skills" and say "technical skills". So technical skills being the things that you applied to your craft to produce whatever you are producing. So my technical skills might be that I am a writer, I spend all my time in worded editing software or like you say you're writing code or you are checking on the quality of code, but you're using technical skills to analyze and report and those kinds of things and test. But once you've done all that, you're gonna need to talk to other people and work with other people to make a difference based on the work that you've done. That might be through meetings, through retro, through trying to convince people that we're doing it this way or that way, prioritizing stuff. Those would be the non-technical skills which would fit into the soft skills category.

Lina Zubyte (07:39):
With my mere experience in software development, I feel like most problems are people problems. They're the most challenging ones. Once I came to a leadership role, I feel like, you know, you can learn a tool, you can learn a technical skill, but when it comes to solving some conflicts that appear or some behaviors and making a cultural change, that's a different conversation. So when we talk about also management and leadership in companies, do all managers have to be great leaders? And what makes a manager a good manager and the leader a great leader? Is there any difference in your opinion?

Farai Madzima (08:29):
In my opinion, which is based on something I heard from a guy called Seth Godin who was a great marketing writer, and yeah, he's a prolific writer. He has written a lot and he speaks a lot about management leader and the opinion that I've come to is that promotion and an org chart makes you a manager. That means that you don't even have to be capable. People who become managers just because their friend is the boss or they're, you know, they're related to someone who's the boss or maybe they were just the only person who was there. And you get promoted and you become a manager and looking after that group of people that the company has employed the employees. To be a leader, you have to take responsibility for the careers and work lives of the people who are reporting to you.

And they will choose to follow and to listen because you care, not because you have the authority of a manager, but because they are seeing that hey, this person's actually looking after us. They're looking after the things that we care about and the things that we care about are success in our project. And this person is putting in everything that we need to do that, and so it makes sense for us to follow this person. In that way, you become a leader. A manager does not have to become a leader because you can be a manager because of the org chart, but you may not care about the people that you're leading. And so I think the best managers are also leaders, but being a manager and becoming a manager does not automatically make you a leader. Caring and taking responsibility for the people that are reporting to you is what makes you a leader.

Lina Zubyte (10:07):
I guess we do assume that management somehow, by default, has all those skills and cares about people, but it's something we need to develop for sure. And when I got into a leadership role, I as well was wondering about certain aspects of it. For example, 1-on-1s, I read your article about 1-on-1s and I really share the sentiment about seeing one-on-ones as obvious. It's a 1-on-1, so it's a 1-on-1 conversation, right? But it's so much more actually. At the time, I'm seeing it as such a big opportunity and also a misunderstood zone because a lot of people may do some mistakes about it. What are some of common misconceptions or mistakes that you have seen people make or assume when it comes to 1-on-1s?

Farai Madzima (11:01):
I think one of the most important ones is understanding what 1-on-1s are for. Um, so if I may just ask you, how did you learn about 1-on-1s?

Lina Zubyte (11:12):
From my own experience, which also wasn't always the best, I'd say.

Farai Madzima (11:16):
Mm-hmm. And this thing that you're describing is one of the biggest challenges with 1-on-1s is that there is no agreement on what a good 1-on-1 looks like. And there is very little that is documented that explains that. So if you and I were to say, let's run a retro wherever you are in the world, whatever language you're speaking, most people who work in software would do pretty much the same thing because what a retro is supposed to produce and the process of running a retro is well understood by many people because it's documented and there's a good aim to it and you're not learning about it. Even if you learn a retro from other people, even during that process, you will see consistency in the approach, which is we collect a bunch of ideas and inputs, we create a certain kind of environment where, you know, everyone should be, feel free to say what they want to say.

And then we have activities that follow after that: 1-on-1s. Typically like you, in your experience, we just learned from the managers who came before us, whether they were good managers or not good managers. That's pretty much always the only education that you get. I am yet to go to a company and work at a company that teaches managers how to do a 1-on-1. I've seen documentation in places where there's, you know, it might be a one sheet that goes, Hey, here's what a 1-on-1 looks like, here's what it's for. But even within that company you'll find different managers doing 1-on-1s differently. So understanding what it's for and a 1-on-1 is primarily for the person who is reporting to a manager to be able to share any challenges they're facing in making progress on the work that's in front of them or progress within their career.

When they present any of those challenges, the manager should have the opportunity to use their skills as a coach, their skills as a mentor, the knowledge they have from experience working in this industry, in this organization, and this craft to use their skills to help unblock the person reporting to them so that that person can make the next step. Whether that is complete the project or whether that is, have that difficult conversation with a colleague or give that tough feedback that they need to give whatever progress they're trying to make. It's the manager's role to unblock that. Right? So that's one of the key purposes of a 1-on-1. The other one is to create alignment, which is, I dunno what it's like in your organization, but from time to time maybe the CEO will send out an email or you'll have what they call town hall meetings, like where the whole company comes and you know, something is announced and the assumption is whatever was announced in the email or the town hall, everybody now knows and understands in the same way.

Because it was written, it was said, but in reality, if I take the example of when COVID started and we were all sent home and there was an email that was sent out and was like, cool, you're leaving the building now and you'll come back, we'll let you know. Sure, everyone is leaving and we know that we need to go. But depending on who you are, if you are a parent, if you're a caregiver, if you live in a house that doesn't have a spare room for you to actually go work in, if there's no workspace where you live, all of a sudden your understanding of that is very, very different. And so a 1-on-1 is an opportunity for a manager to go, Hey, did you catch that message? What does that mean to you? Let's align on what that means and what that looks like.

Here's what the message was supposed to say and what you were supposed to take away from what I understood, what did you get right? And so you can create alignment on what's going on in the company, what do these words mean and what do they mean for you and what is your next step? So those are two key things, at least that a 1-on-1 should be for, that I don't think are very clear to people. Some people just think, is it a catch up or it's a project update meeting. This is the worst use of a 1-on-1. Project updates can happen in any of the other 40 odd weeks that we have working together. This 30 minutes, this one hour is about me and my career and you know, we can afford to spend at least that. So let's not spend it on a project update, drop that in a Slack message, send me an email and I'll know what's happening.

Lina Zubyte (15:15):
We, I think, assume naturally that it is about the project updates. I've had 1-on-1 so often that people come and then they just say, okay, did this, this, this, this, this, this, this. Right? Correct. Is there something I could help you with? And I'm like, uh, actually it's not about that.

Farai Madzima (15:34):
Mm-hmm. Exactly.

Lina Zubyte (15:36):
So how would you approach this that we would make 1-on-1s that are more helpful and not wasteful as they feel very often? So you mentioned the purpose as well as alignment. Is there something else or how can we as people leaders, set them for success?

Farai Madzima (15:56):
One of the key things that I've been thinking about that I think has been helpful, and I found it helpful in the work that I've been doing with being a people manager, is having the right framing about the relationship between myself and the people reporting to me. For each person that I'm reporting to or that reports to me, I am the second most important person in their career as their manager at this point. They are the most important person in their career right now, and the two of us are collaborating on this part of their career journey. We have to work together for their progress because when they progress and they win, as a manager, I win. And so taking this idea of collaboration and saying that out loud to say, Hey, we're working together on this and we need to understand what each of our roles are.

And the 1-on-1 is a great time for us to intentionally collaborate on anything that's in the way or anything that's misunderstood or on certain goals and things like that. So when you have that framing of we are collaborating together and the 1-on-1 is where we work together on our collaboration, that helps set the framing for what we are doing. So having that framing I think is an important thing. And then understanding what the role is. And so if we are working together in a 1-on-1, then for each of us, we need to bring whatever we think needs to be discussed to help our collaboration move forward, to help the project we're working on, which is your career to move forward a little bit. And so having an agenda for a 1-on-1 that recognizes that, hey, we are talking about the work of your career, I think is an important thing.

So those are two key things. One, the framing that we are career collaborators in your career as you report to me, cuz it's yours, it's not mine, but we're working together on that thing. And secondly, the 1-on-1 is a place for us to work on the things that matter towards progress in your career. And so bringing both of us, bringing things to the agenda really matters that when we start the meeting, we can go, oh, here are some things that I thought I was talking about. You've got some things that are worth talking about. What's the most important one for us to tackle right now? And then how do we kind of progress with that? I think those two things really changed the framing because 1-on-1s are sometimes seen as an extractive exercise for a manager. What I mean by extractive is that the manager is just there to mine the person reporting to them for information.

Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me. You look for advice on 1-on-1s and what everyone offers : here are 59 questions, 37 questions that you should ask in a one-on-one. Why are you asking those questions? What is the goal of asking those questions? This, it's never clear. I think making sure that you are understanding the reason why we have these conversations is to build something. And if we're asking questions, it is with the goal of enhancing our collaboration and understanding where you are blocked and things like that, I think that that matters a lot. So framing and having a co-created agenda for every 1-on-1 are two key things that can help shift a 1-on-1 to being something that's much more useful for both parties.

Lina Zubyte (19:01):
That sounds really good. And I think it's a great tip for people leadership roles. I'm wondering what if you find yourself in a situation where you are having a 1-on-1 with your superior, but your superior is fairly passive and lacking, giving you guidance about your role. How can we approach a situation like that?

Farai Madzima (19:26):
In that situation, the conversation around collaboration still works. So the idea that I can say to my manager, the way I see the world, you are the second most important person in my career. Do you agree? They might say yes or no. If they say no, there are tough questions that you need to ask yourself about the career you are in and you know, and this, this company and this team's contribution to your career. Not everyone has the luxury of moving or changing, but at the very least you can understand or you can in fact actually engage your curiosity. Why don't you think so? Who else could matter more than the person who can decide whether or not I'm promoted the person who decides what I work on? Because the work I do kind of develops my career. So if they say no, you can get curious and ask them why not.

And what you're trying to lead them to is to get them to agree that apart from yourself, they are the next most important person in your career. And so what you need them for is, well, if they agree that they are, they have this role, then what you need from them is their input into whether or not you're working on the right stuff, how well you are doing. You need their support in unblocking any progress that you want to be making. Each these things are things that you can propose and say, well, if you are in this role, then do you agree that this is something that is/would be useful for my career development? And my success in my career and in my role in this job is your success. Those are all things that you can ask about if you have the right kind of relationship so that you can bring them around to understanding.

Oh, snap, it's not just you coming in and asking the question, what can I do to help? Which I think is, I really do dislike that question from a manager because I feel like when somebody asks that question, they have not taken the time to even think about what you might need. You are doing the work of having to fill them with ideas that they, of things that they can work on to support you. They should have been thinking about some things. Sometimes there's genuine, you know, interest. But anyway, the key thing I think is being able to ask that person whether they see themselves as a key player in your career, what role they think they have. And if you can get them to agree that they do have a role and things that they should be doing, then you can ask them whether they want to play that role and give suggestions of if you have to manage up in that way and say, here are some things that would be really useful for me coming from you, feedback on how I'm doing for my peers. I would like you to gimme feedback on the goals that I've set for myself. Give me the right kind of tasks that are gonna help me to grow in my career. Um, I will need you to unblock me if I bring you any challenges that I'm facing. These are things that, you know, you can then suggest for them to take part in if they agree that they are a part of your career and that they have a role to play.

Lina Zubyte (22:22):
I think it's a very helpful view on 1-on-1s for both sides, because very often we become resentful if our superior is not guiding us as we expect them to. But in a sense it's also on us to speak up and say, Hey, these are my goals. Do you agree on that? And maybe, yeah, talking about the career progression is the main goal of 1-on-1, right?

Farai Madzima (22:51):
Yeah. I wanted to ask the word superior when talking to somebody who you report to, superior to me has connotations of someone who is better than you.

Lina Zubyte (23:03):
Oh yeah, that's true. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Superior or supervisor.

Farai Madzima (23:07):
Yeah. It may not be what you mean, but somebody could read it that way. And the reason I raised this is, again, coming back to this question of if we are collaborating and if we are working together, then even language that might create a power dynamic between us that's unhealthy is worth knowing, recognizing, understanding, because the power dynamic does matter. There are many people who, because they think their managers are maybe this perfect person who's at the best level of the career, that's why they got promoted. They have all the power and things like that. So I come from a culture, and I'm particularly sensitive to it because I am Shauna from Zimbabwe, and, in my culture, there are strong hierarchies. Senior people are seen as folks who typically you can't question and things like that. And I've tripped up on this in my own career having, you know, moved around the world.

And so this idea of the person who I report to, are they superior to me or are they just somebody who's been given this role and more importantly for me in my career, can I see them as somebody that I can collaborate with and speak to in a way that is going to be fruitful for my ends? So I just wanted to point that out, but I totally understand what you meant, but I think there is something in it where some people don't necessarily question what is the power relationship between myself and my manager, or they live and work in cultures where that dynamic actually does mean that I can't speak to this person in the way that I would in my previous recommendation around ask your manager if they think they are a collaborator. In some cultures, people can't have that conversation because of this power dynamic.

Lina Zubyte (24:45):
I can see that actually working with different nationalities that some cultures are more hierarchical and they take it as a word and they're not going to question their manager because they do see them as superior for sure. And I'm using it more like a literal kinda way. I've also been in situations where, for example, my manager wasn't superior to me in a sense of the field even, right? So especially in certain roles, let's say you're in a cross-functional team, a setup you could be in is that you have a people manager in the team who is not necessarily a developer or QA or a UX designer, any of the roles. So they are, in a sense, not senior developer. So they are not going to help you out with the specifics of your career, the craft, right? They're more managing you. And I've been in situations where sometimes that kind of manager would tell me, well, you are an expert in your field, you tell me. And I felt so annoyed then. I mean, they would say, oh, you've reached the ceiling of what you can do. I'm like, no, like it's not the case. And on one hand I would be like, uh, I don't really want you to like your homework as well, and I would be a bit bitter about this. What are your thoughts on this type of situations?

Farai Madzima (26:14):
This is happening more and more. And I've seen, uh, I know Facebook was just announcing, you know, this year of efficiency thing, and they're doing this thing where, they're calling it flattening the organization, removing lots of hierarchies, which means fewer managers and fewer management structures, which leads to some of the situations that you're describing where you've got a manager who, I think they call it a wing spann, which is kind of the number of people who are reporting to you. And when you've got people who are reporting to you more and more people reporting to you, sometimes those people are in a craft or working on a project you know nothing about, but they still have to report to you in some way. In forward-thinking organizations, they will pair a people manager with technical leads. So I'm a people manager, but I also have design leaders who are also at my level.

They don't have people reporting to them, but they are people who technically are able to solve the gnarliest problems, you know, that, that our project has. And so when it comes to helping somebody develop technical skills or solve technical problems, I can lean on my technical partner as a manager and say, Hey, you know, Lina's come through, you know, she's working on this project and I'm not the person who can help her through that. Can you have the conversation that might move her forward? Um, I'm happy to join in or to support y'all in that journey. But that's only when a organization has recognized that, hey, just because someone is a people manager doesn't mean they can help someone develop in their craft. But that said, a people manager who has people leadership skills should still be able to unblock you around many of the other aspects of your job and your career and unblock you in terms of you being able to live and have a great work life.

And this is typically done when they have good coaching skills. Coaching skills support you to unlock your potential or unlock answers that you may already know, but you just didn't realize that you knew that. And so that means as a manager, I don't necessarily need to know how to write rust code and to develop a test or whatever it is, but I could say to you, Hey, if you can't do this thing, who else would you speak to who could help unlock this? Or what other examples of this thing have you seen? I don't need to know what that code is, but I might be able to help you find a path to solving that problem. So that might be a thing or a way to approach it. If you're a people manager who does not, is not a leader in the craft of the people that you are leading, you can still help them to find a way to progress.

So the key here being as a manager, I don't have to be the person who unlocks your progress or who unblocks you from what you need to do, but I should be the person who helps you find the path to getting unblocked. If that means that you and I sit together on Stack Overflow and we look for a thing that may be what we need to do. I don't have the answer, but maybe Stack Overflow does. But if it's the case that I appoint you to an engineering lead who I can say, Hey, I can find time with that person to help you, will that solve your problem, then that's my job. I unblocked you and you should be able to continue to make your progress.

Lina Zubyte (29:23):
I really like this approach. It feels like a very proactive way to hear people because you are not only listening to them, you're not only saying they're there, I feel bad for you, but you're actually doing something to help them and get unblocked.

Farai Madzima (29:40):
And this is the work! Like unblocking progress and unlocking potential. If there is things that you are capable of that I see that you may not be apparent to you, I should be the person to kind of share that with you.

Lina Zubyte (29:52):
Yeah, I really like this. And also, I really appreciate that you raised the superior conversation and the languages and the different cultures because we get to work with a lot of different people. I have, for example, heard some stories that I cringe about. Like there was a hiring manager that someone mentioned to me that they thought was so great at hiring because they would take a person for a beer. That was an interview. And for me it's like red flag, red flag, it does not sound good to me because they are picking out a specific type of people, right? So they're really filtering people that they would like, what if I don't drink? What if you know, a person is very different than you, but they're amazing team player. But here, I guess the challenge is also for managers when we have already different people in our teams connecting with them differently and helping them to see authenticity in themselves and belong and show up. I'm curious, what are your thoughts about helping different people show up at work as they are?

Farai Madzima (31:09):
Everyone is gonna be different that you work with, right? Whether, even if they're from your own culture and from your own country, they still have differences. Those differences manifest in different ways, but you would hardly have the same people. That's if you're doing it right, if you're managing right for that diversity that we're looking for. So in terms of helping people who are different work together, there's a talk that I used to give: working with strangers. And the idea is we assume that everyone's a stranger. And so in terms of 1-to-1 relationships, so that's either relation to relationships between yourself and those people who might be reporting to you or relationships between them and other people on the same team. A key thing you want to do is to help them reduce interpersonal distance that is making us less strangers, right? We might not become best friends, but we're also not strangers.

We're somewhere in between. And you have to bridge that gap with intent. And the typical way to do that is to be a person, which sounds strange, but when we start working and we are looking at job titles and we are looking at job roles, sometimes it makes us dumb socially, we stop thinking like people and we start trying to relate to other people's roles and we start worrying about what my manager X say about what I'm doing or what might report this person think. But being able to come back to the fact that these folks are people and have exercises that can help to emphasize that and remind you of that, one of those is something that where I work has been part of the interview process, which is called the Life Story interview. And so I've kind of continued to do this thing.

And the idea is that whenever I work with somebody new, I spend, if I can find an hour, I will spend an hour with them the first hour that we get to work together. And we split that hour and a half, and during the first half of that hour, I'll say to them, listen, well we're gonna be working together on this project. We haven't worked together before and I just wanted to get to know you a little bit better and to help to build a personal relationship with each other and to build trust. And one way to do that is for me to just kind of do this life story thing with you. So for the next half hour, I'm going to tell you about me and you know, my journey up until this point, feel free to ask any questions. And then when I'm done, I'd invite you to do the same.

And then I will tell them, you ask me to do a short introduction earlier, I will just make that introduction longer. And I would go all the way from being born in Zimbabwe to wanting to be a doctor, living in the UK, moving to South Africa, and all the way to ending up at Shopify, being a coach, getting fired, all the things that they would not know by looking at my LinkedIn profile. What this exercise does is to humanize each other, right? When you start to know and understand, oh, snap, here's this guy, father of two, oh snap, he's made mistakes, he's done this. That superior thing we are worrying about starts to go away. When we start to realize that, oh, this is a person, the title of manager, the title of leader sometimes makes people seem invincible and invulnerable. But this exercise as a manager helps you to show people that oh, you're just another person and reduces that interpersonal distance.

And by going first, you also kind of set the tone for what they might share. They might not want to share all the way that you do, but you set the tone for what they might share in their story. So I do this with every new person that I work with, whether they're reporting to me, I'm reporting to them, or they're gonna be my peers. That's what I do. And then once I've modeled that, I then invite them to do the same with the people that they're working with on their teams. So I'll say, go set up a 1-on-1 with your new engineers, with your new product people, and do exactly this thing and have that conversation. This is one way that we can start to get to know each other. Because in sharing these things, almost invariably you start to find some kind of similarity, right?

I'm also an immigrant, I'm also a parent. I'm also interested in playing the bass. I also got fired. I whatever it is that happened, whatever it is that you're doing, there's gonna be something that at some point is going to click. And this approach helps us to find the sameness rather than focusing on the differences. So that's one way in which I try to help teams of people who don't know each other yet to start to get to know each other so that they can work better together as people, and then they can work together as technical professionals and craftspeople.

Lina Zubyte (35:39):
I really like that. I feel like seeing a human in each other is very important. As we also spoke about languages, my one of the favorite words is Sawubona in Zulu, which means hello. And it also says, I see you mm-hmm, and we use it interchangingly with my friends. Just saying Sawubona and that's the full sentence.

Farai Madzima (36:04):
Where did you learn that?

Lina Zubyte (36:06):
Actually one of my friends from South Africa knew it. And he told it to us and we just fell in love with that word because it's so beautiful.

Farai Madzima (36:16):
Mm-hmm. And this is where I was trying to get to. I I really love that you've raised this like Sawubona, I don't speak Zulu, but Sawubona what is the meaning of it?

Lina Zubyte (36:25):
I see you.

Farai Madzima (36:27):
I see you. What a way to greet somebody, right? There is a literal like, Hey, my eyes are observing you, but they can be a metaphorical thing, a deeper thing, right? Which is, I recognize you, the words that we have in languages for greeting, for relationships, I think really do matter and make a difference. I always think English lacks in being able to express these things in deeper ways, in metaphorical ways, but maybe I'm just like really poetic about, you know, like I prefer that, but I think it matters when you have these words of recognition, ways of greeting people that that really matter. I think about like the word like in English, the word love, where it's like, oh, I love this kind of coffee. Uh, I really love the way like this product does this thing and I also love my son and I also love my wife.

Are those all equal? We all use like one word to do it. I, in other languages, I think there's other ways of expressing like there is brotherly love and the love that you can have for a thing and the love that you can have for someone, you know, you're romantically involved with and things like that. But it just feels like there's no nuance. But that's just me. I, I love language and I'm loving that you're raising this hat, like that ability to kind of express, because the way I see it is a language isn't just another way of saying something, but it's literally, I mean, something entirely different. Because if you and I say hi to each other, that's one thing. But if you and I say, I see you and I see you, our meaning is entirely different cuz hi, I don't even know what high means. Does he even ever have meaning? It's just a sound as far as I'm concerned. Uh, whereas I see you certainly has meaning that should be taken seriously. And it's always a great thing.

Lina Zubyte (38:05):
It does for sure. I also really like languages and recently I read non-violent communication and I feel like I'm going to be reading it again and again. And now I spot the violence in our communication everywhere. For example, the way we say "I feel unimportant" - that is not a feeling. That is actually interpretation of another person. So as a result, you know, just noticing how we're communicating: "I feel bullied". That is me calling you a bully. That's not me saying that I feel sad that you said that to me because we struggle to admit our feeling directly, right?

Farai Madzima (38:46):
Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Lina Zubyte (38:48):
So being I feel like in 1-on-1s and managing to communicate in nice ways with empathy as well as help people to maybe pinpoint their feelings is also a very important aspect.

Farai Madzima (39:01):
Non-violent communication. What is that? Is there a way to do, do you have a quick summary of what that is?

Lina Zubyte (39:06):
Yeah, so it's actually a book and there also are workshops by Marshall Rosenberg I think. And it basically has certain principles and it starts with us knowing our needs and wants and learning how to express that. And the fact that even the most heated situations we can defuse if we know how to communicate non-violently. And there are lots of very useful examples. I even wrote like a little summary that we can link. I love that book because I feel like our language is really like even this word "feel" in English - it's not a feeling what we feel sometimes, it's our thoughts. So in those principles, basically it's acknowledging our needs, acknowledging the needs of other person. And then when we phrase conversations that we actually are specific and we do not mix up, for example, judgment and observation, right? So observation is one thing and then we add, oh, it's good or bad. Well, it's my feeling then or like my judgment.

Farai Madzima (40:14):
Mm-hmm. I appreciate you sharing this because in my mind, like if you had said violent, violent communication, I would've thought like swearing and shouting.

Lina Zubyte (40:25):
Exactly. That's why I was actually hesitating to read that book because I was like, it's obvious, right? What is violent, what's nonviolent? But actually it's more about maybe empathetic communication.

Farai Madzima (40:36):
So violence in this case is about violating and sometimes through judgment you are violating somebody. So this point that you raise around language really matters because one of the most important tools that managers have in a 1-on-1 is actually conversation. It is only through conversation that I can understand what's going on with you. It is only through conversation that I can find ways to support you that I can coach you. I can only do this typically through conversation. Sure, I might be able to send you a slack message, but it is only through this kind of communication that we are able to do this and the language that we use and the tools that we learn to help us to support the people that report to us, I think really matters. And being intentional about what we are saying and intentional about what we're hearing as well, what I am hearing a person say might not be actually what they mean.

And so this takes a lot of work and this is one of the key skills, for people management, which is, I think you mentioned like skills, like empathy and so on, and these really matter. But unless a manager is capable and willing to have critical conversations, they will struggle to succeed in their work because it, it is through being, having the tough conversations that we can really support people to grow, to unlock potential, to unblock any challenges that might be facing. So I'm really interested in this non-violent communication. I'm gonna read that too. Maybe we can chat about it sometime.

Lina Zubyte (42:04):
Sure. So this is a great message already for us to wrap up our conversation, but the last question for you would be, what is the one piece of advice you would give for building high quality products and teams?

Farai Madzima (42:21):
Build trust first. So that exercise I was talking about, having that life story conversation to reduce interpersonal distance is also to build trust. And there are two kinds of trust. There is the trust that I know that if I give Lina this project, she's going to be able to do it, she's going to do it well and she's gonna do it on time. So I trust Lina to deliver. That's one kind of trust. And sometimes we confuse that with, I trust Lina as a person and I would be happy for Lina to come and stay in my house. I would leave her alone with my children. That's a different kind of trust. And when we focus on the first one, sure we can have a good transactional relationship, but when we need to have difficult conversations, when we need to take risks together as a team, which we always do in our trade, like if you're working on software and you're trying to ship that you're taking some kind of risk at some point, um, when you propose an idea and you say, Hey, I think it could work this way.

Or we're in your retro and you say, Hey Lina, that thing that you said or did didn't really help us out. In all these instances, you're taking a risk. When there is no trust, no one is gonna take a risk, no one is going to try and argue. No one is gonna raise healthy conflict. And so making sure that you have trust, and this comes from a guy called Patrick Lencioni, who wrote a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And I'm sure you'll be able to share the link to this book, but he's got this pyramid cause all great business models are pyramids. But at the bottom of the pyramid is this idea that you need to have trust. Cuz if you don't have trust, you cannot have the conversations that need to be had for you to have healthy conflict that can help you get good ideas out in the open, so that you can make progress and develop quality products and to build quality relationships and teams.

Lina Zubyte (44:07):
Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Farai Madzima (44:09):
Thank you. This was great.

Lina Zubyte (44:11):
Thank you so much for listening. It's been a joy to talk to Farai and I hope you learned as much as I did. And if you are still here, read this podcast and give me some feedback. I'd really appreciate that. And until the next time, do not forget to continue caring about and building those high quality products and teams.

"Soft skills" term origins
Managers vs. leaders
Misconceptions about 1-on-1s
Key aspects of Effective 1-on-1s
Managing up: lacking guidance supervisors
Word "superior": power of language
Managers who are not your craft experts
Diversity at a workplace: Working with strangers
Sawubona: I see you. Beauty of the seeing human in each other.
Farai's tip on building high-quality products and teams