As managers and leaders, one-on-ones are some of the most important meetings we have. They accomplish a huge variety of goals. For your direct reports, 1:1s give them a space to ask questions, to talk about what's bothering them or on their mind (both positive and negative), provide valuable feedback to you, and give people a place to vent or celebrate. They also provide a space for individuals to be more vulnerable and share about their lives or what else is happening for them right now. This helps create more meaningful and authentic connections between you and the folks who report to you. For folks doing 1:1s with managers of managers or other folks in supervisory roles, they can also help recognize issues that are starting to surface across the organization or surface items that should be discussed with a first team. For managers, they provide a place for YOU to be more vulnerable as well, helping folks see the real you. This is especially helpful for CTOs and VPs as your peer team and how you are perceived within the company changes greatly through this progression. But 1:1s can also be challenging. It's hard to context-switch into them. It's too easy to end up using them as a project update or status report. If you have a direct report who's quiet or who's very talkative, it can be tough to find that balance.
So, how does one get all of this out of a 1:1?
- Embrace Vulnerability: Both you and your reports should feel comfortable being vulnerable in these meetings.
- Balance of Conversation: Ensure a balance between listening and sharing, especially with particularly quiet or talkative reports.
- Contextual Adaptability: Adjust your approach based on each individual's communication style and needs.
- Role-Specific Challenges: Recognize how the dynamics of 1:1s change as you progress to higher leadership roles like CTO or VP.
First, start with a few minutes of checking in. Simply asking how they're doing, understanding what's going on in their world at the moment can go a long way. Just remember, it might not click immediately. Like all people, your directs will have had a variety of past experiences with managers, some better and some worse. Those with previously challenging experiences will likely be more hesitant to share or might wonder if you have an ulterior motive. Keep asking, and sharing little bits about your life as well, and you'll get there.
Second, let them talk about whatever is on their mind. And, always give it more than a surface level "everything is fine" nod. If you have someone who doesn't talk as much or who frequently responds with everything is fine, probe further into that. What feels fine? Could things feel better? Is there anything this week that was frustrating? or that they were really excited about? Allow for some silence as well. While this might feel uncomfortable, it might also be the space and time someone needs to figure out what their real answer is. Conversely, if you have someone who is quite verbose, you can also use these questions to focus them or, as they're sharing, ask questions like what about this feels the most important to you? What feels fixable and what feels out of your control? How can I support or help?
Third, and this is not widely agreed upon, while I try to keep most of the time in 1:1s as their time, I do use the time periodically to cover things that I need to review with them. Common examples are: something I observed that they need feedback on, something I observed that one of their direct reports might need feedback on, understanding how their team is doing, addressing any projects or work that might be off-track, ensuring understanding on something recently rolled out on the department or company level, or clarifying expectations or asking for reinforcement around something I might be rolling out (as well as asking for the mood and perception from their team on these announcements). Relatedly, recognize what information you need and what you don't. Here are some common mistakes I see being made especially by higher level engineering leaders: they use 1:1s as a way to dive deep into technical problems and solutions because they miss being closer to the code (or because they think they need to maintain that level of details on ongoing work). They use 1:1s as a way to get broader updates, especially in 1:1 with department leads who have multiple managers and teams reporting to them. They use 1:1s to vent about what they're frustrated about at their level as a way of connecting further with their reports and ICs. Recognizing what 1:1s should be used for and what they shouldn't be used for is helpful for determining what other meetings you might need to have or communication structures you should have in place, as well as identifying how your relationship might need to change based on the role and position you are holding at the company.
I also have some 1:1 logistics and principles that I review with everyone when I start doing 1:1s.
- Note-Taking: Keep shared notes for transparency and future reference.
- Template Utilization: Use a 1:1 template to maintain structure and efficiency in meetings.
- Flexible Adaptation: Adapt the template based on individual preferences and needs.
First, I always take notes that are shared with the person I'm doing the 1:1 with. I do this for a variety of reasons. So that I and the person I'm meeting with have an easy place to re-review what was discussed or any action items that were decided during our time together. So that if we have a conversation around some more constructive feedback or feedback that might be difficult to hear, we have a place to reflect on that feedback. I also always take notes not just on the feedback but on the conversation that happens about the feedback. This is helpful if someone wants to clarify something after that fact that might have been said or expressed. And finally, I take shared notes because it makes performance reviews SO MUCH EASIER for both myself and my direct if we can just flip through 1:1s from the last 6 months or year and get a sense of what we talked about.
Second, I like to use the 1:1 template that I have linked below. This is not a requirement for folks but I do find it helpful. I also go over how different people utilize this template. Some start next week's 1:1 issue/space as soon as this week's 1:1 has ended. That way, over the course of the week, whenever they think of something, they already have a place they're adding it to. Others take 10-15 minutes before our regular 1:1 to fill out the issue so they can keep their thoughts organized and so that I can do a quick read of whatever we might not get to. Others make sure to give me a "heads up" if they have something particularly frustrating or emotional they might want to discuss so that I can go into the 1:1 with the appropriate information and in the right brainspace. And others, don't fill out the template at all. But we'll still go through the questions and i'll use it as a basic structure as I take notes. These thoughts are usually not full sentences, they're more bullet points or memory joggers to make sure we're using our 1:1 time in the best possible way.
This template can be used in notion, as a github issue template where you open a new issue each week, in a google doc, or in any HR 1-1 note taking system your company may be using.
Some final thoughts on 1:1 "logistics":
1:1s should be scheduled for either every week or every other week and, in my opinion, should be somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. I usually start with 30 minutes for everyone and if we regularly find ourselves going over time, or having more to discuss, I update the timing. I also try very hard to keep 1:1 time as reserved and try, as much as possible, to not move around 1:1 timeslots.
Below is the 1:1 template I use. Some has been developed by me. Other questions borrowed from managers I've worked with in the past. I hope you find it helpful!
If you have questions or would like 1:1 guidance, Book a free consultation call with me today to talk about my 1:1 mentorship and advising offering.