March 25, 2019

The Whats and Hows of Meaningful 1:1s

As an engineering manager, your job is to engage, retain and grow world-class talent, as well as to provide context to them. One of the best avenues to do that is through one-on-ones. In this article, I tried to collect my personal Whats and Hows for them. This is not a comprehensive guide, but lessons learned from the past five years doing engineering management.

Make it a recurring meeting

Make sure to have a fixed schedule for your 1:1s - I usually like to start with weekly 1:1s. Keep in mind though, that we are all different, and some people may need more time, or some would prefer to have 1:1s only every second week. Be flexible, and adapt to your team's needs.

Never cancel

As a people manager, your number one priority is your team, and your schedule should reflect this. With cancelling 1:1s, you are effectively telling your team members that you have more important things to do than giving them the time they need.

Make no mistake - asking your team members questions like "Do you have anything to discuss in this 1:1?" is the same as cancelling your 1:1.

It's about your team members, not you

1:1s are dedicated space for your reports to talk about anything and everything they want to. These are primarily meetings for them and only secondarily for you.

Keep record of your 1:1s

For your 1:1 discussion, I recommend sharing a document for each of your team members, where you can keep a log of topics discussed, things agreed upon and action items, if any.

This document has quite a lot of benefits, including:

  • Both you and your team members have the chance to add talking points in advance (but keep in mind: do not save urgent discussions for 1:1s!)
  • This can serve as a to-do list for the next discussion
  • If you note down appraisals and critical feedback, it helps you do quarterly/annual performance reviews (if your company is into those things)

Follow up on the action items

Keeping a record of the action items is not enough. Make things happen. Make sure to follow up on the action items from your previous 1:1s. Don't just open your 1:1 document an hour prior to the scheduled time to start working on the issues, but add reminders for yourself to work on those items during the week.

It's not an issue if you don't get to the bottom of things for the next scheduled 1:1, but always keep your team members up-to-date on where you are with your action items.

Prepare with questions

To get the most out of the time you and your direct report has, I'd recommend preparing with a few questions. These questions can cover a wide range of topics, including team relations, short and long-term goals, work habits and many more. Keep in mind though, that these questions should not dominate your 1:1s - if your team members bring topics on their own, discuss those first!

To give you a few examples, I really like these questions:

  • What's one thing we should change about how our team works together?
  • Do you feel like you're making progress on your goals here? Why or why not?
  • Are there any aspects of our culture you wish you could change?
  • What parts of your job would you like to deepen your skills in or get additional training in?

To get more ideas, visit the 1:1 Question ideas mini-app.

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