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Preparing for 1-1s as a manager

1-1s are likely to be some of the most important meetings on your calendar. This post discusses how to prepare and run these in a way that makes them useful for both you and your team member, and helps keep both of you accountable.


Sources and references:

The material in this post is based on my own experience, advise from some of my more senior colleagues and mentors, as well as some of the great material at Know Your Team, including:


Use a Shared Doc

For all my 1-1s I used a shared doc, editable by both the team member and I, and visible to only us. These are a great place to track what we discuss, issues and wins. They are also a great way to keep me (and indeed, both of us) honest. If I say I will look into something, such as a visa issue or whatever the topic de jour is, it is a good reminder to discuss the progress next time. Although I always take lead in taking notes during the 1-1, to leave the team member free to talk, these docs work best when they are a collaboration, and updated by both people.


Cadence & scheduling

How often should you have 1-1s?

My default cadence for my direct reports is weekly, but it depends on how long the person has been at the company, reporting to you, and in their current role. Someone who has been around for a while in the same role and knows what they are doing may need less. Someone new to the role may need much more. It also depends on the individual team member a lot too, obviously.

When should you have 1-1s?

When your team member wants to! You likely have meetings all day, of which this is one of many. When you do it is not likely to significantly affect the rest of your day. But to your team members, it can be a big deal and you want to do it when it works best, and is least disruptive, for them.


Don’t reschedule

You have regular 1-1s scheduled, but you have a packed calendar and this week you really need 30 mins for this one new important project that has cropped up. You can just reschedule the 1-1 to make room, right? No! I try really hard to not reschedule (or worse, cancel) 1-1s. What kind of a message does that send to your team member? What important information might you miss? And is any new project really more important than your team? Imagine how much worse off that project will be if your team members are not happy and engaged or, worse, flat out leave.

Yes, you may of course have to reschedule sometimes but it shouldn’t be your go to solution to scheduling problems. Try to prioritize your 1-1s.



Keep notes all week

I find that my 1-1s go much better when I keep notes continually during the week on what I would like to discuss. Any interaction where I think “Oh, I should talk so Sarah about that”, I make a note. I find this makes my 1-1s much more relevant. Any feedback someone has shared on the team member, project or org changes that may affect them, potential upcoming projects they may be interested in, whatever it is, make a quick note. Final note: I am also a fan of delivering feedback immediately, e.g. straight after a meeting where you just observed the behavior (and, in that same vein, I really liked the book “Radical Candor“), but there are always items that can and should wait for your 1-1 too.

Review status in advance

My preference is not to use the 1-1 as a status update. As Claire Lew put it: By not knowing what the person has been working on, you squander time getting caught up on old information; time that could’ve been spent discovering and discussing new information. “The true purpose of an effective one-on-one meeting is to unearth feedback, issues, and concerns within the team.”

Instead review previous 1-1 notes from your shared doc, and add a lighweight agenda to that doc for this 1-1. Familiarize yourself as much as you can with the status of projects in advance. You can do this by reviewing meeting notes, Jira tickets, Scrum Board status etc.

When do you find time to do this? I once experimented with setting aside 30 mins before each 1-1 to do this, but I quickly found it unrealistic and excessive. Instead, I have got into the habit of setting aside time in the morning (before checking emails!) to prep for all of my 1-1s for the day.

Create an agenda

I always encourage my team member to create an agenda, but you should too. Occurrences of the team member not having any agenda or big items to discuss should be rare, but you should always have a agenda ready anyway.


During the 1-1

Start with non work

I always prefer to start 1-1s by talking about non-work. How the weekend went. How family are doing. Upcoming travel plans. This isn’t a rule, it just feels like the natural and more interesting thing to do. Not everyone wants to open up though, which is totally OK, and don’t press. At a minimum though, you can share what is going on in your life.

Forget your agenda! Stick to theirs

“I never learned anything while i was talking.”

― Larry King

Despite all that preparation, I usually prefer to let the team member take control. I view 1-1s as primarily their time, so I want us to cover whatever is on their mind. This is really where you can avoid the micromanagement approach, and be more of a coach.

Good questions to ask

Claire Lew has some great example questions to ask in 1-1s. Some of my favorite questions to ask include:

  • What are you enjoying most, and least, right now?
  • What do you think the biggest blockers are for project X
  • What percentage of time are you being utilized right now? (I ask this one to find out if team members are being stretched to burnout levels, or bored.)
  • Where do you think we are wasting most time? (I ask this to sniff out “toil” in projects: work that is time consuming and while necessary, perhaps not delivering much value)


If you have important topics, cover them first

Despite saying that I prefer to have the team member cover what is on their mind, there will always be times when you as a manager have information that you must deliver. This is especially true if there is a performance issue, or if you have difficult feedback to share, but it doesn’t always have to be bad or difficult news. Organizational changes, project updates or important company news are all examples too.

Whatever the topic, if it is important or indeed essential that you share it, don’t let the meeting finish before you do. Do it up front and schedule a longer 1-1, or another round in between your usual cadence, if needed, but don’t let yourself skip on delivering the important information.

I personally find that a different venue can help for these types of meetings. For example, walking 1-1s can be great for allowing someone to talk freely, but office/desk settings can be more appropriate for delivering news when you don’t want any distractions.


Wrap up

1-1 time with your team is priceless, Use it wisely! Prepare for these in advance, keep notes to hold each other accountable, and remember that they are primarily about your team member, not about you getting status updates. If done well, you will both learn and help each other.

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