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One on One Meeting Format Ideas

27 March 2021

As a manager, doing one on one meetings with your direct reports is your most important tool. I’ve talked a bit before about opening lines, but I figured it could be interesting to dig into how I handle this every week with my teams. I think it’s important to have a clear format shared to direct reports. This frames the conversation and helps the manager fullfil the objective, while giving some insights to the direct report regarding what this is all about.

Of course, just like my article about engineering team meetings, it doesn’t necessarly applies directly to you or your company, but hopefully it’ll be interesting and will give you some ideas.

Objective

I’ve seen a lot of people using 1:1s only to clear roadblocks and help with delivery. The meeting then ressembles a mix of reporting and brainstorming session, and don’t have any defined objective. While talking about day to day work is a very important part of it, to me it is not the main objective.

The way I see it, the main objective of a one on one meeting is to build a good work relationship with my direct reports. On this part I’m heavily inspired by inspired by Manager Tools and The Effective Manager book, so I encourage you to check this out if you want an extensive explanation.

Format

Only With Direct Reports

Firstly, I only do 1:1s like this with my direct reports. This doesn’t mean that I won’t have one on one meetings with other people, but I would not follow this particular format.

30 Minutes, Weekly

All my one on ones are weekly and last for 30 minutes exactly, regardless of the person, seniority or role.

I’ve experimented with other schedules, for instance 1 hours every 2 weeks, but I feel like weekly is a must. If you wait longer, you will lose a lot of information and only what feels “important” will surface and you’ll lose weaker signals. The weekly pace also helps keeping the discussion a bit lighter, sometimes we won’t have critical things to discuss allowing us to tackle other, less pressing topics.

There’s also a significant benefit in seeing people regularly, especially if you manage a team with people working remotely… and no, seeing people at standups doesn’t count! The conversation you can have in a one on one are very different than the ones in a larger group.

A Meeting You Can Count On

I do my best to not move nor cancel a 1:1. This seems like a small thing, but it’s very important to me that anyone I manage directly can be certain that, no matter how busy my schedule gets, they’ll always have at the very least 30 minutes of my time each week.

My rule of thumb is that I will cancel a 1:1s if:

  • I’m not at the office because I’m on holidays or sick
  • If an insanely critical topic comes up, but this rarely happen, maybe <1% of the times.

… and I will postpone a 1:1 if:

  • I’m out of the office, but only for 1 day
  • I have to setup a meeting with people with very busy agenda and the only reasonable slot where everyone is available is the 1:1. I’ll of course check with the person and usually move the meeting by a couple of hours. This happens maybe <5% of the times.
  • Something really messes up my calendar, like an multiple day offsite meeting

I’m also asking my direct report to do the same, trying to avoid postponing or cancel our 1:1.

Not The Only Meeting

Of course all of this doesn’t mean that it’ll be the only recurring meeting I’ll have with people reporting to me. Depending on the situation, I may have multiple additional discussions throughout the week.

For instance if I manage a junior engineering manager directly, we will probably have an extra hour for me to coach them. Same thing if there is a significant technical topic ongoing and I’m managing a senior engineer working on it.

However I’ll often try to split the meetings, leaving the 1:1 untouched.

It’s an Investment

When I recommend commiting to a weekly 1:1, a lot of managers tell me that they simply don’t have the time. I strongly disagree.

I saw time and time again that a 30 minutes meeting weekly will prevent massive problems down the line. Basically, do you prefer spending weeks firefighting something gone terribly wrong, or take a few hours every week to talk to your team?

Finally, how would you feel if you heard your manager say that they can’t even spare 30 minutes each week to talk to you?

Taking and Sharing Notes

In the past I experimented with using notebooks during 1:1s, mainly to be more present with the person I’m talking to. Having a laptop screen between us is not the best way to keep a conversation going. However, with the various lock downs and my teams being increasingly working remotely, this stopped being a good solution, so I changed my strategy.

Nowadays, for each person I manage, I will create and share a Google document with my meeting notes. This is simple, but they’ll be able to see me writing in real time and easily refer back to what’s in it.

It’s less awkward when I stop talking to write down something when they can see what I’m doing instead of just hearing me type. The other good thing with them seeing the notes I’m taking and can let me know if I’m missing something. For instance I might not write down something that was important, or at the contrary over react to an information they gave me. It also helps clarify what each of us needs to be doing after the meeting when needed.

This document is strictly between them and me, and if they were to change manager I’ll just give them the ownership of the document. They can then either forward it to their new manager or not. This is minor, but I felt like clarifying this helped people be more open to writing a lot of things in this document and not argue over if something should be in it or not.

Content

The 1:1 is usually split into 3 parts. I like to say that they are 10 minutes each, but this is more a rule of thumb and should be measured over a long period of time. For instance if we spend 25 minutes in the first part for 3 weeks in a row, this is not a big deal as long as we spend a bit more time on the other parts later on.

10 Minutes For Them

The first 10 minutes will always be for the direct report. It can be anything, from the progress of a given project to discussion about what they did last weekend.

I often repeat that they should not try to guess what I want to hear and instead focus on what they want to talk about. In a lot of cases it’s worth repeating regularly because most people will get into an habit of talking about the same things, like a basic project update, info about KPIs and that’s it… which is often not what they really want to be talking about.

As a side note, I’d like to highlight that the way you start this part is quite important as how you do it creates a bias for the rest of the conversation. I wrote an entire article about it, but here is the relevant part:

“What’s going on?” often leads to discussions about ongoing projects and reporting.

“How are you?” gives more personal discussions, or can result in “I’m good, what about you?” which defeats the purpose of kickstarting the conversation by giving them the lead.

“How is X going?” “Any news on Y?” are generally to be avoided because they really narrow the discussion to what I want discussed.

“What’s on your mind?” tends to have people talk about what is going on today, when the discussion should be broader.

Saying nothing doesn’t usually work with most people, leading to an awkward start or a meeting that never properly “starts” - which can be fine now and then.

My current recommendation is to start by something close to “what do you want to talk about?”, which is in my experience just neutral enough to get things started.

10 Minutes For Me

Just like the first ten minutes are for them, these ten minutes are for me. The topics I bring up can be very broad, but overall can be summarized as:

  • Questions about projects. Basically I want to be up to date on what’s going on. In most cases the regular meetings / reporting is enough, but if I’m missing informations I’ll ask.
  • Technical discussions. Even if I’m usually in a managerial role, I’m still passionate about technology so I’ll talk about it. The discussion can be about ongoing projects or completely random topics depending on my mood and what I read that week!
  • Information sharing. Due to my position I usually have access to more information than my direct report. I can share things about business topics, hiring, technical choices, organisation, etc. I’ll do my best to focus on what is relevant to the person, but I also like to open to some broader topic to expand their perspective on their work or the company.
  • Information gathering & feedback. I’m always wondering if the last presentation I did was clear enough, if I’m moving in the right direction with a given reorganisation, if I really understood a technical topic… so I’ll often ask people their opinion on things I’m currently working on, or feedback about what I did before.
  • Random chit chat. If we have time and shared interests, I’m never against talking about something outside of work. Of course this also depends on wether the person I’m managing is confortable with this. Some people prefer to avoid it and I completely respect this.

10 Minutes To Not Be Surprised Later

This one a bit less clear than the first two. The way I like to explain it to my direct report is that we’ll use this time to prevent us from being surprised at their annual or quarterly review. In more concrete terms, this means performance feedback, coaching, career path discussions and more.

If things are going well they should know it and have a vision of how they can evolve in the company, taking more interesting projects, more responsabilities and, in turn, a better salary.

If things are doing poorly, they should be aware that either their pay raise or job is in danger. I should also give them the opportunity to address the issue and improve.

Of course, feedback goes both ways. I’m also expecting them to raise any issues they have with the company, the projects they are part of and myself, before it gets so bad it can’t be fixed. I’m also interested in knowing if things are going well so I can double down on successful actions.

This is also the moment to discuss significant change in responsabilities or scope. For instance if someone planning to move from an individual contributor role to a manager one we’ll discuss it every week until it’s actually done.

Feedback From The Real World

In the past I felt like I knew my team. I talked to them often during standups, team meetings, brainstorms, pull requests… however I realized that only a regular meeting between me and my direct report will allow me to talk about most issues and guide the team better.

Over the years I’ve tried various 1:1 format. I’ve been using this one for the most part of the last 4 years and I’m really happy about it. I think it works really well and is adaptable to a lot of different situation and people. It didn’t prevent every single issues, but it allowed me to see them coming and be in a better spot to handle them.

Of course I don’t always follow the format strictly, for instance the last 10 minutes can get squeezed, but having this format allows me to:

  • Always have my direct report start talking, ensuring that I hear what they have to say
  • Have a regular meeting with every person I directly manage, no matter my schedule, which helps tremendously building trust.
  • Always have in mind that we should also be sharing feedback and thinking about the person’s evolution within the company. If I don’t do it for a couple of weeks, I’ll usually write down a note to do it the week after.

If you are a new manager and don’t know where to start, I highly recommend you give this format a try for a few months and iterate from there.

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