“How hard could it really be?”
I still remember my first 1:1 as a lead. I’d been reluctant to take on that new role for a number of reasons, but apprehension around conducting my own 1:1s had never been on the list. In fact, 1:1s seemed like they’d be the easiest part of the job. At that point, I’d been participating in them as a report every week for well over a couple of years. The conversation always flowed naturally between myself and my lead, and we never had a shortage of things to talk about. Plus, as a researcher, my job was literally asking people questions. How hard could it really be?
To this day, I can’t tell if my report saw right through it, but that first 1:1 felt like a disaster. I struggled to fill the time. I wasn’t sure what to ask. We went through an exercise designed to help prioritize her work. Looking back though, I’m fairly sure my goal was to come across like I knew something. At that point, I finally understood what that other lead had meant when he said he struggled to facilitate his own 1:1s. I thought I’d be immune to this: after all, things had gone so smoothly with my own lead. But try as I may, I couldn’t make them so with my report.
And so for a while, I didn’t look forward to my 1:1s, and I wasn’t really sure why. I couldn’t pinpoint why something that came so naturally to me as a report seemed so elusive as a lead. I kept waiting for the problem to go away on its own, expecting to somehow get more comfortable with the whole thing over time. But that didn’t happen on its own.
How do you want your 1:1s to go?
A good 1:1 may seem effortless, but behind the scenes, it takes work. Knowing how to turn a 1:1 from a status update into a time for introspection and openness is not something we know how to do innately just because our title changes one day. And through trial-and-error, a lot of reading, and, most importantly, talking to people who are far more talented at this than me, I learned a few things along the way.
- Be intentional about choosing the day of the week. Talk to your report about which day of the week they prefer to have their 1:1 on. This will usually be tied to what they’re looking to get out of your get-togethers. Some people like them on Monday so they can plan for the week. Others like them on Friday so they can reflect on the week. And others yet like them as a way to touch base and chat through questions as they come up mid-week.
- Adapt the format to their needs. Some reports might want to use their 1:1 to get feedback, while others might seek validation for the decisions they’re making. There are also those who might be looking for guidance as they navigate through new projects, teams, or growth opportunities. Pay attention to what they ask of you, and adapt the format so that they can receive the support they need. Some factors to take into consideration as you adjust things might include: the emotional needs of the report, the relationship you have with them, and their level of experience.
- Keep them regular. In “The Manager’s Path”, Camille Fournier explains that predictability is a key factor in preparing for 1:1s. For both leads and reports, it’s hard to put thought into what you might want to talk about during a 1:1 if you don’t know when they’ll be happening. As a report, I personally find the effect of skipping a 1:1 to be tangible: by the time two weeks have gone by between consecutive sessions, I can sense that urge to get what’s on my mind out in the open getting stronger.
- Get your status update elsewhere. There are plenty of places where a report can effectively share a status update with their lead: email, Slack, Github or Trello boards, to name a few. Written status updates have the added advantages of being easy-to-share with the rest of the team. They can also help you reflect when you’re preparing for growth chats or performance evaluations. By taking care of the logistics ahead of time, you can make better use of the time you have with your report to dive into topics and discussions that are better served face-to-face, like “coaching, mentorship, giving context, or even venting”.
- Keep track of what you want to talk about. Some argue that “setting an agenda” is the report’s responsibility, while others will tell you it falls on the lead. My take on this is that it’s a little bit of both. As a lead, keeping track of what you’ve discussed in prior 1:1s, or a list of tips or questions that may have popped into your head throughout week, can help you ease into the conversation. But at the end of the day, as competent as you may be, it’s impossible to read minds. Your report needs to feel comfortable bringing the topics that are important to them to the table. It’s therefore helpful to set the expectation that this responsibility is a shared one.
- Maintain the focus on your report, and not yourself. There are sources that say that, as a rule of thumb, a lead shouldn’t really talk more than 10% of the time during a 1:1. It’s pretty hard to figure out exactly how much 10% is, so I keep things even simpler by saying: if you catch yourself talking too much, you’re doing it wrong. The 1:1 isn’t the lead’s time, it belongs to the report. As someone who has a tendency to babble on, I try to stay cognizant of this behaviour, and to correct it whenever I find myself slipping into it while meeting with my reports.
- Know the right questions to ask. If you’ve ever experienced the difference between being asked “How are you doing?” and “How are you really doing?”, you might be aware of the impact that asking the right question can have. When it comes to 1:1s, there are a number of questions every lead should keep in their repertoire: “What’s on your mind?”, “What’s worrying you these days?”, “What are you really excited about?”, “Anything at all blocking you?”, and, of course, “Is there anything I can do to support you?” They’re handy to use in the beginning as conversation starters, and at the end to get any final thoughts out on the table.
- Take time for the personal stuff. A 1:1 helps you build rapport, and that rapport can only go so far if it’s only ever explored in a work-related context. You can’t expect someone to share what’s truly worrying them when you don’t even know their kid’s name. Take some time to ask your report how their previous weekend was, or what they’re up to over the next one. Tell them about that brunch you ate the other day, or the new ice cream spot you found in their neighbourhood. Fournier puts it best when she says:
“The bedrock of strong teams is human connection, which leads to trust. And trust, real trust, requires the ability and willingness to be vulnerable in front of each other. So, your manager will hopefully treat you like a human who has a life outside of work, and spend a few minutes talking about that life when you meet.”
- Plan for a full hour: Some people feel like the full hour every week is overkill, and wonder whether half-an-hour might suffice. But sometimes, it can take a full hour for things to bubble up to the surface. As Andy Grove highlights this in “High Output Management”, half-an-hour can confine the conversation to “simple things that can be handled quickly”. But it’s usually after the status update has been shared, and you sit there in silence for a few moments, that you really allow yourself to get to the heart of things. If you schedule a full hour and don’t use it each time, you end up with some extra free time between meetings. But if you schedule only half-an-hour, you risk robbing yourself and your report of the opportunity to get to the meaningful part of the conversation.
- Embrace the silence: As a researcher, I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence, and to give participants room after they speak, rather than interject with my next question right away. This space gives them an opportunity to gather their thoughts, follow-up on something they said, or even volunteer additional information they may not have otherwise shared. A 1:1 is no different: those moments we often tend to interpret as awkward silences can be opportunities to give the more meaty stuff enough room to surface.
Remember, however, that a good 1:1 is also in large part your report’s responsibility. As a lead, I do my best to engage with my reports during the time that I have with them. But as a report, I also try to make the most of that one hour that’s entirely mine: to share what’s on my mind, to vent, to express my concerns, and to (sometimes) inadvertently turn into a therapy session of sorts, if it so happens to be what I need that week.
You could easily rewrite each of the tips above to be read from the perspective of a report, rather than a lead. So, if you’re at the receiving end of a 1:1 you’d like to improve, try them out from that side. You’d be surprised at how taking charge of that time can impact how much you get out of it.
Finally, should you ever decide to become a lead yourself, know that the biggest determinant of the quality of the 1:1s you’ll hold in that role is the quality of the ones you receive today. This makes it all the more critical for you to take ownership of your current meetings are with your lead.