The 3 C's of 1 on 1's
I'm a manager of software engineers. I've managed anywhere from 1 to 12 direct engineers in my time. I find either of those extremes to be bad ideas actually - that's fodder for another post. I think this post is applicable to most roles in a software org or in other orgs but your mileage may vary. As usual my advice is terrible, unless of course it works for you.
What even is a 1 on 1?
A 1 on 1 is a regularly scheduled meeting between a manager and a direct report. The frequency, agenda and goal of 1 on 1 's I elaborate on below. If you're a manager and aren't doing 1 on 1s, I'd encourage you to start. If you're a reportee without 1 on 1s I'd encourage you to point your manager to this post ;-)
I've not always had 1 on 1's. Early in my career I had inconsistent experience with 1 on 1's depending on the team, the manager, etc. It was after a really great conversation with Julia Austin a few years ago that I became a true believer in 1 on 1's and the impact they could have.
It was from there I built my vary naive and simple 3 C's of 1 on 1's - Cadence, Contents, Context.
1 on 1's are weekly except when they aren't. Schedule them weekly because people get sick and go on vacation and there are conferences and...and...and. If you schedule them weekly and you miss one, it's only been 2 weeks. If you schedule them bi-weekly and you miss, now it's a month.
As a manager this isn't your meeting. You can't cancel this meeting. You can reschedule - bump it an hour, even a day or two - things happen. But if you are working this week, you're having a one on one. For me, as a manager, if I am working a short week, it's all one on ones.
This bears a bit of emphasis. We're all busy. This is not your meeting. Sure you might put it on a calendar. But this is not your meeting.
My agenda for 1 on 1's is actually 3 super simple hows:
- How are you?
- How are things going?
- How can I help you?
How are you? No seriously, how are you? How are things going for you - personally, professionally, in total? How was your weekend? Are you doing ok? Some 1 on 1's don't get past this question and that's totally ok. As your manager I am invested in your work for sure, but your well-being supersedes that.
How are things going? In a typical 1 on 1 this is where the meat of the conversation is. What are some recent wins? What are some recent fails? I see you've taken on these items this sprint, how's it progressing? I might come with seeded questions but I really just want to listen. I'm typically not a great listener so for me this is always a challenge. You want to listen for red flags. You want to listen for signs of conflict. People might not say "I'm having a problem with Joe...". But they might say - "well, working with QA has been a challenge..." As a manager this is where you need to dig in. Ask questions but don't challenge. Get to the root of any conflicts. The goal of this conversation often isn't to solve problems but to surface them.
This isn't a status update meeting. I don't want to know how far along you are with task X or project Y. I mean, sure, I'd like to know - but that's not the focus of this conversation. I want to know how it's going.
How can I help you? I try to end all my 1 on 1's with the question - "is there anything I can do to make your life easier?". It's intentionally vague and open ended - and even a bit aspirational. I am big believer in servant leadership. My job as manager is to get everything out of your way so you can do your best work. Answers to this question will vary from "my mouse is broken" to "the product manager can't make up her mind and it's driving me crazy" to even "I need a break". Good news: those are all things I can help you with.
Here's where we'll also get into career development. Are you learning new things? Are there things you'd like to learn? Where do you want to be and how can I help you get there?
What is the context we are doing our work in? One goal of my 1 on 1's is to align the individual/team/company. Often there will be company news - maybe someone has left the company or we've announced a change in direction. There are questions people will ask 1 on 1 that they might not in a group setting. How do these organizational announcements impact you the individual? What are your concerns? Let's talk, transparently. To be clear - the team/company context is secondary to the individual. Once again - this is not your meeting as a manager. But I find frequently the team/company context is something individuals are looking to me for. Why are we doing this? What's the broader goals?
Put the time in
As a manager your job is to "manage". For me, the key part of that is the 1 on 1. Spending the time listening to my team, listening to their concerns - that's the best use of my time. I schedule mine for 45 minutes. Why? Most people schedule meetings for 30 or 60 minutes. This mostly ensures your reportee has 15 minutes of unscheduled time at the end that someone won't schedule over. It also gives you that buffer. The best 1 on 1's I've had have gone over.
One last pro tip: I never schedule recurring meetings on Mondays or Fridays. 3 day weekends - holidays or just vacation days - will cancel too many of the meetings. It has the added benefit of making my Mondays and Fridays meeting lite which lets me ease into the week and get anything I need to done on Friday with out distractions.
Hello! I'm Brendan Caffrey. A software engineer and leader currently working as Engineering Director @ Litmus where I lead teams making awesome tools for email professionals.