There's been a lot written about what makes an effective 1:1 meeting, and even more on what makes an effective 1:1 question, so this article arrives in a saturated market. That said, I've spoken to so many staff and managers who still struggle with 1:1s, and still don't feel like they 'get it right'. I certainly fall into this camp, so this article is as much about seeking feedback and ideas as it is to share the approach I've built up over the past few years.
What is the purpose of a 1:1?
If we look at it simply, we as managers are non-value add. We tend to not get involved in delivery of 'the product' in anything other than a co-ordination capacity, it is our teams that deliver the value for the business. It is our job to provide an environment where they can bring their whole selves to that challenge. So for me, the key tenets to an effective manager, and by extension a good 1:1 are:
- Building up a great relationship with the person - Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor talks about the 'Care personally / Challenge directly' axis. So many managers try to get better at "challenging directly" with their staff, but neglect the "care personally" axis - I'd advocate for solving that one first, and the challenge will get easier. How is their family? How was that fun thing they did at the weekend? How is their health? etc. etc. We cannot get the most out of our teams and out of 1:1s if we don't solve for this. It involves some vulnerability on our parts too - sharing of ourselves is as important (perhaps moreso) than our teams sharing.
- Building a solid feedback loop - the giving and receiving of feedback (not praise) is key to an effective relationship with our teams. Feedback should not be isolated to 1:1s, but they certainly provide an opportunity to delve further into feedback, and really help a person grow. It's important to highlight that this is a two way street though - getting into a situation where people give you feedback as much as you give to them is key to that relationship. Be open to, and welcome critical feedback as a manager, and you will find it so much easier to do the same with your teams.
- Alignment, Context, Purpose - One of the benefits of management is that we often get wider visibility of the organisation, the direction, the priorities. It's key that we share this with our teams and a lot of that will happen in 1:1s. As Daniel Pink highlights in Drive, people want Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in their work. If we pay a person enough to take the issue of money off the table, providing purposeful and challenging work to our teams that aligns with outcomes the business is trying to achieve is one of the best things we as managers can do to maximise engagement.
- Growth - Rarely do team members want to remain static in their roles. How do we help them grow, how do we help them progress, how do we grow our future leaders? Not everyone wants to be a people manager, but how does a Senior Software Engineer progress to a Technical Lead? What does better look like? It's our job to help our teams evolve and grow themselves.
All of the above will be delivered via a number of mechanisms, but coaching and mentoring (with a more heavy emphasis on the former) is key.
It's their meeting, not yours
It's worth pointing out - the 1:1 is very much the employees meeting, not yours as a manager. Their topics of conversation are most important. That's not to say you shouldn't raise questions (indeed, I'm about to give a list of questions for a first 1:1), but anything they want to discuss should be prioritised.
How should I track 1:1s?
There are no right answers to this, it can be as simple as a shared doc that you and your direct report work on together. There are a number of tools out there that tie together things like 1:1s with regular 'pulse checks' (e.g. 15five) - if they work well for you, use them, but don't get bogged down in tooling.
The first 1:1 - Discussion
I find that on the start of building a relationship it's important to share of myself, and then set out some expectations of the relationship.
Sharing of Yourself
This is hard - it's uncomfortable, and it's vulnerable. I share my background story, my family, what I like to do outside of work. I then delve deeper and share things about my mental health and some of my failures in life. I don't do this because I seek sympathy or reaction, I do it because I want a great relatioship with that person, and taking that first vulnerable step is, I've found, the best way to start to build up some trust. This is done without any expectation of sharing back, though I remain proud that in one of my roles I had the head of HR comment to me 'you have the team with the most mental health issues across the org'. My team at the time was incredibly high performing and delivered value effectively for the business. I took pride in that mental health comment because it meant that people felt psychologically safe to bring their whole selves to work. Sharing is a superpower.
It's important to build up the expectations you have in place (and indeed listen to any expectations your team member has) up front. Some of my expectations that I share:
- Feedback - highlighting that directional feedback will always be 1:1 and face to face, but we will have a conversation around praise to work out how people like to receive it. Make it clear that directional feedback will happen as close to the source of the feedback as possible (so we won't wait for 1:1s to give feedback, though we may discuss in more detail if needed).
- Open and Critical - it's important to call this out early that you expect people to be open and critical. 'No surprises' is key here - so long as I have context of everyrthing, I can support people. I really try to hammer home how important it is to get ideas, feedback, and critical challenge to all things too. The best ideas come from teams that feel safe to give all of this, and it's an important point to raise in a first 1:1.
- Their Health - we know that overwork and stress are killers. It's incredibly important to highlight that their health is high on my priority list. There are many valid reasons why people aren't at their best, and it's important they feel safe to be so. Resting when needed, calling out if they get so busy that they can't take learning time, taking mental health days, etc. etc. - this jumps back to caring personally about those on your team.
- Accountability - setting an expectation of this makes it clear how we work. Making it absolutely transparent that team members should hold me accountable, but as importantly holding each other and themselves accountable generates better outcomes for all.
- Leader/Leader model - something I've adopted for a number of years now that came from David Marquet's book 'Turn the Ship Around'. The intention model works brilliantly, and I make it clear that team members never need ask permission for anything, but rather should signal their intent. "I intend to book onto this conference. It's £500, and I feel that the content around cloud architecture and performance will be a real benefit to me and the team". It's subtle, but it changes the ownership and means that I really only have to ask questions if I have any concerns. An example above may be "That sounds great, do you feel Phil would benefit from the tracks on the conference too?"
All of the above is stage setting and hopes to model the behaviours we value in our teams. Naturally, these will vary depending upon your employer, but aspiring to your teams being autonomous, capable of decisions and accountability without your input, and feeling truly supported in doing so is the aim here.
The 1:1 - The Questions
Some of these will only surface over time, some are applicable from that first meeting. I've taken influence from other sites in some of these, and some have just built up over time.
- What makes 1:1s most valuable for you?
- What do you need most from me?
- Which one behaviour of mine would you like to change? (if they know you)
- What do you need from those around you?
- What cadence of 1:1s works best for you? I default to 45mins weekly, but it's your meeting, so what works best for you?
- What one thing do you feel we should do differently in this team?
- What should the team be singing about that we don’t?
- Are you losing time to anything that you don’t feel adds value? How can I help?
- Outside of work: How do you switch off, what do you do to relax, what do you do for fun?
- Do you have any ideas on what you want from your career?
- What makes you grumpy? (thanks Lara Hogan!)
- How will I know when you’re grumpy?
- How can I help you when you’re grumpy?
- What do you find most challenging in yourself? How are you addressing it?
- If you got to the end of the year and it was successful, what would some of that look like for you?
- What are you immediately focussed on for your growth?
- Are there any key actions I can take away from this meeting?
- Are there any actions you’d like to take away from this meeting?
The importance of the 1:1
There are numerous studies now around employee engagement, and how most employees wouldn't categorise themselves as highly engaged. For each employee that isn't, it's costing you and the business in lost performance, lost relationships and lost potential revenue.
Our teams are the value add in the organisation - they're the ones that create the products, the services, the medicines, the outcomes. There is no greater outcome as a manager than engaging those employees from the off and providing them an environment they can thrive in.