As a manager, the 1-1 meetings you have with your team are often one of the most underappreciated yet important meetings that happen within your organization. Put simply, your ability to consistently run effective 1-1 meetings with your team will ultimately be an important measure of your success (or failure) as a manager.
Why 1-1's matter so much
1. Communication - 1-1's are a vital part of how you communicate and what you communicate with your team members. Communication matters because it helps clarify the difference between what your expectations are versus what your agreements are. If you have an expectation that someone who works with you is going to deliver X by a certain date, there's the risk that this person may see your expectation differently, misinterpret it and do so something different instead. 1-1's are critical to help ensure you and your direct reports agree on what needs to be done, in what order and by when.
2. Prioritization - In the age the of never ending Asana task list (see my previous post), Slack messages and email, you'll find that when your team's priorities don't align with yours, bad things happen. 1-1's are great to review priorities and agree with your direct reports on what matters and what doesn't. The more often you calibrate this, the less likely you're going to have missed deliverables based on incorrect prioritization. Priorities change, people change and the market changes, so it's important to periodically get alignment on what things matter most and when they should get accomplished.
3. Obstacles - As a manager, one your main responsibilities is to remove obstacles so that your team can be as effective as possible. Whether a purchase order is stuck in finance, a campaign has not been launched yet, or a product feature is delayed, your team is going to look to you for advice on how to fix things or to actually get involved to unblock things when they are unable to. The more quickly you can identify and remove obstacles, the more quickly tasks and projects will be completed and the happier everyone will be.
4. Team Dynamics - As I mentioned in my well read article on Jumping Ship: 7 Reasons to Quit, poisonous team dynamics are a key reason some people decide to look for greener pastures. As a manager you want to get ahead of issues that threaten the harmony between people or, at the very least, their ability to work together towards a common goal. When you ask the right questions about how your direct report gets along with people on other teams, what is happening on those teams and what people issues might be getting in the way, you're able to quickly identify problems that, if left untouched, can fester and cause paralysis.
5. Career Progression - Even in startups, your young and brightest people are always going to be thinking about how this job gets them to the next job and whether your company is the best place for them to learn and grown. Although I don't advise on having career discussions every meeting, in my previous role I would block out 1 meeting out of every 4 to get a pulse on how people we're feeling about their role, their future and whether they felt they were getting the right skills, training and support to get them where they wanted to go. These discussions become particularly more important when a person has been in a role for 18 months or longer, the company is facing some particularly challenging problems or right before and after performance reviews. When you take the time to ask questions and discuss career issues with your people, you show that you're not only in this for yourself or for the company, but that you genuinely care about their wellbeing. Being a great manager isn't just about getting things done, it's about coaching and empowering your people so that they can develop and grow as people. Keep this in mind and you can really get your people to do amazing things and stay happy and motivated in the process. That said, if you do plan on discussion topics that touch on career development it's always a good thing to give your direct report some advance notice so that they can bring any thoughts they have on the subject and prepare for the conversation in advance as this Harvard Business Review article on Productive 1-1's makes clear.
6. Getting Feedback. This may be particularly jarring to first time managers, but actually your 1-1 meetings are also a great opportunity for you to see how you're doing in the eyes of your direct reports. Research conducted by Gallup in 2015 and published in a story in Fortune showed that over 50% of people quit due to bad bosses. That's right: YOU could be the reason that brilliant engineer hit the eject button and accepted that offer from Google. 1-1's provide a great opportunity build a strong and open enough relationship to the point where your direct reports trust that they can share their feelings about what you could be doing differently. For example, in my last role, one my my direct reports told me that she didn't feel that I listened "actively" enough. The result was that she would have to repeat things to be me several times and that made her feel that either I wasn't paying attention to her or that I didn't value what she had to say. If I hadn't asked for feedback, I wouldn't have known it was an issue and I wouldn't have been able to address it. What kind of questions can you ask? Here's a short list:
a. What could I be doing to make your life easier?
b. What aspects of my management style do you like? What areas do you feel I could improve on?
c. How can I support you better?
d. Is there anything I could have done in (a particular situation) that would have made your job easier?
7. Getting to know each other. The 1-1 is also an opportunity to really get to know and care for the people that you work with and get to know them. The more you invest in getting to know your people, the more you'll find that they open up, are more honest and more willing to share challenges with you. Ask about hobbies, family, weekend activities or maybe a trip that the person just took. Talking about non-work issues is a great way to break the ice, especially when you have to deal with particularly challenging issues. You'll also find that the more deeply you know someone and the more you allow them to get to know you, the stronger the bond and the more loyalty you build. People who have great managers who really know them and appreciate them have a far harder time leaving for an opportunity than those who don't.
Tips on running good 1-1's
1. This is THEIR meeting, not yours. This may sound counter-intuitive but this meeting is really the time for your direct reports to get your help. It shouldn't be about status reports (you can do that via email or docs). Keep in mind their needs and put yourself in their situation and you'll develop the right framework for successful meetings.
2. Schedule them and be consistent. Consistency is the key. Schedule your 1-1's as a recurring meetings in calendar and always try to be on time and be prepared. If something urgent comes up let them know ahead of time and immediately reschedule. Don't delay, as challenges or issues they have might need immediate help. On the flipside, sometimes your direct report may not really have anything on the agenda and be fine with not having the meeting on that day. This is really your call. If the person is pressed for time and has a lot going you on you may want to reschedule the meeting or postpone it to the next meeting. I would avoid doing this too often as I found there are always things to discuss but it's your call as a manager. Occasionally, the 1-1's where there is nothing pressing are the best to actually do a temperature check, see how things are going with the team or even talk about career development.
3. Have an agenda. Typically, I would share a google doc with folks on my team where they could input whatever they wanted to discuss and I would do the same. This gives both sides a chance to prepare. This is even more important if you're discussing more sensitive topics like a promotion, a significant problem or career development. If you're discussing those issues make sure your direct report is aware of those agenda topics and has ample time to prepare.
4. Give people time. This really depends on the frequency of your meetings but typically, I found that if you really want to go deeper and deal with more challenging issues (which are sometimes the most important ones), you need at least an 1 hour. That gives you time for small talk, to discuss quick and easily resolvable issues and to dive into a deeper and more challenging issue. Keep in mind that you'll also want 5-10 minutes to agree clear next steps as well. (see next point)
5. Agree on clear next steps. This comes back to the idea of agreement vs. expectations. Make sure you leave enough time to mutually agree on who is doing what in terms of next steps. Nothing bothers people more than spending time in a meeting only to come out of it unclear on who is doing what next (or when the item needs to be completed or how important it is). The action items also form the basis for your next meeting so you want to somehow document whatever you agree. This might involve using a tool like Wrike, Trello or Asana to create or update tasks, assign tasks to others and put clear deliverables and dates behind them.
6. Be present and ask questions. From personal experience, it can be really frustrating for someone who gets very little of your time, is stressed and feels rushed, to finally get you in a meeting only to see you multi-task amongst 3-4 other things. I try and silence my phone, close my laptop and really engage with the person. A big part of being present is to let them control the discussion and to ask as many questions as you feel are needed to both properly understand the issues AND to make sure the person knows that you have understood what they're saying. The Impraise blog has a great section on active listening with a few examples of questions you can ask to show you're present and listening to your direct report. If there aren't specific issues to discuss, asking open-ended questions and simply letting people talk is also a great way to learn what is going on and how a person or other persons are feeling. You can then determine for yourself if, where, when you need to get involved.
7. Do the walk & talk. This is a favorite of mine which I embraced while at Google and continue to use in startups and during my work with clients. Sometimes some of my best conversations and deepest insights come when we both step outside the office and simply go for a walk and discuss issues. If you don't have to have your laptop handy, use a whiteboard or refer to other documentation, this is a great way to get out, get some air and exercise. You'll also find that both of you will feel more relaxed about discussing certain topics. Walk & Talk meetings can be particularly useful for creative brainstormings and also talking about strategy and /or career development.
8. Give feedback. People, particularly millennials, yearn for feedback. In fact, if you read my post on "7 Signs it's Time to Quit", you'll remember that a chronic lack of appreciation and lack of feedback can often push people over the edge and encourage them to answer emails /calls from recruiters and competitors. Provide constructive feedback so people know how they are doing and where they can improve. Likewise, be prepared to take feedback yourself as well. It's important to also provide positive feedback when people are doing great work. Avoid giving praise too often since it risks being seen as insincere but make sure that when someone has done a great job that you show appreciation and let them know how much their work means to you and to the team.
Running great 1-1's takes time, practice and patience. Even after managing teams for the past 17 years, I feel that I'm always learning and getting better at it. But the result can really pay off in spades with happier and more productive team members who enjoy what they do through thick and thin and make the overall work environment that much better.
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