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How can I make the most out of 1:1 meetings?

Either you’re new to management, researching how to get started or you’re an experienced leader that wants to ensure their team is on the right path, regularly meeting with your direct reports should be the cornerstone of your day-to-day. In this issue of Leading by Design, we’re going to examine the practice and value of running a 1:1 meeting.

What is a 1:1 meeting?

1:1 meetings build trust and personal rapport with your direct reports. They’re your most important tool while managing a high output team focused on growth.

In its basic form, a 1:1 is a recurring meeting with a direct report, lasting 30 minutes or longer, usually held once a week. Depending on the size of your team and the seniority of your direct reports, you can schedule 1:1s every two weeks instead, lasting more than 30 minutes. It’s not advisable to hold 1:1s less frequently than once every two weeks, or to let them take up more than one hour of your direct report’s time.

1:1s are important because they give you dedicated face time with each of your direct reports individually, giving you both the option to get to know each other, exchange feedback and align on priorities. They can help you better understand your team members’ motives and background and can quickly adapt to different situations.

When suggesting recurring 1:1s to new managers, two are the most common objections:

a) they take up too much time

b) meeting once per week can be awkward because you’ll eventually run out of things to say.

A counter-argument for the first point is that talking with your direct reports, giving them feedback and guidance, is an essential part of your day-to-day as a manager. Moreover, some awkwardness when interacting with your team is to be expected and welcomed. If you don’t practice being awkward with your direct reports, how will you handle having tough conversations with them?

How should a 1:1 be structured?

As a new manager, the first few times you’ll go into a 1:1 meeting with a direct report should be exploratory. Take time to learn about your employee by asking broad questions about their life, their role at work and their thoughts about the organisation.

Later on, you can add more structure to your meetings, depending on your management style and the rapport you have with your direct report. One of the ways you can do that is by creating a shared agenda based on a reusable template that you can fill together throughout the week. You can use a dedicated app like Fellow or even a simple Google doc for that.

There are lots of different ways to structure your agenda, but I prefer the eight key areas approach from Fellow, which focuses on:

  1. Top of mind

  2. Things that went well

  3. Learnings

  4. Priorities

  5. Challenges and concerns

  6. Team dynamics

  7. Feedback This is the section where you should ask for and offer feedback, recognising your team member's hard work and providing recommendations on how they can improve.

  8. Career development Make sure to revisit your team member's career development plan at least once per quarter. If you plan on talking about career development, it's better to allocate more time than the usual 30 minutes.

Your agenda doesn’t need to include each of these sections every week, and that’s ok. Using a template like this will help both you and your direct report to brainstorm and reflect on the past week, making sure you never run out of things to discuss!

Don’t skip them

If there’s one point you take from this newsletter is to go to your calendar and schedule recurring 1:1s with your team. Don’t expect your direct reports to reach out first. You should be the one to make an effort and schedule a weekly half-hour meeting with everyone.

Recurring 1:1 time means that you won’t get constantly interrupted throughout the week, since your team members will have a dedicated time slot to discuss with you. There’s a pitfall there: let your direct reports know that they should not wait until your meeting to raise an important issue that you have to address quickly. You should also avoid waiting for your 1:1 to give feedback to a team member - feedback is more useful when delivered promptly.

If you ever need to cancel a 1:1, make it a point to reschedule as soon as possible.

Be present

The whole idea of the 1:1 meeting is that you give your direct report your undivided attention. Avoid having screens around since they can be distracting - don’t bring your mobile phone or no laptop unless there’s a specific reason you’ll use it. I find that taking notes on paper during the meeting often works better for concentration.

Try to practice active listening during your 1:1s. Don’t just wait for the other person to finish talking just to get your point across. Listen carefully at their words and tone and ask questions to make sure you understood what they said correctly.

Be flexible

1:1s are flexible by nature. They can vary in length, topic and even location (try meeting your direct reports for a walk next time). You can use them for anything from getting to know your new team, sharing feedback with your direct report or talking about their career development.

Embrace that flexibility. Avoid being rigid about the process or the agenda. If your direct report needs to vent a bit more, allow it (and ask them to suggest solutions for their problems). If the personal rapport part of the meeting takes more time than initially planned, let it be. Don’t forget that 1:1s should also help you get acquainted. Go with the flow.

Ask for feedback and follow up

There’s a rule that says that you should dedicate 90% of a 1:1 meeting to your direct report, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation should be one-sided. Ask questions on how you can help your team members do their work better and inquire if there are any obstacles you can help move for them. Don’t forget to ask for feedback yourself. How are you doing in supporting them? What should you do better? Ask for their honest opinion and write down clear action items based on it.

Don’t forget to follow up on what you’ve discussed about in your previous 1:1. I’d suggest sharing your progress on your action items throughout the week - don’t wait until your next 1:1 to fill them in.

1:1s are rewarding

If you’re an introverted leader like me, the sheer idea of talking with multiple people back to back during your workday fills you with dread. However, sticking to my 1:1 schedule was one of the most helpful things I practised during the last few years. I guarantee you that the mere act of showing up week after week will work wonders for your relationship with your team.


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