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A system for quality one on ones

As a manager I’m always thinking about the messages I’m sending whether verbally or not.


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Fabian Camargo

2 years ago | 3 min read

Pound for pound I think the one on one meeting between a manager and an employee is the best management tool. It is an incredibly versatile tool that allows managers to maximize the employee’s performance and their job satisfaction in a multitude of ways. When it’s done well…

One of the keys to consistently having quality 1–1s is to have a system that allows you to prepare for each one, keep track of all of them, and follow up on the discussions. This is the system that I’m currently using that has worked well for me.

But to be honest I don’t care if you use it. Honestly, I don’t. If you don’t have a system or want some ideas I’m hoping this system will help. Ultimately I want you and your team to have great 1–1s and use the system that works best for you.

However you decide to do it, the important thing is that you prepare, keep notes, and follow up.

The System

  • I use Microsoft OneNote to keep track of all my 1–1s.
  • I have a section for each person and a page for each meeting.
  • I have a page with general information on the person.
  • If we’ve been meeting for years I’ll add a sub-section to group the meetings by year.
  • For each meeting page I have a section for questions/topics, notes and action items.
  • A day before the meeting I will email the person the questions/topics as a tentative agenda.
  • The tentative agenda is book-ended by two questions that are (almost) always present:
  1. What’s on your mind? Let’s talk about your agenda first.
  2. What action items are you and I going to take from this meeting?
  • After the meeting I will send them either follow up items or a copy of the notes. What’s a tentative agenda?

As a manager I’m always thinking about the messages I’m sending whether verbally or not. With 1–1s some of the messages I want to send are:

  • You are important.
  • This meeting is for both of our benefits.
  • I am here to support you.
  • I want to talk about what’s important to you.
  • I will prepare for these meetings.

Enter the tension between following and guiding. As a manager I want to spend most of my time following in a 1–1. I want them to talk about what is important to them. I want to spend most of my time listening. It can be tempting to approach this by turning the meeting over entirely to them. There are a few problems with this approach:

  • The employee will not always bring up important topics.
  • The conversations might run out.

To address these problems the manager needs to guide at times to ensure a quality meeting. The way I think about it is that I want to guide and provide just enough structure to engage in productive conversations and then follow and listen intently.

There are multiple ways to do this and the tool I use is a tentative agenda. I message it like this:

I would much rather talk about what you want to talk about. This agenda gives us some structure to fall back on if needed and I’m more than happy to spend the entire meeting on your agenda.

Here’s an example of a tentative agenda:

  1. What’s on your mind? Let’s talk about your agenda first. Please come prepared with at least one question/topic to discuss.
  2. What did you think about the presentation by {exec name}? What would you have liked them to address that they didn’t?
  3. If you were in charge of the team what would you do differently?
  4. Are you happy with your career progress? Why or why not?
  5. What do you like to do for fun?
  6. What action items are we going to take from this meeting?

There’s a ton of flexibility and variation in the questions. The key points of the agenda are:

  1. Always make their agenda a priority.
  2. Include a few insightful questions on various topics.
  3. If possible include questions specific to the person and their situation.
  4. Focus on turning the meeting into action.

Pros

  • I’ve had a lot of success with this system having great conversations on various topics.
  • Sending the tentative agenda ahead of time improves the quality of the meetings.
  • The system allows me to follow up and have ongoing conversations on important topics.

Cons

  • The biggest problem with this system is that it tends to guide too much. For some people they will rely on the tentative agenda too frequently.
  • It establishes a rhythm of written communication from the manager to the employee. Even if you encourage the employee to send topics, questions, or action items they may not do it as frequently as you’d like.
  • It’s a manual system and picking the questions, following up on conversations and keeping track of action items requires solid discipline.

Conclusion

This system works well for me, but it’s a work in progress. Remember that the most important thing is to lead with intention and have a system. Whichever one you choose the goal is to prepare, keep notes, follow up and have great 1–1s.

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Fabian Camargo

Fabian has been in software for over 20 years and has turned an engineering career into a management coaching career. He currently runs a management coaching program with 40+ software engineering managers and writes at managingdev.com.


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