First Class 1:1s

When assessing the general health of a new client, one of my most effective indicators is their regular personal feedback process. It starts with the plain question “how do 1:1s work around here?”

Why?

Feedback is one of the greatest tools leadership has to get more of the good things, and less of the bad things. It’s really that simple. With my advisory clients, we focus on creating a productive, impact-oriented engineering organization. That simply takes way too long to accomplish without a clearly defined feedback process in your team.

If a big part of being a manager in your team means focusing on the personal growth of your staff–so that everyone keeps advancing, growing, and producing their best work–then you must agree that your managers then have to finesse the use of the most basic tools to achieve that, which are 1:1s.

Let’s see how you can put in place in your organization 1:1s that make a difference. I’ll be mainly talking about what you should demand of your managers, but it, of course, applies to your as well first and foremost.

Cadence

I can say that it is a rare company nowadays that doesn’t do 1:1s at all, but I would estimate that around 50% of companies I talk to do not have 1:1s happening regularly across everyone in Engineering. Often, managers get the freedom to do whatever they want here, meaning that some less-informed managers end up doing 1:1s with their employees every couple of months.

1:1s should be recurring events on the calendar, with a cadence of every week or two. If you’re thinking to yourself ”there’s no way my managers have enough time for that,” which is a common response to the cadence I suggest, then I dare say your managers are not really doing management. They are likely more on the scale towards a kindergarten teacher.

Time is a priority, and everyone can make more time. Make it, if you have to, and start having these at a regular interval.

Structure

How long should your 1:1s be also depends on what you include in them. Personally, I don’t think 1:1s should include regular status-update portions. Knowing how the work is advancing should be unrelated, and I prefer to keep 1:1s without these so that both parties don’t focus on the current tasks and more easily gain a wider perspective.

The meeting should consist of ongoing feedback from you. Mind you, feedback means both negative and positive. It doesn’t have to be anything grand, no one expects life-changing insights every week.

Also, the employees should know that this is their platform to speak up about matters. While it is sometimes hard to prevent these from becoming regular ranting sessions, it is better to have rants than nothing at all. Your managers should view these as coaching opportunities: difficulties the teammate is facing should not be always be simply solved for them but may be a good way to help them grow.

Setting Goals

I strongly recommend using 1:1s also to manage bigger personal change processes. Every couple of months or so, devote a 1:1 meeting to discussing bigger picture things and how you might help employees achieve their goals.

You will regularly hear things like “I want to move into management,” or “I want to do Data Science,” and so on. As it is not likely for big transitions (and organizational changes) to be completed in two months, the manager’s job is to boil these down to smaller chunks that they can then focus on for a couple of months and regularly revisit and provide feedback on in every 1:1.

Some examples include:

  • Better communication with teammates
  • Better communication with non-technical people
  • Improve self time management
  • Provide clearer feedback
  • Mentor a new employee
  • Take the lead on a big feature
  • Be assigned some Data Science/Frontend/Mobile/Backend/etc. tasks (usually with a “buddy”)

Working in these two-months increments creates a regular rhythm of improvement and everyone gains momentum.

Preparation

As much as I hate ineffective meetings, when there’s no agenda or where too many people are taking part, I get downright angry when I hear of managers coming into 1:1s without having taken the time to properly prepare for them.

It’s a clear sign of disrespect when there is no real feedback, or worse when the feedback feels made up on the spot. The manager should come in ready with relevant feedback, issues they want to discuss, and prepared to discuss the progress of the two-month themes mentioned previously.

It is also essential for the teammates to prepare for these as well. I would not lose it if sometimes someone doesn’t have anything to say and the meeting adjourns earlier. However, one should not allow these to become the status quo, where only the manager is doing the talking.

The process and structure of 1:1s in your team should be clear to everyone, and communicated so that everyone knows what to expect and how they should prepare.

By incorporating the above advice, you will put in place a feedback process that establishes the basic building blocks for your entire organization’s constant improvement. For help adjusting this to tailor it to your team’s specific needs, drop me a line.

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