1-1s For New Managers03 Jul 2023
When starting out as a manager one of the obvious changes is that you need to pay even more attention to people. One of the core activities to get to know and connect with your reports will be 1-1 meetings. While you will most likely have experienced them already as an individual contributor being on the other end of the table is a bit different. In this post I’ll describe some of my experiences while starting out as a new manager.
At it’s core 1-1 meetings are a way for reports to bring any concerns or questions to the manager while for the manager they can be a great tool to get to know your people and what drives them. It’s an opportunity to learn how to align the project work with the interest of the people. And it’s also a good way to build a trusting relationship.
There’s lots of thoughts about frequency and many people will advocate for weekly meetings. That’s also how I started, doing weekly 30 minutes but that got too taxing for me, even though I only have 5-7 reports at a time. The time for 1-1s adds to all the other meetings, making me very exhausted, also due to my more introverted nature. I switched to doing 30 minutes biweekly for now with everyone and it seems to work fine so far. Not every person will have the same needs though, in the past I had a report on my team who required a bit more attention, at that time I did one hour a week with them.
Many people will recommend to not skip 1-1s and I try to adhere to this rule with the exception of me being on leave. Not sure where I got it from (maybe from High output management?) but some people also recommend to not have scheduled recurring meetings. Instead book the next 1-1 at the end of the last one, then you can take vacations or other events into account.
As mentioned, a 1-1 should primarily be a time for the report, bringing any topics they would like to discuss. While asking lots of questions from your side is a good idea it should definitively not be a status meeting.
You should still make sure that some topics are discussed regularly, like career growth or even checking in on recent work experiences. Also, it can happen that reports just don’t bring a lot of topics by themselves - you should still make good use of the time.
One thing that I am doing is just asking a lot of questions, both on topics provided by engineers but also for areas that I find interesting. It could be something they worked on, something they did, like running a meeting or giving a presentation, something where I either think I can give some feedback or where I suspect some hidden learning. I’ll be drilling down with questions on the area, often leading to some interesting insights. I use this technique most frequently to extract some learnings we can have on the work we do or the process we are following.
Having an agenda can work but depends on the discipline of the both report and manager. I am currently not doing shared agendas and I also don’t take notes in a shared document. Even though I know this is very useful I didn’t find a good way how to do it yet, mainly because I am taking extremely detailed notes myself during the discussion and those are not really suitable for sharing.
It is often being mentioned that 1-1s can be a way to give context, to show the purpose of the work. I am rarely doing this. I might not be doing it enough anyway but when I do that I try to share with the whole team, e.g. the impact our work has on the company or if there are things happening that affect us. This aspect of providing context can be useful for new joiners though when I would answer any questions they might have on how the work we are doing impacts the business.
1-1s can also be used for mentoring but mostly for more junior engineers and only if they ask for it. This could be giving concrete guidance on issues they are facing or sharing your experience on different aspects.
There are structured ways to run 1-1s as well but I am mostly doing them on the fly. I spend some time in advance though to prepare key questions or topics I want to cover for each person. If you are ever running out of things to cover there are lists with good questions for 1-1s as well (example).
Awkward silence is an issue I am still struggling with. I am very fast in breaking silence, either by saying something myself or by moving to another topic. Giving the time for people to think can lead to more insights, getting more input from them.
If people show strong emotions (this happened less frequent for me, but frustration is a more common one) acknowledge them. Don’t try to fix immediately, especially in cases where you can’t solve it. One occurrence that comes to my mind when I experienced this is when a report was eagerly waiting for a promotion and it didn’t happen.
It’s also important to develop some self awareness of your own emotional state. For example if you are stressed or upset about something else it’s good to talk about it. Otherwise your report might attribute your reaction to themselves. Developing this self awareness will also help you in other areas of your work and life but this is still a constant learning for me. Any books on emotional intelligence can help you learn more.
I hope my experiences can be useful for some people starting out. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things I am doing now are not forever and I hope I can continue learning on the practices. There’s fortunately quite a bit of information being published on engineering management. Most of the books will touch on 1-1s as well, some that helped me when I started out are:
- Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager
- Resilient management
- The Making of a Manager
- Practical Ways to Lead and Serve Others
- The Manager’s Path
Also, go check out what Christian Uhl has written on the topic.