What should you talk about in a 1:1?

The first thing to remember when conducting one-on-one meetings is that this is your employee’s meeting. It’s there for them to bring things up that need discussion. It’s for them to solve problems, to make you aware of roadblocks, to celebrate successes. Because of this, the employee should drive most of the agenda.

You might have some things to bring up, but 80% or more of the agenda to be owned by your report. (And you shouldn’t assign work in a 1:1. More on that in a future post.)

For an effective 1:1 it’s crucial that there’s an agenda. Like any other meeting, without an agenda, you’ll just wander from topic to topic and tend to miss things. I like to get an agenda the day before the 1:1. This is mostly a forcing function to get the employee to think about what they want to talk about and to maintain a list of topics that come up throughout the week. If they have to send an agenda, they’ll find it’s easier to build one over the course of a week than it is to make one up from scratch each time. This has a side effect of helping ensure you’re not just talking about whatever issues are recent and top of mind, but covering things that are deeper than that.

It also helps me prepare. If I know they want to talk about funding for Project Unicorn, I can be ready with the budgets for that project or ask Finance for the latest status before I walk into the meeting.

If someone doesn’t have an agenda at all, I’ll spend the first 3 minutes discussing the agenda. What are the bullet points you want to talk about today?

The key to having effective 1:1s is to keep them from becoming status reporting meetings. Status should be reported in email, and if I have a report that’s just giving me status reports in our 1:1, I’ll ask them to start sending me a status report by email or chat on Friday afternoons or Monday mornings. Give them another channel for this, so they won’t want to duplicate efforts by discussing it live. That said, occasionally, someone really just needs to talk through what they’ve going on. Try and recognize the difference between “I have nothing else to say, so here’s a list of what I’m working on” and “I’ve got a lot going on and I could use a sounding board while I list it all off.”

Likewise, you’ll want to avoid doing work during the 1:1s. The 1:1 is about improving the way you work, not about improving the work. If your report needs to talk in depth about their ideas for how to accomplish Project Unicorn, get them to set up another meeting about that. If you start letting the 1:1s become working sessions, you’ll lose the benefits of having 1:1s. You can always schedule a working meeting, but you can’t really add a new 1:1.

The 1:1 should be reserved for harder conversations. What’s your report having problems with right now? Where can they use your help? What are they doing that’s hard, where are they overwhelmed? How are they doing as a human?

This is one of a series of posts about holding 1:1s. View the rest of the series.


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