One-to-ones are a foundational management tool. This guide provides a template and detailed guidance on how to hold effective 1:1s. It’s written with engineering leaders in mind – supervisors, facilitators, and possibly functional leads – but likely could be applied, with tweaks, to other situations.
The fundamental purpose of 1:1s is to build a relationship. Strong relationships are the cornerstone of leadership: everything else we do becomes easier when we have strong relationships. At TTS, 1:1s help managers fulfill our mission of servant leadership: we can better help the people on our team when we have a strong enough relationship that they feel comfortable asking for help.
There are many ways of holding 1:1s. As you practice, you’ll probably find a format and style that fits you and your partner1. Since getting starting holding 1:1s can be daunting to people who haven’t done it before, this document provides a model as a starting point. Here’s the basic model:
Hold half-hour 1:1s weekly, and never miss them (rescheduling is OK).
1:1s are work meetings, so have a consistent agenda. A good one is: ten minutes for them, ten minutes for you, ten minutes to talk about the future.
The most important part of the agenda is your partner’s. Let them lead the conversation, even if it means skipping whatever you’ve got on your agenda.
Finally, note that 1:1s are a tool, not the point in their own right. At the end of this document there are few notes on alternate strategies for fulfilling the relationship-building goals of 1:1s. Experimentation is in our DNA; please feel free to use this as a starting point to find what works!
There are many ways you could conduct 1:1s; a good default is: weekly, half-hour meetings, with a consistent agenda.
Suggested cadence: Weekly
The most common successful cadence for 1:1s is to hold them weekly.
More important than the specific cadence, however, is this: never cancel a 1:1. You don’t need to be rigid about schedules – it’s fine to reschedule – but missing a 1:1 sends a very powerful message that your relationship with your partner isn’t important. It is important – it’s the most important – so once you’ve picked a cadence: stick to it2.
To new managers, or to managers new to 1:1s, weekly can seem like a lot, but there are several reasons why weekly 1:1s tend to be the most effective:
The goal of 1:1s is building relationships, and that’s hard to do if you don’t speak frequently. Think about the people you have really solid, good relationships with. I’ll bet most of them are people you talk to at least weekly, if not more. It’s very hard to build a relationship with someone you only see monthly. And, when you do hold less-frequent 1:1s, they tend to be much more filled with tactical work and leave little time for longer-term, goal-oriented work.
People think about their work in weekly chunks. Quick: what did you work on two weeks ago? You probably have to check your notes or calendar, right? That meeting you held two Tuesdays ago is already a faded memory, isn’t it? We tend to think of our work in weekly chunks, so less frequent 1:1s miss pieces of our partner’s work. In effect, if you’re only meeting monthly, you’re “sampling” only 25% of a partner’s time. So, the less frequently you hold 1:1s, the more likely it is that you’ll miss important data.
1:1s are a foundation for offering feedback and coaching in a regular, structured environment. If you are trying to work with someone on a specific issue, weekly is probably the longest you could possibly go between adjusting course. If you’re only able to help someone change course once or twice a month, they’ll go a lot longer down an ineffective path before you can help. (In fact, if you’re really getting into a solid feedback/coaching rhythm, you’ll probably find it even more effective to deliver feedback even more regularly and granularly. But, that’s a difficult and harder skill to develop, and starting with weekly is good practice for taking that next step.)
It’s a more effective use of your time: you’ll tend to get interrupted much less if folks they’ll have their next 1:1 soon. Although scheduling them weekly seems like it’s a lot of time up-front, most managers find they end up getting time back overall by reducing interrupts.
Suggested Agenda: 30 minutes, yours/theirs/future.
One-to-ones are meetings, and effective meetings have agendas. A common mistake is to schedule 1:1s regularly, but not use the time effectively. Talking about sports or the weather every week might help build a relationship, but probably not a good working relationship – and, more importantly, it’s not a valuable use of anyone’s time.
So, effective 1:1s should have an agenda. There are probably many different effective agendas for 1:1s, including one suggested below, but first a few principles:
Your partner should own the agenda, not you. That is, their needs trump yours. This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook to plan and manage the time, but it does mean that you should expect your partner to bring their own items to discuss, and to prioritize their requirements over yours. After all, you can always ask them for more time if you’ve got specific things to work on. There’s a delicate push-pull here: you want to make sure this meeting is valuable to them, but you also have a responsibility to keep things on-track and on-topic. So let them drive the agenda… but steer things back towards work if they go too far off-topic.
Consistency is good, so strive to follow the same agenda week-to-week. This helps make 1:1s a comfortable, familiar place, and that in turn helps make it easier for your partners to bring up difficult topics. And, a goal of 1:1s is to gather data about how your team is doing, and if you follow a consistent agenda it’ll be easier to notice when things change (and ask about it).
Some managers (I’m one) like to kick off the 1:1 with the same exact words each week, just to sort of signal the entrance to the 1:1 space. Some examples: “How are you?” “How’s it going?” “What’s on your mind?” “How’d last week go?”
Along the same lines, you may want to end each meeting with a similar, consistent question. For example, Holly ends every 1:1 I’ve had with her with “How can I help you this week?” Questions like this help make sure any pressing needs are covered, and acts as a good bookend to the starting question – it signals that official 1:1 time is now over.
Good 1:1s should cover not just the short-term, tactical work, but also longer-term goals. 1:1s aren’t just status updates (if you need regular status updates, do that separately); they’re about supporting people’s work in a complete way. This means that you’ll often talk about the day-to-day, but that you also need to make sure you come back to long-term goals and support them.
Here’s a good starting point for an agenda: 30 minutes, first their agenda, then yours, then talk about the future. In other words: open the 1:1 with whatever your partner wants to discuss, then move into anything on your agenda, and finally close by talking about any long-term work or goals y’all are working on together. Ten minutes for each is a fine rough guideline, though holding to this rigidly isn’t important – it’d be weird to say “OK, your ten minutes are up, moving on”. This is a good template for a few reasons:
It puts the partner’s agenda first, which emphasizes the importance of their items, and ensures that if anything is especially “meaty” you can spend more than the suggested ten minutes talking through their stuff. In practice you’ll probably find that many weeks you spend the entire time on their agenda – and that’s OK. That’s why we put it first!
It speaks to the “shared” nature of the meeting: it’s primarily your partner’s agenda, but you’ll typically have some things to cover, too, so it reminds both of you to move on to that.
It reminds you to spend some time on the long view, rather than just the day-to-day. In practice, it’s rare to talk long-term goals every week – long term work takes time, and doesn’t often change week-to-week. So, most weeks, you can end early. But, having the long-term on the standing agenda helps remind both of you to revisit it when needed.
Again, there are probably many different effective agendas for a 1:1, but this format is simple, flexible, and hits all the goals laid out above. Any good format will probably include these three things, perhaps in a different arrangement or format.
More details on each of those “three parts” follows:
What should I say or do during “their part”?
Generally: not much! Most of the time, you’ll just want to listen and take notes. This doesn’t mean be completely quiet: you’ll want to ask follow-ups, make sure you understand, and signal that you’re following along (a.k.a. active listening). But most of the time during this part you should be listening, not talking.
You do want to try to steer things towards work. Small talk is fine: remember, you’re building a relationship, so some chit-chat about weekend plans is totally OK and normal. But this is also work-time, so you should try to gently steer things towards work eventually.
Finally, be aware of the difference between a vent and a problem. Sometimes, people will come to the 1:1 just needing to complain or get something off their chest. In these cases, listening, asking questions, and making sure they feel heard is all you need to do. But other times, there’s a problem to be solved, and in those cases you’ll want to talk through solutions, suggest directions, and steer towards action. Telling the difference is an art – and in practice there’s more of a spectrum than a solid line – and you’ll get better with practice and as you build that consistent personal relationship. Once you spot the difference more clearly, it’ll be easier to know how to respond.
What should I say during “my portion” of the meeting?
First, it’s fine if you don’t get to this every week – or even most weeks! After all, if your partner is constantly coming to 1:1s with meaty topics that take all the time, that stuff’s probably well worth the time. And, you can always ask your partner for more time, and they’ll rarely say “no”.
As for the the specifics of your agenda: much of the time you’ll have an idea of what you need to discuss based on whatever’s going on for you and your partner. That said, here are a few ideas of things you might want to think about discussing:
Follow-ups on actions/tasks from previous 1:1s: if either of you had actions/tasks that came out of your previous 1:1(s), it’s a good idea to follow-up on them and see where they stand. This is another reason why taking notes is useful: it’ll help you remember to check in on actions as appropriate.
“Current Events”: after major announcements, or big changes, or any sort of “large” event in the organization at large, following up at the next 1:1 is a good idea. Most people need a bit of time to process change, and they’ll appreciate being able to talk through how it affects them in a private setting. If you’ve built a good relationship, it can be the only place where someone feels comfortable raising concerns. And, if there’s some action people need to take, they’re going to be much more likely to get it done if you reinforce the request by following up individually.
Feedback: this is a big topic, more than can be covered here. That said, 1:1s are a great time to deliver feedback. Indeed, a major reason to have regular 1:1s is to build the relationship and space where delivering feedback is easier.
Coaching/mentoring: if you’re working with someone on an ongoing basis, helping them learn or work on new skills, your weekly 1:1 is a great time to check in on goals, discuss progress, provide pointers on direction, etc.
Conversations about Diversity and Inclusion: TTS highly values diversity and inclusion, but talking about these topics can be difficult – especially for those to whom these are new topics. For example, some people new to TTS are confused by the “guysbot” in Slack, but may not feel comfortable asking about it publically. Once you’ve spent some time building the relationship, your 1:1 can become an excellent place to talk with people about diversity and inclusion in a friendly, non-judgemental way.
Question of the Week: some managers like to have prepare a “question of the week” that they ask in all their 1:1s. Sometimes this can help with the “data collection” part of management, or it can just prompt discussion. There are some great resources in the Further Reading section below that can help provide potential topics, or you can of course bring your own.
Of course, these are just starting points. As you practice and build your relationships, you’ll find what works best for you and the folks you meet with.
What to cover during the “future” part of the agenda?
In practice, most people don’t get to this part every week, or even every-other week. Long-term goals are, well, long-term – so it’s rare for there to be much motion week-to-week. Still, it’s a good idea to keep this on the agenda every week: it’ll help you remember to focus in on long-term goals regularly, and make sure you’re helping your partner make progress towards those goals.
Long-term discussions tend to be most closely like coaching or mentorship discussions: the model that seems to work best is to ask your partner for their goals, and help keep them accountable to those goals. If you have specific guidance on how to achieve those goals you can of course offer it, but it’s far more likely that your role will be more about tracking and gentle prodding.
For example, say you’re working with someone who expresses an interest in learning Go. The discussion might go something like this:
Them: I’d like to learn Go in the next few months.
You: Oh, that sounds great. What’s your first step going to be?
Them: I think I’ll work through the online Tour of Go, use that as a starting point
You: That sounds good, when do you want to aim to get that done by?
Them: Well, this week is pretty busy, so maybe by the end of next week?
You: Great, good luck! I’m sure if you run into trouble you could ask someone in #go for help.
[two weeks later]
You: Hey, how’d the Tour of Go exercise go?
Them: Pretty good, I got about 90% of the way through.
You: Cool, was that enough? Or are you planning on doing the last 10%?
Them: Nah, I think I’m ready to try a real project with it.
You: Great, do you have any projects yet?
[and so forth…]
The thing about long-term goals is that it’s easy to not make any progress on them. It’s far too easy to push off long-term personal improvement when faced with the day-today. So – somewhat counterintuitively – in order to be really supportive you do need to push a bit. Of course, you don’t want to be too pushy, but it’s completely fine to ask for goals and gently hold people accountable to the goals they set.
You should take notes during your 1:1s. Notes will make sure you remember to follow up on items that came up a long time ago. They’ll help you notice trends and themes, and to be precise about them (“hey, we’ve talked three times in the last month about some issues with Project X, what’s going on there?”). Notes can also help you follow-up on progress week-to-week. Finally, if you do get into the unpleasant situation of having to deal with a performance problem, your notes will be critical to helping you document how you’ve been addressing that problem.
While it’s true that taking notes can sometimes get in the way of a 1:1 feeling truly conversational, remember that 1:1s are meetings too, and effective meetings have notes. The specific format for notes don’t seem to matter much. Some people prefer to take notes by hand, others digitally; and, of course, there are tons of different ways to take and organize notes, be they analog or digital.
It’s probably a good idea to keep all of the notes from each person’s 1:1 together in the same place (rather than scattered throughout a notebook, say). That way you can easily review all your notes on past meetings, and pull out trends like “hm, they’ve mentioned feeling overworked the last three times we met.”
One (digital) pattern that many have found to be effective is the shared running notes document. This is a shared document (e.g. a Google Doc) that both parties have access to, and that contains both notes from previous 1:1s and a running agenda for the next one. This lets either person drop items into the agenda during in between meetings. It also emphasizes that the agenda is a shared responsibility, and many like the transparency this sharing brings. You may still occasionally want to (or need to) take private notes, but that’s fairly rare.
Another pattern that some find effective is to send out a summary email after the meeting is over, listing any actions that were agreed to during the meeting. This can provide a shared sense of accountability to anything that you decide during the meetings.
There is a ton of material out there on 1:1s! Here are just some of them that other people at TTS have found useful in learning more:
The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster (Rands in Repose) — another short introduction to 1:1s, by Rands (a well-regarded writer about engineering leadership).
One on One Meetings (Doc Norton) — yet another short introduction to 1:1s overall. This one has a somewhat different suggested agenda, and some good potential questions to ask.
Questions for our first 1:1 (Lara Hogan) — some really great questions to ask in a first 1:1 with a new team member. Or at any time, really: they’re good conversation starters.
Safari Books Better 1-1s (O’Reilly Media) — automated weekly emails with suggested O3 topics.
Manager Tools’ One-on-Ones podcast (first of 3 parts) — introduction to One-on-Ones from the Manager Tools empire. The “10/10/10” format suggested above comes from them, for example. If you like Managers Tools’ style, they have many more podcasts on 1:1s to listen to.
Topics for Engineering Facilitator Meetings — suggested conversation starters for 1:1s (and group meetings, too), collected by the Engineering chapter.
As noted in the introduction, 1:1s are a tool (and a common one), but not necessarily the only tool. If they’re not working for you or your partner, you should feel free to explore alternate strategies. Exploring alternate strategies completely is beyond the scope of this already-long document, but here are a couple of quick “sketches” about some alternatives that might be worth trying:
Small group meetings, such as the facilitation groups, can be more effective support structures for certain kinds of problems (you can see this overlap in the Topics for Engineering Facilitator Meetings document linked above). They can encourage the creation of a wider relationship support network than just 1:1, and can provide a more diverse set of options than a single person can. Conversely, it can be harder to share certain kinds of problems with a larger group than with a single person – it’s probably harder to build the same level of trust with 5-7 people as with a single one.
I have a friend who’s a VP at a manufacturing plant. She doesn’t hold 1:1s with her staff, but instead “walks the floor” every day and meets with each of them, quickly, to discuss the day’s goals, problems on the floor, and such. If something big comes up, they’ll schedule more time later in the day/week. In effect, she replaces a longer weekly 1:1 with usually much shorter (3-5 minute) daily individual check-ins.
The mechanics of a “walk the floor” model would be different on a distributed team, but it seems likely that a similar model could be replicated with Slack taking the place of “walking the floor”.
Throughout this document I use the term “partner” to mean “the person with whom you’re holding the 1:1”. This replaces the stuffy and more Management-ese term “direct” that many 1:1 guides use, and emphasizes that at TTS, the person you’re holding 1:1s with may not formally report to you. And even if they do, you’re more likely to be in a servant-leadership role than in a command-and-control settings. ↩
Vacations are an exception: if one of you is going to be gone for a week, obviously don’t intrude on vacation to hold meetings! But they’re basically the only good reason to completely cancel (rather than reschedule) a 1:1. ↩