Tips for Effective One-on-One Meetings
My most important meeting of the week
As a manager, I spend a great deal of time in meetings. I act as my team's Scrum master so I tend to lead the standard Scrum meetings. There are training meetings, planning meetings, performance review meetings, and more. I often joke that I am paid by the meeting, so I try to pack in as many meetings as I can each week. No matter how busy I am though, I always make time for one-on-one meetings with my direct reports. I believe I have a good process and outlook on these meetings that I'd like to share.
First, what do I mean by a one-on-one meeting? Obviously, it is a meeting between me and one direct report, but moreover, the purpose of the meeting is to give my full attention to a team member. I tell my team members that one-on-one time is their time with me. I treat this time as sacred. I strive to never be late to a one-on-one. If I am late or if I need to reschedule, I always sincerely apologize for doing so. I've had times in my career when I needed my time with my leader and was let down. I've had an agenda or something important to discuss only to be ghosted. I've had a leader arrive 20 minutes late to our meeting. I remember how demoralizing it felt and I don't want to make any of my team members feel the same way.
I have a framed quote on the wall of my office. It reads, "Feelings First". I always start my one-on-one meetings by asking my team member how they are doing. I ask about their families, what they did over the weekend, etc. It is a great opportunity to learn more about my team member and sharing stories is a great way to build a relationship. It is up to them how much they want to share. I do my best to show interest without prying.
Next, I always ask my team member if they have topics to discuss or an agenda for the meeting. I may have topics to discuss with them, but I always prioritize their list. Most of the people that have reported to me over the years don't have an agenda for their one-on-one with me and that's ok. Starting with their agenda reinforces that this meeting is their time with me.
When follow-up tasks come up, I use some kind of shared document to take meeting notes and track action items. That helps me remember to fulfil requests and it helps keep me accountable when we review action items at the next meeting. For example, my current employer provides laptops and docking stations to all employees, but they don't seem to provide a laptop charger. One of my developers wanted to work from a coffee shop on occasion, but didn't want to take the bulky docking station and power cord along. I logged an action item for myself and put in a request to the desktop support team on the team member's behalf. At a following one-on-one meeting, I confirmed that the team member got what they needed before marking the task complete. I could have told my team member how to do the request themselves, but in this case, I had time to do it and it was a great opportunity to serve my team member.
Regarding the shared document, I'm currently leveraging Word documents in Office365. It is easy to create a document and share it with a user. Some managers I know use OneNote for this purpose, but older versions of OneNote lost content for me, so I stopped using it. Word in Office365 has been very reliable for me. In the past, I've also used Confluence wiki pages for one-on-one notes. I just set the security so only the team member and I can view and edit the page. Just find the best way that works for you and your team.
With the shared document setup, I like to prime the document with my agenda. I don't follow my agenda for the one-on-one meeting every time, but if the team member doesn't have anything for me, I use the agenda to make sure we discuss certain topics semi-regularly. The first item on my agenda is to ask about recent accomplishments. So many team members (especially high-performing ones) tend to focus on what they didn't get done or what didn't go well for them. I like to take some time to ask them about what they did do well and we add it to the notes. I use those notes at performance review time to fill out their accomplishments.
Next, I like to ask if there is anything about their job that is harder than it should be. This is a great question to identify process improvement opportunities. For example, one of my team members had been struggling for weeks to get access to a system via Dataverse in PowerBI. I took that as a task, chased down people who could help, and got their access fixed. It lead to some additional conversations regarding the request process and if we could fix it so others wouldn't have this issue.
Then, I like to ask my team members about how they have felt my presence lately. Have I been available enough for them? Am I communicating with them effectively? This is another opportunity for me to adjust my leadership processes. I also ask if there is any process changes that they would like me to try out. The first time I ask this question, they usually have no idea, but the question itself can plant a seed. Later, they may have a suggestion for improving how we manage tech debt or conduct ceremonies. If the idea has merit, I'll give it a shot and we'll see how it goes. It is a great way to encourage ideation with the team and demonstrates that we can try things, see how they go, and change again.
There are some things I make sure NOT to do during a one-on-one meeting. For example, I always schedule performance reviews separately from the one-on-one meeting. For many people, they wouldn't mind using their time for that, but I try to hold to the idea that the one-on-one meeting is theirs. I don't want any negative performance conversations to make one-on-one meetings less open and friendly. I also try to avoid discussing daily work tasks. I want to focus on their needs & requests, professional development, and goal setting. If I need to ask, say, one of my developers about the status of a work item, I'll do that in chat or during the stand-up meeting.
For me, the one-on-one meeting is the most sacred meeting I hold. It is the time where I focus on one team member, actively listen to them, and take steps to serve them. I believe that one-on-one meetings, when taken seriously and conducted well, go a long way in keeping individual and team morale high, improves retention, and reduces stress. Feel free to beef up your one-on-ones with anything I shared. I would love to hear your suggestions, as well.