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Careers: No Matter What Your Level: – Master the One-on-One Meeting

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 The one-on-one meeting between supervisor and staff is an invaluable tool for managing, but requires much attention to detail. Julia B. Austin explains best practices for getting the most out of the 1:1

by Julia B. Austin

Whether you’re a CEO or a line manager, your team is just as important as a group as its members are as individuals. Today’s tech companies offer many perks to attract and retain the best employees. We offer competitive salaries, training and the promise of success—professionally and financially. But how we treat them as individuals can determine the way their DNA will impact the fabric of your organization. What are you doing, as their manager, to make sure they are satisfied and making the best contribution to your organization?

I have managed over 100 direct reports over the course of my career. From the nerdiest, most introverted engineer to the highly extroverted sales executive. They’ve been on either side of up to 20 years senior or junior to me, varying genders and from as far away as India and China to as near as the office next door. No matter what their role, experience, proximity or personality, I have always made their one-on-ones (1:1’s) a priority. Why are 1:1’s so important?

  • Whether it’s an hour a week or 30 minutes once a month, making time for an individual says you give a damn about them as a person.
  • The 1:1 is the only forum where you can have an honest, private, conversation with each other about what’s really going on—professionally and personally.
  • This is a routine opportunity for you, as a manager, to assess the parts (your employees) that lead to the productive whole (your team)—which we all know is more powerful than the sum of said parts.
  • A leader who makes time for their team members—especially those who are also leaders—is less likely to suffer poor team performance because of ambiguity and mistrust. Each 1:1 is an opportunity to clarify the goals of the organization, your performance expectations and build a trusting relationship with your employees by getting to know them as people, not just workers.
  • Finally, constructive 1:1s throughout the year makes performance reviews a breeze. With routine 1:1s, review time can be more about goals and the year ahead instead of constructive feedback from the past.

Don’t just schedule these important meetings with your direct reports, be thoughtful about how these sessions play out. Below is the guidance I give to new managers on conducting 1:1’s.

Set expectations
Whether your employee has worked for you for awhile and you’re just kicking off 1:1s, or they are a new hire and you’re rolling them into the fold, set expectations up front.

  • I am a big believer in being clear about behavior changes. If this is a new process you are putting in place at your company/in your team, be transparent about it. Otherwise, people worry something bad is going to happen (getting fired) if you all of sudden start scheduling 1:1s. Announce it at a team meeting/all-hands or send out an email/slack being clear about why these are important to do.
  • This meeting is for them as much as it is for you. Be clear that you do this with all employees who work directly for you. No one is being singled out.
  • Book a regular cadence of 1:1s. They should not be ad-hoc. It’s ok to skip one every once and awhile, but having it locked into the calendar is your commitment to being there for your employee.
  • Decide the best cadence with them (weekly or every other week? 30 minutes or an hour?) and what the format should be—your office or theirs, a walk, or maybe grabbing coffee. Different formats work for different employees and they can always be changed as you get into a groove. [see below on remote employees]. Just don’t do after work drinks—that suggests a less serious discussion.

The agenda
If a meeting is important enough to have, it should have an agenda.

  • Topics in a 1:1 should be about professional growth, personal connection and for giving each other feedback. Do not use the meeting to re-hash things from a group meeting or standup unless there are specific things you took off-line in that meeting or need to provide/get constructive feedback.
  • 24 hours or so before the meeting, email the employee a list of what you’d like to cover. Try to do a split between strategic, tactical and personal items and always ask your employee what they want to cover too. For efficiency, let them know if you need them to bring/read/do something before the meeting. For example:
    Jessica, for our 1:1 tomorrow, I’d like to cover the following:

      • Review a potential change to the product roadmap for next quarter and how that might impact your team. Please bring the latest roadmap with you.
      • Walk through the training presentation deck you are preparing for your new hires. Please send me your latest version tonight if you can?
      • Get feedback on whether the budget changes I made for you were helpful. Let me know if there are new numbers I should look at before we meet.
      • Hear about your vacation! Your pics looked awesome.

    Let me know what else you’d like to cover. Looking forward to catching up!

The 1:1 meeting
With an agenda set and materials pre-reviewed/in-hand, you are ready for a productive session.

  • Walk through the agenda. Ask if there’s anything else to add before you dig in. Always leave a door open—sometimes an employee is holding back on something.
  • If there are hard things to discuss (maybe some tough performance feedback), try to bookend it with two positive topics. That way, the close of the meeting doesn’t leave your employee feeling down. You’ve given them good feedback and some things to work on.
  • Do not monopolize the conversation. This is for you each to get time to talk. Pause often and make sure there is opportunity for discussion and questions.
  • Always end the meeting asking them how things are going overall and if there is anything else you can do to make them successful. Sounds awkward, but that’s your job! If your employees are a success, you are success.

After the meeting
It is important to always follow up any 1:1 (or scheduled meeting, for that matter) with notes on what was discussed, decisions made and, if relevant, any constructive feedback that will be measured going forward. Keep it short and sweet:

Jessica, good meeting today! From what we discussed:

    • Sounds like the roadmap change won’t slip the schedule much. Please share the new schedule on slack so the team can digest it before our Product group meeting.
    • Love the training deck! Let me know if you want to practice with me before you present next week. You’re going to crush it.
    • Sounds like those budget tweaks aren’t cutting it for your team’s needs. I’ll try to adjust next quarter, but right now you are going to have to work with what you have. Manage your spend carefully.
    • Thanks for letting me know you’re working on a personnel issue on your team. Let me know if I can help. Otherwise, keep me posted on how it plays out.

A recap ensures that you’re both on the same page and it serves as an audit trail if/when anything goes off the rails. Do this with ALL your employees. Otherwise, some may wonder why they’re getting follow up emails and others are not. Consistency in leadership is critical!

Remote employees and non-Directs

  • 1:1s with remote employees can be tricky. I recommend using video whenever possible and, if possible, 1-2 in-person 1:1s a year to maintain the personal connection. All other suggestions above apply for the remote employee.
  • It is perfectly OK to have 1:1s with junior people who do not work directly for you. Just remember, you are NOT their manager. Be clear about why you are requesting the meeting.Perhaps you are the CEO and want to have a 1:1 with a lead engineer to get a better understanding of a product challenge:
    • Make sure the engineer’s manager knows why you want to have the meeting.
    • Make sure the engineer understands you would like to get the detail directly vs. through other people. You are not going around their boss who knows you are requesting this meeting.
    • Be very careful about feedback. Always end such meetings with next steps being how you’ll follow up with the employee’s manager if there are any action items. Never undermine someone’s manager by giving specific direction without consulting with their manager. Especially if you are the CEO/CTO or other senior position. Often, the most simple “that sounds cool” can be heard as “do it!” from someone more senior than your boss.

Invest in your team
One-on-ones can make all the difference in how you lead. Your time invested in doing them right will pay off not only with each individual, but with how your organization functions as a team.



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