If you’re a people manager, structuring and keeping your one on one meetings with your direct staff is critical in so many different ways. Whenever any manager complains about their ability to build trust, get better alignment, or drive faster decision making, I always ask if they have regular 1:1s with their teams and if they do, when was the last time they skipped it, cancelled it, or simply didn’t use that time effectively. I'm always surprised to hear some of the responses managers share. In many cases, many consider it a “standing meeting” that’s first to get thrown out of the agenda as “more important” things come along.

As a leader, conducting 1:1 meetings with your direct reports or leaders is critical to building a stronger relationship with your direct staff team, staying up to date with the organization, receive feedback, remove blockers, and drive execution.

Even when you commit to 1:1s, conducting effective conversations with your team is sometimes hard. Here are a few tips that work for me. Note that some of this is inspired by the work Gitlab has done in defining the structure around 1:1s:

  1. My 1:1s are 30 minutes weekly meetings. Having these conversations weekly has been the right frequency in my experience. It provides the opportunity for me to get an update, give and receive frequent feedback, and to build a stronger relationship with my direct team.
  2. This is your direct report’s meeting, not yours. Prioritize their items, their concerns, and their feedback to you.
  3. 1:1s are critical, the fact that they are frequent with people reporting directly to you shouldn't mean that re-scheduling or canceling them should be taken lightly. Keep your 1:1s on time, on schedule, and on the same frequency.
  4. In my experience, a structure is useful. However, many of these conversation are informal, as they should be, and communication style differs per direct report.
  5. Be direct and transparent. 1:1s are a great place to provide clear direction on expectations, provide and receive direct and honest feedback, and to share transparent information about the business, team, or execution details.

Goals

Although they can serve many different goals, 1:1s generally focus on:

  • Providing and listening to updates: this includes updates on the business, team, and execution required to deliver the plan.
  • Providing and receiving feedback: you should not wait for a 1:1 to provide or receive feedback, however, a 1:1 is an excellent frequent forum to do so.
  • Driving execution and removing blockers: agree on next steps and action items on key business drivers and help remove blockers when necessary.
  • Providing and receiving advise: a 1:1 is a great place to provide and receive advise on top of mind topics, possible changes, and overall plans.

In addition to the tangible goals outlined above, 1:1s also serve as an open space to communicate and build trust with your team.

One of the frequent reasons I heave to cancel a 1:1 is the “lack of updates” or a slim agenda. Even when a detailed agenda isn’t available or when updates don’t require a meeting, having a regular time set aside every single week generates trust and enables you to build empathy for the people you manage or work with. In fact, some of the most interesting 1:1s are sometimes the ones that focus less on updates and more on building a closer relationship between people working together.

Meeting Structure

The structure of a 1:1 differs between different reports and the conversation should remain informal as opposed to a formal status update. However, having a clear agenda provides a framework to work within. It also ensures that your 1:1 isn’t completed consumed by business and execution updates only.

The overall structure of a 1:1. The same text displayed in this table is also displayed below in the article.

Here’s the structure I am starting to use with my direct team.

5 minutes: Top list of wins and people of the week.

This provides a starting point to the meeting with a list of wins the team has achieved throughout the week.

Also, this is time to list exceptional performers within the team this week and top collaborators from the cross-functional team.

This time should focus on

  • Ensuring that you're always up to date on team wins and progress and that the tactical delivery and execution updates don't end up overshadowing the team's continued wins and progress.
  • Discussing top performers and cross-functional team members best at collaborating with design should be praised and thanked.

15 minutes: Overall and top of mind updates, follows ups, and action items

Discuss top of mind issues and execution and team updates. This should be structured around the three Ps: plans, problems, and progress.

This time should focus on:

  • Discussing plans to provide alignment on the work the team is doing.
  • Discussing problems to outline possible changes to plans or blockers that need help.
  • Discussing progress on these plans to drive execution or action items/follow ups.

5 minutes: Provide and receive feedback

Growth for both people in a 1:1 depends on the ability to provide and receive direct, honest, and constructive feedback. This sets aside time on weekly basis to provide this feedback. Note that this should not be the only time feedback is provided but the weekly frequency allows for an excellent opportunity to provide it.

This time should focus on:

  • Ensuring that time is set aside to provide and receive feedback.

5 minutes: Review and final thoughts

This leaves time at the end of the meeting for any remaining discussions. Essentially, this leaves a buffer for finalizing action items, follow ups, or any remaining discussion items.

Although the structure and agenda might differ, one of the most important ways to build trust and strong relationships with your team is to ensure they’re heard, they’re important, and that you’re interacting with them frequently. One on ones aren’t the only way to do this but they’re one of the best ways to do this frequently.

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Thanks to Grace Noh for reading a draft version of this article.