Mastering 1:1s as an Engineering Manager
Unpopular Opinions on How to Handle 1:1 Meetings as an Engineering Manager
A good portion of every effective engineering manager's time is dedicated to taking care of their team, and 1:1 meetings are undeniably one of the best ways to do so. Much literature has already been written about 1:1s, and everyone seems to have their fail-safe recipe for conducting these meetings efficiently.
I do not! 😓
The truth is, even today, after more than a decade of conducting these meetings, I often change my approach, experiment with new techniques, and refrain from following a single rigid method.
The reason is quite simple: every individual is unique, every team has its distinct characteristics, and at any given point in time, the context in which you operate may change and need a different approach.
For this reason, today I won't provide you with the perfect recipe for conducting 1:1s. Instead, I'll share my honest perspective on these meetings, how I personally run them, and offer some actionable suggestions that will hopefully inspire you to discover your own way of conducting them effectively.
Specifically, I will cover:
🧐 What 1:1s are and why they are valuable
🏃♀️ How to build your 1:1 process (🎁 Template Included!)
🛠️ Some actionable recommendations based on my direct experience
So let's get started!
🧐 Understanding 1:1s
Before delving into how to run these meetings, I believe it's important to spend a few words on what 1:1s are and why they are important.
What Are 1:1 Meetings?
1:1 meetings, often referred to as one-on-ones, are regular, private meetings between an engineering manager or leader and their direct reports.
These meetings provide a dedicated space for open and honest communication, where both managers and team members can build a solid relationship.
Why 1:1 Meetings are Important
While many view 1:1s as a platform for career development, giving feedback, and even performance discussions, at the cost of sounding unpopular, I believe these meetings should primarily focus on four key aspects:
💼 Building Trust: trust is essential for team success. 1:1s provide a private space to nurture trust, showing your genuine care and support for team members.
💬 Providing a safe space to vent: team members often need a safe space to express frustrations or ideas. 1:1s offer the opportunity for them to vent and share openly.
🛠️ Resolving Issues: 1:1s serve as a constructive platform to address conflicts and challenges, preventing escalations and promoting a healthier work environment.
📣 Getting Feedback: effective communication goes both ways. 1:1s allow team members to provide valuable feedback on your performance as a manager, processes, and team dynamics, fostering growth and improvement.
🏃♀️ Running a Good 1:1
As I mentioned at the beginning, I don't believe there's a right or wrong way to run a 1:1 meeting, and there are a number of factors that could influence how you structure this process, such as:
Your relationship with your direct report
How long your direct report has been on the team or in this role
How many direct reports you have
While all meetings are different, I believe there are some necessary steps that you have to follow when you structure 1:1s, and these are:
📅 Schedule the meeting
📝 Prepare for the meeting
🗣️ Have the meeting
🔄 Follow up
Let's delve into them in detail.
The first thing you have to do to conduct 1:1s is obviously scheduling them.
So how often and how long?
The frequency and duration of 1:1 meetings can vary depending on your team's needs, your relationship with your report, and especially your availability. However, there are some general guidelines to consider.
Weekly or bi-weekly 1:1s are common, but the key is consistency. Regular meetings help build trust and ensure ongoing support. If your team is larger or time-constrained, consider shorter, more frequent meetings to accommodate everyone.
Just to give you a real-life example, as of today, I have 5 direct reports. With newer ones, I have 1-hour weekly 1:1s, while with people who have been with me for a long time, I usually have 1-hour meetings every two weeks. It goes without saying that flexibility is a must, and if anything urgent arises before your 1:1, you have to be available and address it.
1:1s typically last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The optimal duration depends on the complexity of the topics to be discussed. Be mindful of respecting your team members' time, and if you anticipate longer discussions, schedule accordingly.
Also, try to avoid canceling or rescheduling unless absolutely necessary. This demonstrates your commitment to their development, helps creating a habit and sends a clear message that their time is valued.
Preparing for a 1:1 is something that many engineering managers often overlook. As we mentioned, these meetings are intimate moments between you and your team members. It's crucial to join these meetings with the right mindset and be mentally prepared for the conversation.
What I personally do before every 1:1 meeting is to take 15/30 minutes of disconnected time. This helps me be relaxed and prepared for every kind of conversation, even difficult ones.
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