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How to Run Effective 1:1s 🧑🤝🧑
Practical advice about your most important meeting + my own Notion template.
In a world where we need to reduce meetings and push for async communication, there is at least one kind of meeting we need to keep and nurture: 1:1s.
In fact, we probably need more of them, and we need to get them right. This is more important now than ever as many people are isolated at home and, as a manager, you risk losing touch with how they feel and what they want.
This article is meant to be a practical guide on having good 1:1s.
It is one of my favourite topics and over the years I read almost anything I could find about it. I also learned a few things I didn't find on books and would love to share.
So let's dive in, starting with the basics:
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What are 1:1s
1:1s are private, periodic meetings between you and your direct reports, usually held weekly. In a 1:1, your report sets the agenda and is expected to talk about about anything they like.
They are mainly used to get honest feedback from your report, discuss personal development and any issue that arose during the week. These are the meetings where you get to coach your people and find ways to resolve conflicts.
Basically, this is where you get to exercise your true manager role.
1:1s are not about status update, even though occasionally this is a good conversation starter. There are other meetings and processes for that, so you should keep 1:1s focused on your report.
Why you should have 1:1s
Why should we have them at all? Especially if you work in a small team, you may think you already know your people and talk with them more than enough.
This is a mistake I have made for a long time as a founder.
You feel people can already reach out to you when they have any issue. Probably this is true, and they do to some extent.
The difference with 1:1s is they are intentional. They vastly improve the feedback loop by 1) creating a safe, recurring space for people to approach you with their needs, and 2) encouraging a deeper relationship between reports and their manager.
Why does this matter? 👇
🧘 The Safe Space
For your reports, knowing they have this space changes the game completely.
They become more mindful about their issues, because they know they will be able to discuss them with you every week. They will note them down in anticipation of the meeting.
Nurturing this private space has two main side-effects:
💣 It defuses issues before they become too big. Without 1:1s, people have to win some friction to reach out to you and speak about problems. So they will naturally try to fix them by themselves first, with the result of speaking to you when it's too late.
🗓️ It frees the rest of the week from this kind of talk. "Let's talk in our 1:1" becomes a common way of scheduling a conversation about personal development, keeping the rest of the time focused on production.
💂 Relationship with your manager
Establishing a good relationship with your manager is a critical factor for happiness at work. It might very well be the critical factor for it, as several studies suggest.
Marcus Buckingham famously said: "People don't leave bad companies. They leave bad managers".
1:1s show you are approachable and constantly available for your people's needs. This builds trust and rapport, and gives you the space to progress with your report on the pyramid of engagement.
How should you have 1:1s?
This section is a practical guide on how to have good 1:1s. There are three main areas I would like to cover:
⏱️ Time — duration and scheduling.
📖 Topics — how to run the meeting and what to talk about.
✍️ Process — taking notes, producing artifacts, and other useful tricks.
Most advice here is about consistency and building the habit:
Have 1:1s every single week — 1:1s are about issues and personal development. Whenever someone has an issue, they have to think they will be able to discuss it with you soon. The "soon" part is crucial to most 1:1s benefits, and "once every two weeks" is often not soon enough.
Have 1:1s always at the same day, same time. This is important to build the habit, just like having breakfast or brushing your teeth. People need to prepare for 1:1s, and need to know when these will happen.
Schedule 40 minutes for them. In my experience, 30 minutes might be enough, but you don't want to cut the meeting short in case they are not. Especially because long 1:1s are usually important 1:1s.
Always do them. Finally, this might be trivial, but it's really important not to cancel 1:1s. 1:1s work because they are a reliable space. If they stop being reliable, they stop working.
I always open the meeting with a softball question: "How are you this week?". This is because:
I want my report to run the meeting — I don't want to start with something from my own agenda.
It is more specific than a simple "How are you" and it's less likely to receive a standard, mindless answer.
During the first minutes, it's inevitable sometimes to discuss project status. This can be useful to get into specific issues, but try to move away from it as quickly as possible. A few recommendations:
Be a great listener — keep the focus on your report and let them do 80% of the talking. Make the conversation move forward with questions that dig more into what they are saying. Do not underestimate how much concentration you need to do this effectively.
Have a couple of prepared points to fallback to — If the conversation stagnates and it becomes clear there aren't many things to discuss, I fallback to a couple of topics I have prepared in advance. These might be personal development topics, individual goals we discussed in the past, or anything that came up in previous 1:1s and I want to follow up to.
☀️ Weather Report
At the end of the 1:1 I ask them to rate the week, in the form of a weather report. They can chose between 5 levels, from clear sun to rain with thunders and lightning.
I also write down action items I can work on, based on the feedback I received. These items get the "weather rating" too:
☀️ This is good — I am happy that [...]
🌤️ This can be improved — I would like to [...]
☁️ This is a problem — I am worried about [...]
🌧️ This is a big problem — It really annoys me that [...]
⛈️ This is a crucial problem — It threatens my stay at the company that [...]
Such ratings are really helpful to put things in context — you may hear a lot of complaints in a 1:1 but you are not always able to understand how good or bad things are in general.
It is also useful to build a trend you can check over time. Are things improving? Are they getting worse? Why?
I use a shared Notion document (I have put the template in the section below 👇) with each of my reports where I store 1:1 notes. For each 1:1, I store it with the date, weather rating, and main items.
Since each item also gets its own rating, during the week I can check at a glance which are the most important things I should work on, basically based on how bad they are.
The shared doc is also a space where reports can go on their own and add things they want to discuss during the next 1:1. It makes the process more asynchronous and interactive from both sides.
Finally, sharing my notes makes sure I don't get anything wrong. If my notes do not represent what my report has said, they can tell me.
✨ Notion Template
This is how I run 1:1s on Notion. It’s the first time I provide a template for some process, please let me know if this is useful!
I have read a lot about 1:1s over time. These are the most useful articles I have found:
The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster — by Rands. I just love Rands. This article describes three types of 1:1s and how to best deal with them. It is insightful in non-trivial ways, and equally entertaining.
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That's it for this week! How do you run 1:1s? Is there anything you do differently? Let me know in the comments or via email. 📬 I read and reply to them all!