Help yourself to better 1:1s

This is the first article in the series “Effective 1:1s” by carwow engineering.

One-on-One meetings (1:1s) are a critical part of running healthy engineering teams. For Engineering Managers, they’re the most important meetings of the week, uncancellable time slots dedicated to listening to engineers on their teams. While there is a lot of literature on the internet about how to run good 1:1s for managers, there seems to be little emphasis on the fact that 1:1 meetings are actually engineer driven. This time setup every week is your time as an engineer to broach critical topics for conversation. Here are some tips on how you as an engineer can make these conversations valuable, help your manager better recognize their value, and help yourself to perform better.

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Bring an agenda

I cannot stress this enough. As with any meeting, it’s important to come to a 1:1 with a pre-planned agenda. A good way to do this is to maintain a shared Google Doc with your manager and pre-populate it with the agenda you want to broach in the next meeting As you go through your week, write down things you want to discuss in this sheet so you don't have to scour for topics last minute. If it’s still empty before your next 1:1, maybe it’s a great opportunity to talk about career progression, growth and giving feedback to your manager. Which brings us to:

Talk about, and build career goals

1:1 meetings are the perfect time to bring up any skills you want to improve on, new things you want to learn about, or a new role you aspire to grow into. Your manager likely already knows about various opportunities in the company that you do not necessarily. Making your career and skills growth a regular part of your 1:1s are more likely to pair you with any new career opportunities that may arise. It also creates an opportunity for you to document regular progress between review cycles and learn how to get to where you want to go. Harvard research says that best way to stay motivated at work is by achieving and documenting small wins and 1:1s are a great place to do that. However, while this is important, 1:1s are a great place to just talk about how you feel.

Talk about how you are feeling

Tech companies and startups are a cauldron of difficult conversations, deadlines, stressful situations, and politics and can have a strong impact on the mental state of individuals. 1:1s generally get misconstrued as a place for doing status updates. This is certainly not the norm and I generally recommend my engineers to open up about their mental state and how they are feeling about the work they are doing, the environment they’re in and the future as they see it. As engineers, you have the freedom to pick up any discussion, put it on the agenda and talk about during the meeting. The 1:1 is meant to be a safe space for discussions. These crucial conversations help your manager make recommendations and set you up for success in your career. It can also help your manager detect burn out and put plans in place to help you.

Agree on a format

While some 1:1s can be just conversations without structure, I generally recommend agreeing on a format with your manager on how to structure them. I’ve seen success by structuring 20 mins of all 1:1 conversations focused on the agenda and the next 10 mins focused on career conversations. Structure allows for conversations to be focused

Hold your manager accountable

It’s important to follow up on actions and discussions that happen in 1:1s. Engineering Managers generally have a LOT going on so it’s very useful if you as an engineer take initiative to make sure actions are followed up on and the right conversations are had. Capturing 1:1 conversations in a Google Sheet like I mentioned before is one way to make sure this happens and it helps to hold your manager accountable if there are any follow-ups.

Give feedback

1:1’s are not a one-way street. When you show a little empathy and accommodation for your manager, it makes them more likely to want to do the same for you. A great way to do that is to provide feedback. It builds trust, which is an invaluable capital to have with your manager and management team. Effective 1:1 meetings are a two-way street. Take a few minutes to talk about ways you can help them, and you’re more likely to get what you want, too.

Push back hard against cancellation/postponing

Good Engineering Managers will always prioritize 1:1 conversations over any other meetings in their calendar. Hold them to this and try to make every 1:1 that has been booked in. If they have to cancel due to any reason, it’s ok to ask them why and make sure the reschedule gets booked in.

One-on-ones are a great tool for managers and employees. If your 1:1 meetings with your manager don’t feel as effective or you feel you aren't having the right set of conversations, consider these tips as ways to improve them. Tiny changes to the way you approach them can make all the difference. There are a lot of good books I can recommend on this topic, but the one that stands out the most is the section in The Manager’s path by Camille Fournier which talks about How to be managed. I also highly recommend Managing Humans by Michael Lopp aka “Rands”.

Have you found success with any other tips or recommendations for effective 1:1s? Let us know in the comments!