When I came back to thirteen23 after hiking the PCT, I immediately jumped into managing our design team while we looked for a new Creative Director. While it was an exciting challenge and a welcome change from the challenges of…finding water and avoiding forest animals, once I got back into the office I realized I had some work ahead of me.
One of the first things I did was set up weekly, re-occurring 1:1s with the designers on my team to open up new lines of communication and inject some structure back into the team. However, when those calendar invites went out, I found myself pretty nervous. My brain was still re-learning how to live back in the “real world” and now, in addition to remembering how to drive my car, I was responsible for the needs of a team of people I really cared about.
However, I now realize this feeling is common with a lot of new managers! I read a lot of advice at the start of that process to get over my nerves, and now want to share some of my own:
1. Pick a time where you won’t be distracted
You’re probably thinking “A time when I’m not distracted? What is that?” and trust me when I say I hear you. As a manager, I know you’re swamped, but while this might be your biggest challenge, it’s a critical one.
I find that I am rarely able to be truly present when I am rushing from meeting to meeting and in the middle of putting out fires. However, 1:1s require being present. Pick a time when you have the best opportunity to focus on what’s at hand. For me, this was early morning and end of the day — times where I could easily block my calendar and know that I wouldn’t be seeped in the craziness of the day.
2. Stick to your times
Once you find times where you can focus, stick to them. While 1:1s are generally viewed as important, they have a bad habit of getting scheduled over or moved around. They’re just internal meetings after all!
Wrong. Advocate for your 1:1 time. These are crucial times to find out how people are feeling, what they need, and what the overall temperature of your team is. Sticking to consistent times also lets your team know you’re prioritizing them. While you might not be available all day every day, you will definitely be there, ready to listen when you say you will.
3. Have a structure
Okay, now that you have a time and day for your meeting, what will you actually…do with it? Holding a 1:1 sounds easy until you are actually in the room asking how someone’s weekend was on a Thursday.
I found that the best way to avoid this was to have a structure that everyone could hang onto and prepare for. I found a great one in Designing for Resilient Management that was focused on what someone was working on, what potential blockers existed for them that week, what worst-case scenarios were on their mind, and what they needed from me that I included in my 1:1 calendar invites.
These might feel obvious, but I found these questions to be open-ended enough to lead to meaningful conversations while still covering what I needed to know. Depending on the week, and the designer, we sometimes avoided this structure all together but more often than not, I used these questions to help steer the conversation and give us some structure.
4. Practice Listening
Once you’re in the meeting, listen. As a nervous Virgo (sorry), I find this to be challenging, especially when I just want to help someone with what they’re going through. However, this meeting is not about you. It might feel about you. It will feel very about you when someone is struggling with something you are responsible for. It’s not about you.
Start by asking someone what they want to talk about and then focus on letting them do that. Give everyone the space to talk about what is challenging and the ability to process it before jumping in with solutions or advice. Similar to when I’m leading a research session, I find it helpful to let someone talk something all the way through and then give them a few more seconds of silence at the end. It feels awkward, but it forces me to make sure I’m hearing someone all the way out and gives that person the opportunity to say what they really need to.
5. Record, record, record
Recording your 1:1s is an essential part of tracking how things are going. I take notes longhand because it minimizes potential distraction, but do what works for you. When recording 1:1s after the meeting, I split my notes into four sections so they’re easy to reference before our next meeting:
Covered: These are the highlights of what we talked about during our meeting. I also use this space to highlight any feedback I gave the designer so I can reference it later and track how often we’re talking about performance.
Follow-up: These are larger topics I’m tracking from meeting to meeting to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks.
Action: Remember that question “What do you need from me?” This is where those answers get tracked! These are tactical things I can do before our next meeting.
Your emoji: I ask all of my designers to give me an emoji that describes their feelings at the end of our meeting. Does this sound crazy? Yes. But it’s not only a fun way to end things, it actually provides good off-the-cuff insight.
6. Get to know who you’re talking to
Finally, get to know your designers. 1:1s do not have to be all about work. Get to know who you are talking to — learn about someone’s life outside of work, their interests, their dog’s name. While it’s important to respect everyone’s boundaries, this is a great time to build the relationship you rely on every day. Having good relationships with your team is the bedrock of honest communication, meaningful feedback, and most importantly, trust.
You’re gonna do great!
While these meetings can feel a bit awkward at first, taking the time to prepare, listen, and learn from your team is essential to understanding what’s going on and keeping everyone on track.
Hopefully, this advice will help you as you tackle your first 1:1s or add some more structure to the ones you’re already running.
Now tell me your emoji of the week. (Justttt kidding).
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Morgan Wheaton is an Associate Creative Director at thirteen23. Since joining the team, Morgan has led strategy, design, and UX on a number of consumer projects, spearheading digital experiences for Experian, Bose, HP, and Kohler. When not in the office, Morgan can be found hiking, cycling, and planning her next vacation.