General Principles for 1:1s

One-on-one

12 March, 2020

Tim Barnes

Tim Barnes

Senior Engineering Manager at Instacart

Tim Barnes, Senior Engineering Manager at Instacart, describes three general principles for one-on-ones that he has infused into his operations.

Problem

Early in my career, I rarely had one-on-one meetings with leadership. As a result, when I became a manager I didn’t realize how important they were. Over time, I began putting together my own general principles for one-on-ones. Below are a few.
 

Actions taken

Frequency and Duration

I ensure that 1:1s occur weekly and that they are 30 minutes. This is usually enough time to devote to the meeting. Any shorter and your report may not feel valued. There may be times that the discussion has finished after 15 minutes, and that is fine. But scheduling a regular 30-minute meeting is important. Occasionally, I will schedule 45-minute 1:1s, though with managers who report directly to me.
 

Matters to Address

These scheduled 1:1s are a space for your reports to talk about any ideas or issues they have. It is not the time for you to come forward with an agenda, although you can have a list of talking points. I like to have a shared Google doc with a running list of weekly topics. This allows me to document what we’ve talked about and is a reference for items that we have discussed over time. It also allows me to see in advance what the individual wants to discuss so I can prepare what I would like to contribute to the conversation. However, I absolutely see this as my report’s time and make sure we address anything that concerns them during this session. Leading with “what would you like to discuss today” is a good way to set the stage for your report to present their own agenda.
 

When to Schedule

I strongly discourage moving any scheduled 1:1s. Other employees may look at your calendar and think that it’s easy to move a 1:1 instead of rescheduling a meeting of 10 - but don't do it. Put yourself in your team member’s shoes. What if you weren’t feeling well but came to work because you were looking forward to your 1:1? Having your meeting moved sends a strong signal that the 1:1 is a lesser priority. To prevent having to move around 1:1s, I have them in the middle of the week. I avoid having 1:1s on Monday or Friday, because people tend to take time off more often on those days. This is especially true for Fridays at 5pm. I schedule 1:1s in the morning to give them a more casual feel, and because calendars tend to be quieter in the morning.
 

Lessons learned

  • 1:1s are a time to learn about and address small issues before they bubble up and get too big. Often, team members will hint at how they feel, if they don’t have enough career growth, or if they are having an issue with someone else on the team. It’s easier to mitigate situations during 1:1s rather than waiting until they’re too big to handle.
  • Don’t be late. This should be true for all meetings, but it is especially important for 1:1s. That time belongs to your report and you showing up late is a signal that their time isn’t important.
  • I keep 1:1s individualized and somewhat open-ended. My reports add to their agenda and we address those factors first. I want to ensure that we are covering everything that they wrote down. Even if they haven’t added anything new to their list, there’s likely to be something that they want to talk about. It may be a sensitive topic that they don’t feel comfortable including in their agenda.
  • Sometimes I find it helpful to conduct 1:1s outside the office. Consider going out for coffee or for a walk. This is definitely situational, but it takes away the traditional formality of these meetings. Plus, other people won’t be an earshot away from the conversation. Some people open up more when they are away from the office. However, I would never do this for performance evaluations. Those conversations should be conducted in the office.

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