5 tips on running better 1:1s

One on one meetings (1:1s) are the most important meeting you can have with your direct reports. It’s really hard to do a good job in just one blog post describing how to run 1:1s. They are just a tool towards a goal much greater than just a meeting - building candid relationships.

I recommend the book by Kim Scott, Radical Candor. It will explain to you the core reason why building relationships matter and how to do it using a variety of tools and behaviours. Long story short, this relationship is critical for the performance of your team. Only with this, your team will trust you that you care about them and the company. Only with this, you will be capable of giving direct and timely feedback that will have a compounding effect on your team results.

However, no matter if you read that book or not, here are a few tactical tips that I would recommend to follow on your 1:1s!

#1 Talk about personal life. It’s alright to not talk shop.

Building a long-lasting relationship cannot be done without talking about personal life. Noone is really able to check out personal matters before entering the office - we all bring our whole selves to the work every day.

Therefore, take genuine care for your people. Be interested in how they spend their free time, what problems they have and be there to listen. Usually, your directs will not start that conversation. You need to be open first. Be proud of your personal life and be vulnerable with your day to day problems. Tell them about it and get them to open too.

#2 Don’t cancel if you are in the office.

Don’t cancel 1:1s. Do them every week without excuses - it’s usually less than 4 hours of your 40 hour work week. Of course, sometimes you will really have to! For example, this week I am spending 3 days in London at the conference, outside of my Dublin office, and know that I won’t be able to have 1:1 with everyone. I cancelled all of them. And I know that I need to make sure that for the foreseeable future, I won’t do it again.

#3 Be comfortable with silence.

Get yourself comfortable with silence. If you ask a question, it’s alright if you sit there in a room in silence for a few seconds. Don’t kick in with another question. Don’t try to push your own answer. Silence means that either someone is thinking what to say or they try to make a decision if they should even say what is on their mind. Help them and keep quiet.

#4 Have a good list of backup topics.

If your directs don’t bubble up a ton of topics every week, it’s nothing bad. If it’s a continuous, week by week silence, then it’s a red flag and it should make you dig deeper why they don’t find this time valuable.

However, there is nothing bad if often you just run out of topics. That’s why you should have a short list of backup topics that you can always talk about. Here is mine:

It’s not an exhaustive list, but all of these points bring unique value to your relationship.

#5 Do notes but do it your way.

It’s a common opinion that you should be doing notes on your 1:1. It is super valuable - you can easily get back to them, especially during a performance review. It also makes sure that you don’t forget about follow up actions.

However, I always struggled to persuade my engineering teams to maintain their 1:1 doc. It never lasts and usually ends up being just random bits and bobs from our relationship, skipping some 1:1s quite often.

I also don’t like doing notes myself during 1:1. I prefer to look in the eyes, fully listen and focus on the person more than on the laptop screen. That’s why I only write down action points or some key things that are super important on post-its and sum up my 1:1s later in the day. If you like to-do lists as I do, here is a killer tip:

Set up a Zapier task to create a to-do every time a meeting ends with your unique 1:1 description. I use “Weekly 1:1” - every time I finish a meeting with “Weekly 1:1” in the description, a new to-do pops up in my list to sum it up. I usually put just a few points what we talked about, but this way I can keep our time personal and laptop-free while still having a detailed summary of literally every 1:1 in my personal notes. It really changed how thorough I am with keeping a good track of conversations week by week.

Summary

Running 1:1s is something that takes a lot of time to really sharpen and get it right. But don’t worry! If you struggle with them, if you are changing them from time to time, it’s good! Don’t keep a structure that worked with one direct report if it doesn’t work with the other. Adapt, evolve and change how you run them. You need to get your own style of running them that also suits yours directs. And because everyone is different, don’t take all the tips for granted - experiment and have fun!