Stop Having Sucky 1:1s with Your Manager

One-on-ones… Everyone has them. Sometimes they feel like a waste of time. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What if 1:1s could be a tool to further your career? What if they could be more enjoyable to both you and your manager?

1:1s are more important than most people realize. Your manager is not responsible for your career, so you need to take the initiative.

A manager is like a raid leader trying to shepherd a party through a dungeon. They are trying to communicate to a lot of people under pressure. Their attention is divided. They have many party members with distinct talents and personalities.

Yet if you want to get promoted, your manager is the most important person in the world to get on your side.

No one really teaches you how to have good 1:1s, so this is where I come in. I’ve been in plenty of meetings, both good and bad. I want to share my secrets of how I have awesome 1:1s, and how I used these golden meetings to get promoted faster and easier than my peers.

Let’s get started.

What do you want?

The place to begin is the end. What do you want?

  • Do you want to get a raise?
  • Do you want to get promoted?
  • Do you want to work fewer hours?
  • Do you want to change projects?
  • Are you looking to leave the company with a new skill?

Decide what you want. Then, structure your 1:1s to further your goals.

Structure

Most people don’t think about the structure of their 1:1s (nor their presentations). They mumble and ramble and give a 30 minutes status update. Status is fine, but you don’t need 30 minutes to talk about status.

Instead, we’re going to use our time wisely. 1:1s are a time for you get the attention of your manager.

That means we’re going to put the most important thing first.

Write down what you want to talk about ahead of the meeting. My manager and I have a shared Google Doc. You can use paper or attach notes to the digital calendar event. Find something that works well for collecting your thoughts.

Then, make a list of the things you want to talk about. For me, this usually looks like

  1. Perf (performance reviews)
  2. Strategic questions
  3. Project A
  4. Project B
  5. Project C
  6. Low-priority questions

To me, perf is the first thing because it is the most important thing. Every week, I ask my manager questions like:

  • What is my expected rating for this cycle?
  • What do I need to do to get to the next level?
  • What evidence do I need to prove that I’m performing at the next level?

I wanted to get promoted so I could get a raise. That was the first thing I talked about in each 1:1. This reminded my manager every week that promotion and a raise were my goals and I needed his help to achieve it. After each meeting, I would take the answers to these questions and implement them, and report my progress in our next 1:1.

Second, I asked strategic questions. These are high level questions about our team, our projects, and how my work fits in with the big picture. Some weeks, I don’t have any strategic questions.

Next, I had bullet points for the major projects and features I’m working on. I mentioned difficult bugs, recently completed work, and blockers. My manager usually has a few questions about specific tasks.

Note: I tend to report very few new blockers in 1:1s. If I see a problem, I aim to resolve it without a meeting. I send an e-mail, ping my manager, and generally use my common sense to figure out "How do we move the project along?" I don't wait until our 1:1 to get an answer.

Finally, I ask low priority questions. This could be questions about new teammates or smaller bugs that don’t need to be urgently fixed. Also, here’s where I ask general, open ended questions like:

  • What am I doing well?
  • What can I do to improve?
  • What else can I do to help the team?

I write down the answers to all these questions in our shared Google Doc. Then I cause these action items to get done over the following week. The cycle repeats again.

Having a structured agenda keeps the conversation on track. We are more likely to cover the important stuff than if we had no plan.

You might not like this structure. Your manager might not like this structure. That’s OK. The point is to intentionally find a format that works for you.

How Often?

1:1s are valuable time to develop your career. I have a recurring calendar event with my manager every week.

I recommend meeting at least once every two weeks. Anything less and your manager will forget about you.

Sometimes, we have very little to talk about, so we can cancel the meeting or end early. Other times, my manager and I have high level career discussions where we spend most of the time on the bigger picture.

The important part is to have a recurring block on your calendar dedicated to your career development. Without an automatic reminder, you’re likely to forget.

You might be worried that you’re annoying your manager with frequent 1:1s. You’re not. If they say you’re meeting too often, then reduce the frequency. Otherwise, you’re fine.

Good managers want to help develop their team members’ careers. Bad managers are indifferent (or downright hostile).

What if my manager is the problem?

Your manager might not be supportive of your career development. In that case, I would ask, “What do you want to do?”

I can’t recommend what to do for your particular situation. However, I can brainstorm a naive list:

  • Find a new manager, a new team, or a new company
  • Try to change your manager
  • Accept it and stay in your current position (sad!)

You have common sense. You can solve problems. You have people you can talk to for advice. At the end of the day, you can think about the pros and cons, decide, and put your plan into action. I’m just an ordinary software engineer that’s been working in tech for awhile.

And when you put it all together, you realize that you have the power to make your next 1:1 better than before.

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2 Responses to Stop Having Sucky 1:1s with Your Manager

  1. Pingback: Your Name is Chad, and You are a Brogrammer at Big Tech Co. (Humor) | Sheldon's Software

  2. Pingback: Three Things You Must Do When Mentoring Software Engineers | Sheldon's Software

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