Making 1:1s Worth Your Time
What is the purpose of a 1:1 with your manager? I wanted to do a write-up to dispel a common misconception around what that meeting with your manager is, and how you can channel it into a much more productive use of time.
Whenever I talk to new hires, and they set up 1:1s with me or their new manager, one thing becomes very obvious - a lot of people consider 1:1 meetings to be a forum to discuss everything they’ve done in the past week/month/quarter. Your manager needs to know what you’re working on - that’s the way to ensure that the right things are being delivered and there are no blockers. The 1:1 is not the forum for that, however.
Here is why - status can be better communicated in writing - you can use email, Teams, Slack (or whatever else your team uses) to keep track of what’s happening within the team. The group I work on has a convention, by which we post daily status updates on the main team channel - what everyone is working on, what they worked on yesterday, and whether there are any blockers that prevent them from moving forward. Status that is communicated in writing is very easy to follow-up on and make sure that you can re-visit to see what’s on one of your direct’s mind.
When status is communicated during 1:1 meetings, that eats into the time a direct report can use to discuss a lot of other, much more important issues, outlined below.
Discussions with your lead #
So, if it’s not status, what is that you should be putting time in? Quoting Kim Scott from her Radical Candor book (seen from the perspective of a lead):
1:1s are your must-do meetings, you single best opportunity to listen, really listen, to the people on your team to make sure you understand their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working. These meetings also provide an opportunity to get to know your direct reports - to move up on the “care personally” dimension of the Radical Candor framework. Remember, this is not the place to dump all of the criticism you’ve been saving up.
Expanding on this a bit, the key here is that the agenda for the 1:1s should be set by the direct report, with a list of items that are on their mind. Caveat is that it’s not a list of projects they are working on.
Opportunities for growth #
This covers anything and everything that you want to talk about in terms of you learning and expanding the scope of your responsibilities. It might be helpful to establish a baseline over the work that you’ve done before, and what can you do to have an even bigger impact. Your managers needs to know about your ambitions and the desire to go above your current set of responsibilities. Goes without saying that when approaching this conversation, you need to be executing well within your current scope - if you’re not, there is no incentive to give you larger responsibilities.
1:1s are also a good opportunity to pitch and discuss some ideas about product growth. Any PM, after working sufficiently long in a specific ecosystem/product space, comes across a set of ideas they might have to improve the product, capture a new market segment or improve the team productivity in delivering customer value. The meeting with your lead is a fantastic opportunity to discuss these, and understand what limitations you might be missing, and what can you do to move them forward. These discussions can be an indirect indicator to your manager that you are thinking bigger than your current scope, and want to excel above your current “weight class”.
Performance insights #
In a good working environment, your professional performance is never a surprise. This means that you have a continuous feedback loop with your manager, through which you build out an awareness of where your blind spots are, and what you need to do to improve. 1:1s are fixed time-slots during which you can ask such questions as:
- “How am I doing within my current set of projects?”
- “What can I do better to accelerate and improve our work?”
- “What do I need to stop doing to make working with me easier?”
- “What feedback are you hearing about my performance from partner teams?”
Your manager will usually be very transparent with you on your team performance, and provide you valuable feedback on the opportunities you might need to undertake to grow. By the time you get to your bi-yearly (or yearly) performance review, you should’ve painted a pretty concrete picture of where you are and what your direction should be.
Ask and offer help #
Last but not least, 1:1s are a channel through which you can ask your manager for help on blockers, as well as offer help on other projects that might need your qualifications and expertise. Often time, leads have a lot of things on their plate, and some issues are less visible on a regular cadence. This is a chance for you to share your thoughts on what those issues are and propose solutions, where applicable.
Putting everything from above together, the natural next question you might have is related to tools - what can you use to be efficient with 1:1s? To me, the most obvious one is a shared notebook. At Microsoft, we heavily use OneNote, which enables granular note permissions. I’ve created a notebook that is exclusively for me and my manager. In that notebook, there is a whole section dedicated to 1:1s, where we take notes, review agendas and riff on ideas. By having all notes there, the manager can always check the agenda for the next 1:1 ahead of time (given that I filled it out) and ask clarifying questions ahead of time, or prepare better for the meeting. It’s a two-way street, making us both more effective.