I didn’t have 1-1s with my managers for most of my career, mostly because they weren’t as commonplace as they are now. When I did have them, I didn’t know what to do or ask and instead let my manager drive the conversation. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered their value. Now that I’m in management, I see things from the other side, and I realize how many opportunities I squandered by not taking control of these meetings.

The 1-1 isn’t intended to be a time to update your manager about what you’re doing, or whether or not you’ll get your tasks done on time. Instead, as Andy Grove points out in High Output Management, it’s about “…mutual teaching and exchange of information. By talking about specific problems and situations, the supervisor teaches the subordinate his skills and know-how, and suggest ways to approach things.” The 1-1 is for you and your professional development.

The Purpose of the 1-1

In her book, The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier identifies the two main purposes of the 1-1:

  1. “[T]hey create connection between you and your manager.”
  2. They provide “a regular opportunity for you to speak privately with your manager about whatever needs discussing.”

The second item is obvious and most people might be satisfied accepting that as the sole purpose of the 1-1. What’s less obvious is the value inherent in item one. Connecting with your manager is valuable for the following reasons: 1) you feel less like an island on your team; 2) you get reassurance that you belong; and 3) you learn where you stand with your boss and within your team.

If you’ve ever gone for an extended period of time without connecting with your manager you know how isolating it can be, and it’s this understanding that argues that 1-1s are for you, not your manager.

1-1s Are For You, Not Your Manager

Every manager has his or her own way of running 1-1s, and they’re different for each of their reports, and change over time. In spite of that, Andy Grove argues the 1-1 “should be regarded as the reports’s meeting, with its agenda and tone set by him.” (High Output Management) To that end, Grove continues, the manager “should facilitate the subordinate’s expression of what’s going on and what’s bothering him.” So even though a manager may have a particular way of running it, the 1-1 is still for you.

The fact that 1-1s are for you, but facilitated by your manager, doesn’t absolve you from your role and responsibilities therein. You still need to show up with questions and items to discuss, be able to provide answers to your manager’s questions, and have goals for what you want to accomplish in the meeting. Your manager will facilitate the 1-1, but they shouldn’t be the main driver.

However, there will be times when your manager drives and directs the 1-1. It may be that they have news or information they need to share with you, they need to have a performance discussion with you, they want to focus on your career growth, or they have something else they need to talk about. This type of 1-1s will generally be more infrequent, and you should still come prepared.

Lastly, consider what it would be like if you allowed your manager to always direct the 1-1. Do you really trust someone else to know what is best for you, to say what path you should take, or make decisions for you? But every time you show up to a 1-1 without preparation, it’s doing this very thing. The more frequently you abdicate your responsibility, the more control you give to someone else. The choices they make for you will be the ones that are easiest for them, not the ones that are best for you.

Come Prepared

By this point we should be agreed that 1-1s are about the team member, that they should be driving them, and to do so, the team member needs to come prepared. If that’s so, what do you need to do?

Come with items to discuss

This should be obvious, but make sure you come to your 1-1 with a few things to discuss with your manager. How many you bring will depend on the nature of the topics. I advise my teams to add items to their list as things come up through the week. Here are some potential topics to discuss:

  • Status update: Limit this to just a few minutes. Most status updates occur during standups or as comments in your project management tool, and you waste valuable time with your manager telling them things they should already know from other meetings.
  • Accomplishments: Share your accomplishments with your manager: Course completions, finishing projects, writing blog posts, giving conference talks, etc. are all things they should know about
  • Problems: Inform your manager about problems (technical, interpersonal, etc) you run across. If possible, come with solutions, or at least show you’ve researched how to solve the problem. No manager wants yet another problem dropped in their lap.
  • Ideas: If you have ideas to make things better for your project, team, company, or anything else, bring them to the 1-1 for discussion.
  • Research topics: If you’ve been researching something to improve yourself of the team, a 1-1 is great time to share what you’ve uncovered.
  • Team needs: Let your manager know about the needs of your team. New technologies, missing skill sets, tools, access, etc. are all things you should take to them.
  • Goal check-in: Let your manager know about the progress you’ve made on your goals.
  • Ask about your manager’s challenges: It’s okay to ask about what your manager needs. It shows that you’re thinking outside of yourself, and are looking to expand your responsibilities.
  • Feedback: Ask for feedback, but be prepared to hear both positive and constructive feedback. Furthermore, only ask for it if you’re really looking to improve.

Be prepared to answer questions

Managers are going to ask questions: about you, your work, your aspirations, and more. You can also expect them to ask probing questions, trying to dig deeper on certain topics such as key projects or interpersonal relationships. If your manager is really good, they’ll use questions to help you gain a greater understanding about the business, your role, and yourself.

Your responsibility is to come prepared to answer these questions. You should be able to provide thorough answers about your work and career aspirations. There will also be questions which will blindside you, against which you really can’t prepare; for those, you just have to roll with the punches and do the best you can. In most cases, however, you should expect to be able to provide reasonable answers for all of your manager’s questions.

Show you’ve worked on action items

You should have at least one “action item” you take away from every 1-1; something you’ve learned or can apply. These action items aren’t always explicit, and could be something as simple as researching a paper or book your manager mentioned off-handedly. You should be able to show that you made progress on that action item the next time you meet with them.

Take notes

This shouldn’t need to be said, but I know it does: take notes. Organize them by date so your manager can corroborate with them. It won’t seem useful in the beginning, but eventually your notes will reach a critical mass and you’ll rely on them more and more to answer questions. Also, if your manager acts unbecomingly or if a sensitive topic is discussed, you’ll want to have your notes, especially if you’re the one in the hot seat.

If you don’t have 1-1s with your manager, or have only recently started them, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In an informal poll I conducted on LinkedIn, over 33% of the respondents said they’ve only started having 1-1s with their manager in the past two years, and I had a number of people lament there was no option for zero years. Whether you’ve had 1-1s for years or just started, there’s no time like the present to start working to make them better. On the other hand, if your manager doesn’t have regular 1-1s with you, there’s no reason you can’t schedule one with them.

Now that I’m in management, I have more 1-1s than ever. Not just with my team and director, but our VP, another engineering manager, the director of product, and others, and the frequencies varies. Some are to seek alignment, such as my 1-1 with the head of Product, others are for advice and council, while at least one is just to connect, but they’re all valuable and make me a better manager and leader.