Managing 1-1s

Here is the background on this series, and here is the previous post on this series (Managing Performance). In this post, we are going to try answering the question: What is the most efficient way for someone to manage their 1-1s when one has many direct reports (in my friend’s case, 9).

Effective 1-1s is an important tool a good manager has (my earlier post), here are some other resources I found useful: How to have great 1-1s and couple of podcasts from Mark and Mike (part-1 and part-2).

Based on my experience with numerous 1-1s for over 10 years in India, US and China, and after working with many great managers (and not so great ones), I have come to believe in the power of effective 1-1s in building a good team and a good manager. However, effective 1-1s take significant investment of time, most comfortable 1-1s need at least 1 hour of face-to-face time and ½ hour of preparation and wrap-up time. This is the bare minimum; to be effective in providing feedback to your reports (which is one of the most important reasons of doing 1-1s), you need to spend time in collecting feedback, fitting it in the large scheme of career development for the individual and then provide the feedback. To do all this for 9-10 people every week is an extremely hard thing to do.

Here are several efficiencies that I have found useful to apply towards 1-1s:

  1. Amortizing Preparation Time: I try to have a theme for my weekly 1-1s, and have all of them on the same day (I have only 4 reports right now). This helps me prepare about what I want to say, how I want to say it, and what feedback/comments I expect back from them. One preparation helps for all the 1-1s and I save time. Also, since previous discussions are fresh on my mind, I can actually pre-empt some of the questions and thus save some confusion/questions, which goes to reduce overall time needed. I have noticed that when I approach my 1-1s this way, I can wrap up my central theme of 1-1 in ½ hour per person instead of regular 1 hour schedule that I usually follow for each person every week.
  2. Using written material: I have also found it useful (especially with reports who have reports too) to send write-up to them before or after (I have done both) about important topics of that week’s 1-1. I do not do it every week, only for some weeks when I have something critical to share. This helps them to review it when they need to, as well as use it with their own reports without losing much of the context. This also helps me be consistent with everyone since individual discussions are bound to leave something out (and bring something new), write-up provides single view of my thought/action/decision. Memos have been overused (and sometimes derogatory) term used for this in the past, but I have found this to be a big time-saver for me.
  3. Using team meetings: I know team meetings and 1-1s are different topics, but I wanted to cover something I have found useful: whenever I have had topics for 1-1s that I knew would generate debate/push-backs, I have used team meeting to broach the topic and get some initial questions/comments without committing to a specific decision/action. This goes to the rule of 80-20 where 80% of issues can probably be captured in that 1 hour of team meeting, rather than spending precious time in 1-1s with each individual. Of course, this has to be used carefully, because there are some topics where people will open up only in 1-1s and hence team meeting could be a waste of time. I have also used team meeting as a follow-up to my written material to good effect, to reiterate my commitment as well as to get theirs.
  4. Having focused 1-1s: If you have ample time, it makes sense to have open-ended 1-1s where you talk about lots of things, both in projects as well as in career development, and this fosters trust and comfort. However, when you have scarcity of time (as is the case with my friend), it is a good idea to identify the primary focus of the 1-1s and then just spend time on that topic. It is much better than trying to squeeze in everything in that ½ hour, twice a month meeting. Typically, there are 2 distinct areas to focus on (which give rise to other focus areas): project delivery, and career development. In crunch times, it is a good idea to identify (with mutual agreement of course) which ones you two want to focus on. Focusing on project delivery means talking about issues, risks, gaps in projects, and coaching/mentoring to improve the person’s ability to cope with them. Detailed status enquiry and technical inputs should not be done in 1-1s (and is usually not needed because that anyway happens on demand). Focusing on career development means identifying the goals and objectives the individual has, identifying skill and competency development plans, and coacing/mentoring them to achieve those in long term and tracking the progress via 1-1s. These focus areas can change over time (sometimes as often as monthly), but sticking to the area is critical to saving time on 1-1 and still provide value.

I am interested in hearing from other readers about what has worked for them in such a setting.

In the next post, I will talk about Managing Work in such a setting. Stay tuned.

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