If you Google ‘one-on-one meetings’, you’ll find articles with some sound advice but which generally assume you’ve already begun having 1:1 meetings or know how to start.
There seems to be much less guidance for new managers for the first time they step into the room.
This is an issue, because a lot of the advice for running great 1:1s over time isn’t that relevant for that first meeting.
That meeting isn’t your typical 1:1.
It’s not about unblocking progress, or avoiding status updates, or worrying about whether to use an agenda. It’s about first impressions, showing you care, and laying the first bricks in the foundation of a great working relationship.
Fortunately, we have some expert help to guide us through this. Camille Fournier, Lara Hogan, Kim Scott and others all have great observations to offer. We’ve collected those and combined them with some of our own thoughts to guide you through this crucial meeting.
We’re going to talk about:
Find out how to have better-organised, more productive 1:1s
These two things can be true at once.
So if your first 1:1 is a little creaky and clumsy, the other person will understand. But they will also really appreciate it if you ace it. So let’s at least try and do the latter.
The first step to having a great first 1:1 is appreciating the opportunity to set the tone for a new professional relationship. Just by being here and reading this article suggests you’re on the right track, and don’t intend to squander it.
Now, ‘First Impressions’ in the context of managerial relationships needs defining a little. Most new managers are promoted within their existing company, either above their peers they’ve worked with before, or to a team who may have some knowledge of their professional reputation.
In this context, it may seem odd to talk about first impressions, but it’s absolutely the right phrase. Regardless of how you knew someone before, being their manager is a big ‘first’.
Don’t treat the meeting as business as usual with an old colleague.
Professional dynamics have shifted and they will be looking to you to define what that means for your future working relationship.
The stakes are high. So how to approach it?
This is just your first meeting. There will be many more.
A key mistake by anyone new to 1:1s is feeling that they have to do everything in this first interaction.
That’s understandable. As someone’s manager there is So. Much. To. Talk. About. Career ambitions, working relationships, strengths, weaknesses, personal lives, areas for support, the list is endless.
All these things are also pretty complicated. They require dedicated time to discuss in detail, and often a level of trust that you may not have established yet.
So for your first 1:1, don’t worry about learning everything there is to know about your direct report. That will come in time.
Instead focus on running a meeting which:
It’s a small thing, but even how you schedule this meeting sets the tone.
No-one likes it when their boss just drops a meeting into their calendar. Even if you know there’s nothing to be concerned about, there’s always a nagging doubt about what’s going to be discussed right up until the moment you meet.
Double doubts for if it’s scheduled on a Friday afternoon, which everyone knows means you’re being fired.
So for your first 1:1, let them know in advance you’ll be putting some time in their calendar for your first one-on-one - either verbally, or via email/chat.
This initial invite is your first opportunity to start setting the tone.
It’s only a couple of sentences, but it’s still a way to show your focus is on them.
Perhaps something like:
‘Over the next few days, I’m going to put some time in for our first one-on-one meeting. I find these meetings really helpful for staying close to your work and career development, and understanding where I can best help you as your manager. No need to prepare anything, I just want to catch up, and talk about how you think you’ll get most out of these meetings in future.’
Schedule no less than 45 minutes, and for your first 1:1 probably schedule an hour. You might not use all the time but the last thing you want is to have to leave early if it’s going well.
Allocating lots of time also sends a further positive message to your team member about your willingness to dedicate your time to them.
Think back to some of the worst 1:1s you’ve had with previous bosses. Excluding the ones that were cancelled (major eyeroll), they probably involved your boss being either late, unprepared or misinformed, or all of the above.
Bottle those thoughts and use the frustration to think about how you should approach your first 1:1.
Ok obviously don’t be late. But also, don’t turn up on the minute, rushed from your previous appointment. You should be attentive and engaged, which is hard to do if you’re switching directly from a different context.
Try to leave at least 5 mins before the meeting starts to give yourself a break, reset, and reacquaint yourself again with how you’d like the meeting to go. It will pay immediate dividends when the meeting starts.
One of the main aims of this meeting is to demonstrate your interest in supporting your team members’ success.
There’s no quicker way to puncture that balloon than by getting the basic facts of their career wrong.
If they’re an existing team member, what projects have they recently worked on? How long have they been at the company? Are they involved in any other initiatives? Speak to previous bosses or peers to find out if you don’t know.
If they’re new to the company, what did they do beforehand? What companies have they worked at? What was their role? Ask for a copy of their CV from the People team or check out their LinkedIn if you’ve forgotten.
You can drop some of these details into your discussion later to show you’re already up to speed and thinking about their career.
If you want to keep better track of your team members' careers, Kommon keeps all the relevant information in one place (from meeting notes, to goals and feedback) so you'll always be up to date.
Ok, you might say, that’s all very well and good, but if I’m not meant to overcomplicate it and open up all those big discussions, what am I meant to talk about?
We’ve reviewed best practice from some leading management experts and these are some of the areas you might want to consider covering.
Note: you will find some suggested questions in these sections. You are absolutely not meant to ask all of them. The most important thing is that you run the meeting authentically, in your own style, in your own words. The questions are just suggestions, some of which you might want to adapt if they fit with the type of conversation you’d like to have.
You don’t have to jump straight into the more serious stuff. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
Studies have shown that small talk at the start of a meeting can make for a much happier one. It gets the other person talking and involved in the meeting.
Don’t be shy about spending 5-10 minutes asking about how their day is going, or what they did at the weekend, or any plans for that evening.
After all, even if it takes 10 minutes, you’ve scheduled an hour so there’s plenty of time.
First, let’s talk about what this isn’t.
This isn’t the time to have a full conversation about their career goals. We’d recommend dedicating a specific meeting to that (and telling them that you’ll schedule it in the coming days). It shows you’re really invested in thinking about their future and gives you the necessary time to discuss it fully (we’ve an article here about that conversation when you get to it).
But in the interim, you do want to start learning about what work they enjoy, what they don’t, and what motivates them, so you can make sure you’re not giving them projects that’re the wrong fit.
You may find some of these questions helpful:
"Why did you decide to work here?"
"Are you particularly excited about any opportunities?"
"What projects do you like to work on?"
"What projects would you rather not do?"
"Are there any goals you’re working towards at the moment?"
"Any surprises since you’ve joined, good or bad, that I should know about?"
"Is there anything you’d like my help with in the short term?"
As a new manager, the last thing you want to do is start managing someone in a way that they really dislike.
Some managers go through an incredibly painful process of trial and error, judgemental glances across meeting rooms, eyerolls, and passive aggressive Slack messages before they figure out what management style their team responds to.
Instead, you could just ask some of the following questions:
"How do you like to receive serious feedback? Do you prefer it in writing so you have time to digest it or are you comfortable with less formal feedback?"
"How do you like to be praised for great work? In public or just in private?"
"Are there any manager behaviours which you know you hate?"
"What’s your ideal working environment? When and where do you find you do your best work?"
Although this meeting is about your team members' preferences, you may have heard about Manager READMEs, which are a way for a manager to share similar details. You can read all about them and whether you should use a Manager README here.
As the lines between work and home have become ever more blurred, managers have become much closer to their team members’ lives. Part of the weight you take on as a manager is the emotional burden of knowing when your team members are having a bad day, and the thought you put into helping them through it.
To that end, you might want to ask some of these:
"What makes you grumpy? How will I know when you’re grumpy? How can I help you when you’re grumpy?"
"How do I know when you’re in a bad mood or annoyed? Are there things that always put you in a bad mood that I should be aware of?"
"What’s your favorite way to treat yourself?"
Although you called this meeting, future one-on-ones should be arranged in whatever way best helps the team member, so you need to have a quick discussion about what that looks like.
This section is also an opportunity to reiterate your commitment to always making your 1:1s, but also that they’re not the only space for discussing any issues. If anything comes up, there’s no need for a team member to wait, you’re always ready to make time.
And then maybe something like:
"Have you had good 1:1s before? What did you like about them?"
"What makes 1:1s most valuable for you?"
"When’s the best time to schedule these?"
And finally… that should be more than enough for one meeting but make sure to leave 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to ask if your team member has any questions? Again, it reinforces the impression that you’re there to help them.
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If you'd like some more inspiration for questions to ask in your 1:1s, we've put together 20 questions for different scenarios.
Congratulations! You’ve completed your first one-on-one. Now to wrap it all up:
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We’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask your managers and team members to identify the challenges they face, and help you pick the right solutions.
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