For the last seven years as a software engineer, I have had managers who don't care about 1:1s and managers who do 1:1s but not effectively. Managers (or leaders, whatever we call) who are doing adequate 1:1s are rare. That's why we can't leave it to chance; we have to step up here. When I changed my perspective and worked on improving the meeting, the results were terrific. Now, I have better communication with my manager, and I feel that I'm learning and growing way faster than usual.
This article summarizes how I changed my perspective and owned my meetings, along with a small tip for preparation.
Why 1:1s Matter? Change the perspective
We often find ourselves giving status reports about our work in 1:1 meetings with our managers. When a manager asks, "How is it going?" we default to discuss projects and the current status. Some good managers intentionally ask more specified questions about our personal growth. At these times, we often can't find a concrete action to talk about, or we can't pinpoint a topic that's bothering us.
When nobody cares to improve the quality of time, 1:1s start becoming another meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email (or Slack message). Managers excuse themselves by saying, "It's your meeting, your chance to talk." They often don't act on improving these meetings. They also usually ask, "What do you want to talk about today?" or "Do you have something to talk about?". When we face these questions, doesn't it say that we should own the meeting and make it better? The questions point that the focus is on the engineer, not the manager, and not the project.
It's the engineer's meeting. If we are not happy with something, it's time for us to complain. If we like everything, it's a place to share our happiness. If we have a question or doubt about our career, now it's our turn to talk!
Turn the Meeting Around
The meeting is about you, the engineer, the challenges you face, and your career growth. When the topic is you, there is no one else who can facilitate the meeting. The manager might set 30 mins for the meeting. However, it's up to you how to spend that time.
DO THIS: When they ask, "How is it going in the X project?" don't fall into the giving status report trap. If the manager asks for a status report, close the topic as fast as possible and get to your point.
When I realized this, I talked with my manager and said that I don't want this meeting to be a status update meeting. After having a small conversation about the format, we decided that we'll not fall into status updates. It requires effort in the beginning. However, we started using one shared document that helped us tremendously stay on track. If you find yourself going back to status updates, be mindful and remind your manager that you don't want to talk about the project.
On the other hand, owning doesn't mean that you should talk all the time. The meeting is bidirectional. Although you are the subject, it is the time to collect feedback, ask for opinions, and share perspectives. Good communication happens when two sides exchange thoughts and feelings constantly. And everyone knows that expressing emotions and talking about challenges are already complicated. That's why you need to come prepared.
Prepare for Your 1:1
The 1:1 meetings are the most critical recurring meetings about your career growth. Performance review meetings (yearly or 6-monthly) are the result of one-on-ones. So, you cannot go there without preparation. And most of the time, all you need is ten to fifteen minutes. There are two ways for it: preparation right before the meeting or taking small notes time-to-time over the week. I recommend the latter.
How to Prepare Your Next 1:1
Whenever something happens that challenges you and you want to talk with your manager, write it down. It can be a small post-it or a long text; it's up to you. Take the note with an eye towards the meeting. Use a one-on-one meeting template to shape your thoughts better.
Think in the future. If you have decided on your career path, write down how your manager can help you. If you haven't decided yet, then it's already something that you should talk about it.
Bring up the brag document when it's necessary. The goal is not to brag but instead share the success and wins, making them visible. Managers miss these small wins because they are probably not working hands-on. Share the achievement.
While writing down your notes, have an eye on the meeting. Write with purpose. The goal is to use the discussion in the most impactful and efficient way. If you think you cannot fit all the topics into the meeting, ask for an extension or postpone them to the next one. You can even eliminate some of them to pick your battles wisely. If you postpone, mention that you want to discuss it in the next one; don't let it go unnoticed. You can also share what you wanted to talk about in a written message.
DO THIS: Take a note whenever something pops up. You don't have to write prose. But use pen-and-paper first. Take notes by hand. This writing overall sounds very time-consuming. However, you can write a note just in a minute.
Don't Forget The Feedback
If there is a new project, ask about how your progress is. Instead of talking about tasks or project details (remember, no status update), focus on your contribution how you can do it better. If there is a point where you don't feel you did a good job, bring this up. This behavior will form the trust. Accept failures and own mistakes. Approach them with curiosity and seek opportunities to learn from them.
Don't forget to give feedback, too. If you like the new company announcement, say it. Managers don't get positive feedback a lot. They primarily receive complaints, and as a result, they mainly work on the problems. When they hear something positive, it motivates them and makes them feel better. And, this will help them to come to 1-on-1 in a better mood. Because when people receive a compliment or hear good things, they start enjoying these talks.
DO THIS: Ask for feedback on your career growth and your approach to the projects. Don't focus on the work itself; instead, seek input on how you can do better. Also, write down a minimum of one positive feedback and share this in the meeting.
It is Your Meeting
Communication and relationship is not a one-way road. It's bidirectional. Healthy work relationships are built with trust that requires effective and clear communication from both sides. Use this perspective in the meeting. Sometimes it's okay to complain. Let your dissatisfaction and angriness out. It's part of the game. However, don't forget to focus on how to solve the problems later on.
In the end, the meeting is about you, the engineer. If so, then it's yours. Use it wisely and get the most benefit out of it.