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Lead Great Engineering Manager One-on-ones

There are lots of different ways to be a great leader. So I want to be clear up-front that this is really what I have found works for me. If you’re a budding manager that hasn’t quite honed their own style, or just looking to try new things, maybe give some of the following a shot.

Also, there’s nothing really specific to engineering in this; I think it’s a format that any leader can implement.

Make it Official

The first thing I establish with my one-on-one meetings is that, as much as our team may grow close and comfortable working together – essential for highly productive, happy teams – our one-on-one format is the one place to be formal. That might sound cold or strange at first, but here’s my reasoning:

The business exists. Its goal is to establish roles, that when fulfilled, make money. But in most cases, the specific folks fit into those roles are not critical to the primary goals of the company. Welcome to capitalism.

So being formal is my way of bringing that idea to the forefront of the conversation. I’m in a role of leading, which means I’m accountable for the production expected by the business of those roles under me. Let’s take time to talk about how we’re both caught up in that contract.

Tactics for making it official

Follow a Specific Agenda

As I mentioned, I follow a very strict agenda. In a lot of cases most of it is scripted out. Again, I feel like this could be seen negatively, but having that script frees up your brain to think about the specific conversations those topics lead to and not about the overhead of running the meeting. The script is meant to prompt you both to find specific relevant topics to discuss.

Set and Reset Expectations

First up, we talk about role expectations. I try to be a really hands-off, non-micromanaging manager. But in order to make that work, building up trust and communication with my team is essential. I can help to lay the framework for doing that through clear expectations.

In the meeting I’ll run through my pre-defined expectations, I might say something like:

Here are my expectations as your leader:

  • You are open and honest about how the work you’re doing makes you feel, both in capacity and meaning.
  • You have a clear understanding of your work priorities, and if you don’t, you actively come to me for clarity.
  • When projects are off-track or have the potential to be off-track, you let me know your concerns.

Going over each item can feel like it’s overkill over time, but I make a point to stick to it as each instance provides the opportunity to discuss any specific instances where these expectations were or weren’t met.

We then flip the conversation. “What are your expectations of me?” Once established, they get worked into the script and I recite what I have interpreted them to be. Here I can ask for critical feedback: “Am I living up to these expectations for you? Do you have any you want to edit or add?”

Check-In on Role

There’s a little overlap here from the previous section, as my expectations often align to roles. But this section is meant to focus more on how equitable the employer/employee relationship is at any given time. Even though I’m the manager, I try to remove myself mentally from being on one side or the other. Instead, being a liaison or mediator for that relationship.

Here are some conversation-starter questions for this section:

Reserve a Time for a Specific Topic or Question

At this point, I like to cut away from the script a bit and try to come up with a specific question to hone in on. It might be something like:

Nothing too broad, just something to quickly solicit feedback on. On my side, individually asking the same question to multiple direct reports helps to track and call out any trends.

Set and Track Goal Progress

Back on track with the main agenda, we now want to take a look at any individual goals or learning plan items in place for that person. Reiterate what their goals are and ask about progress. If progress is stifled, talk about why. See if goals need to be adjusted and define smaller milestones and tasks for them to accomplish.

What’s on Your Mind?

By this point, while there probably has been some good conversation, it’s time to give the reins of the meeting over to them. “Is there anything that we didn’t already cover that you want to talk through?”

Providing your folks a chance to completely lead the conversation without a specific topic is really important. I also find it helpful to reiterate that I’m always open and welcoming of critical feedback.

Acknowledge Action Items

Lastly, recount any action items that came up in the meeting. Align on what they are and when they should be done by.

Be Vulnerable and Show Empathy

With that, the one-on-one is done. But a few final notes to make. If this is a new team, don’t expect a super rich conversation; you’re still establishing a connection with your team, so it’s okay if it feels a bit robotic. To combat that, find opportunities to show your own vulnerability and empathy. I have found you really get what you give.

Double-down on the idea of getting meta with the conversation, encourage stepping into 3rd-person view of their role, your role and the business, it really helps keep things objective and not personal.

Finally, find the right cadence. For me, every one to two months seems good, but make sure you are still less-formally checking-in in-between; this isn’t the only meeting you should be having with your folks regularly, just the most formal of them.

If you have tips on running great one-on-ones with your team, or have things you like that your leader does, I would love to hear them!