Aug 2nd, 2020

Effective One-on-One Meetings with Engineers

Owning your responsibility as a Manager

Historically, I’ve struggled in my one-on-one’s with managers. As an employee, there was so much I wanted to say - and I never said it. I’m sure many of you probably have similar experiences with your managers - regardless if it was in tech or not.

There was a time where I thought - this was an issue with my personality. Nope.

The first 1-on-1 meeting with an employee sets the tone for your relationship with this person who’ll you’ll work with every day. It’s the one opportunity you have to set a groove, a pattern, for what you want your interactions to be like, and the standard for what feels good going forward. As a result, investing time in preparing for your first 1-on-1 meeting with an employee is a wise use of your time.

As Claire points out - “The first 1-on-1 meeting with an employee sets the tone for your relationship”. If you’re a manager, lead, director, etc… It is your responsibility for the relationship you want to have with your report in the very first one-on-one. You have only one shot to do this. Of course, you can reset the expectations for your relationship with anyone, and in fact - it does change with time, but your first impressions will be long-lasting. So it is important, that you understand your responsibility and own it.

Understanding this - made me a better leader. I devoted time to research, putting together a question bank and being genuinely interested in my reports career goals. Ultimately, I put together a template for my One-on-One’s, which you can see here.

Key points for successful one-on-one’s

There is no magic when it comes to one-on-ones. You need to be prepared.

This involves:

  • Creating and communicating the agenda
  • Training your reports
  • Following up

Preparation is key. Many people want relationships to be “natural”. No. That’s not how humans work. We create communities and stick within those communities, so every relationship needs to be fostered - even if there was some prior relationship. So, start with creating an agenda.

The Agenda

For the manager, you need to prepare what you want to discuss - the theme of your one-on-one. This theme can be based on leveling up in a skill, attaining a promotion, discussing projects, etc… The point is, prepare what you want to discuss and give your report a heads up of what the theme should be.

For the report, you should understand what should be discussed by your manager. If you don’t know, ask them. Add talking points to the agenda. Be active. Ask about company health, projected goals, issues actively being worked on. You get the point.

The agenda sets the tone of the meeting and ensures actionable outcomes will be made.


For the manager, you will always be training on this. Questions should rotate out. You should be comfortable asking for unpleasant feedback. You will need to listen.

For the report, this is mostly on you - the one-on-one is a time for you to share your experience so management can continue to iterate and improve. So you need to be prepared and that means taking time to fill out your one-on-on accordingly. Spend 15 minutes on every one-on-one. Be thoughtful, deliberate, and most of all honest.

Following Up

For the manager, you need to follow up. A one-on-one that does not have any actionable follow-ups - is useless. It will demoralize your team and the company. Listen during the one-on-one, take notes, and jot down actionable items for you and your report. Keep your report informed throughout the week, don’t wait for your next one-on-one. Quicker feedback loops are better.

For the report, although the responsibility is mostly on the manager here - you will most likely receive feedback that you need to work on. Listen. Break it down into tasks you can accomplish and keep your manager informed of what you’re doing to reach the goals set forth in the one-on-one.

A moment

One-on-One’s take time. You need to be prepared. You must be given ample time to discuss important topics. Those discussions need to inform the company of progress.

Let’s break this down:

  • 15 minutes x 2 (preparation by manager and report)
  • 1 hour x 2 (one-on-one meeting between manager and report)
  • 2 - 4 hours x 2 (actively working on action items between manager an report)
  • 1 hour (propagation of feedback by manager up the chain)


  • 30 minutes
  • 2 hours
  • 4 hours max
  • 1 hour

This adds up to ~8 hours (minimum) a week per report invested into the company’s health. This is with preparation and an active feedback loop. Imagine if there wasn’t preparation or an active feedback loop? I’ll answer:

  • Poor Performance
  • Employee Churn
  • Project Miscommunication
  • Uknown Projections

It is an investment in understanding how your employees are doing - but it is one that will avoid the costlier issues that will inevitably come up with no or poor one-on-one meetings.

Go forth and prosper!

Let’s bring it back. One-on-One’s are a great way to aggregate feedback actively and help inform the company that they are headed in the right direction. Most companies want to keep employees happy and to do that, shorter feedback loops are critical. Preparing for and actively working on outcomes from your one-on-one is important in the success of a project, team, and company.

I’ve put together below some suggested tools to automate this process - check them out and see what works for you. If you’re interested in a quick boilerplate - I’ve put one together here.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Suggested Tools