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One-On-Ones With Your Manager: Here’s How to Prepare and Make the Most of Them

Advice from Julie Zhuo and Camille Fournier on leveraging the power of one-on-one meetings.

By Manuela Bárcenas  •   May 16, 2019  •   10 min read

It’s time for your next one-on-one with your manager and you have no idea what to talk about or what to expect from the meeting? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But your one-on-ones should not be something you dread — they should be something that you look forward to all week long!

The problem is, most of us get introduced to one-on-one meetings as “one more company requirement” or a tool to help your boss.

But what if I told you that preparing for these meetings is the most powerful way to make sure you advance in your career and enjoy doing your job?

In this post, we’ll show you how you can leverage one-on-one meetings to get guidance from your manager and develop positive relationships at work.

What’s the purpose of one-on-one meetings?

A one-on-one meeting is a dedicated space in your calendar to speak privately with your manager about your priorities, concerns, and professional development.

Unlike a status report or a tactical meeting, a one-on-one should be the moment when you get to know your manager, ask for their advice, and exchange feedback.

Most importantly, it should be a safe space where you can ask your manager all the questions that come to mind during the week, or that you didn’t get to ask at a public meeting.

As Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook, argues, “the best relationships start from a good, earnest question”… so make sure to use your one-on-ones to ask as many questions as possible.

“If I could go back in time and tell my new college grad self what the secret to a rocket ship career is, it would simply be this: Ask more questions,” says Zhuo.

Make a good impression during your 1-on-1s

Show your manager that you care about your professional development by showing up to your meetings prepared with talking points, priorities, and challenges to discuss. Use a tool like Fellow to make the most of your 1-on-1s!

How to use one-on-ones with your manager to accelerate your career growth

Let’s talk about the five ways in which you can use one-on-one meetings to accelerate your career and make sure you are getting the most out of your job:

1 Connect with your manager on a personal level

Having a good relationship with your manager can dramatically improve your perception of work. It means you feel more comfortable asking questions, raising concerns, and asking for clarification on your projects and goals.

Of course, it’s your manager’s responsibility to make sure you feel comfortable raising issues and expressing your emotions. However, you can take a step towards developing a great relationship by showing interest in your manager’s hobbies and telling them about your own.

Camille Fournier (author of The Manager’s Path) argues that a one-on-one meeting is the best scenario to “create human connection between you and your manager”:

“That doesn’t mean you spend the whole time talking about your hobbies or families or making small talk about the weekend. But letting your manager into your life a little bit is important, because when there are stressful things happening (a death in the family, a new child, a breakup, housing woes), it will be much easier to ask your manager for time off or tell him what you need if he has context on you as a person,” says Fournier.

Some questions I like to ask to get to know my manager on a more “human” level include:

  • How was your weekend? What did you get up to?
  • What are some of your hobbies outside of work?
  • What are your favourite podcasts/books?
  • Where/How did you start your career?
  • Why did you decide to work here?
  • What’s your preferred method of communication?
  • What characteristics do you admire most in the people on your team?

2 Get guidance on your priorities and short-term goals

The second thing you should do at your one-on-one meetings is letting your manager know what your top priorities are, and ask for their advice on how to tackle them.

One method that has worked for me is listing the things I’ve been working on, or plan to work on in the near future, and asking my boss the following questions:

  • Do these priorities/projects align with our overall team goals?
  • If you had to rank these priorities in order of importance, how would you rank them?
  • Is there anything I’m not currently doing, that I should be focusing on?
  • Which one of these priorities/projects do you think will have the greatest impact?

In an ideal world, your manager would always ask you about your priorities and short-term goals. However, you must understand that your manager is also human, and probably has a lot of other things to think about. By bringing up your short-term goals and priorities you can make sure that you and your manager are aligned, and ask for guidance to ensure that you’re focusing on the right things and progressing towards those goals efficiently.

As Camille Fournier argues in The Manager’s Path, you are responsible for asking for guidance and going after what you want:

“When you have a problem, instead of demanding that your manager solve it for you, try asking her for advice on how she might approach the problem,” says Camille Fournier. “Asking for advice is always a good way to show respect and trust.”

3 Ask your manager for feedback

“Do you have any feedback for me?” — I don’t know about you, but I feel a little awkward and nervous every time I ask that question.

However, asking your manager for feedback on your work can take you a long way. It not only shows that you have a growth mindset, but demonstrates that you’re open to learning from your mistakes and having difficult conversations.

In an article about the importance of asking for feedback, Julie Zhuo explains the difference between disappointment and self-doubt.

She argues that having a growth mindset can help you see feedback as a judgement on your performance on a particular task (which can be a little disappointing), instead of a judgement of your character (which will result in self-doubt).

“A growth mindset presumes that no matter where you are now, you can improve. If you believe that, then whenever someone tells you, ‘Hey, this thing you did isn’t great’, you think, ‘Okay, that feedback was useful and it’ll help me do better next time’,” says Zhuo. “With a growth mindset, you start to crave feedback from as many people as possible, even critical feedback, because you realize it’s the fastest way for you to learn and improve.”

Here are some questions you can ask your manager to get those feedback conversations started:

  • What’s something I should consider changing or start doing?
  • What feedback do you have for me? Both positive and constructive.
  • What is something that I can improve on?
  • How did you think I handled that situation?
  • What is an area that you think I could use coaching on?
  • What is one thing that I could be doing that I’m not?
  • Where have I had the most impact over the past few months, from your perspective?
  • What kinds of things, from your perspective, do I have a habit of missing or dismissing too quickly?

4 Provide feedback to make work better for you and your fellow teammates

Instead of waiting for annual company surveys or performance reviews, you can leverage one-on-one meetings to make an impact on your team and express your thoughts — both positive and constructive.

Use this time to give your manager timely feedback, and suggest ways in which your team dynamics or work culture could improve.

“The longer you wait, the harder it will be for you to bring it up, and the less effective the feedback will be,” says Camille Fournier. “The same goes for praise! When something goes well, don’t save up your praise.”

Remember to make your feedback specific by describing particular situations and the impact they had on your team.

5 Talk about professional development and career goals

Last but not least, you should also use your one-on-one meetings to ask questions about the next steps in your career.

“When it comes to your role at the company, your manager needs to be your number one ally,” says Camille Fournier. “If you’re at a company with a career ladder, sitting down with your manager and asking her what areas you need to focus on to get promoted is usually a good idea if you are actively seeking a promotion.”

Asking your manager for more responsibilities and feedback on how you can get promoted is great. However, some of us haven’t visualized a clear career path yet.

In that case, one of the first steps you can take is having a conversation about the things you enjoy to do at work (your strengths), and the ways in which you could get better at them.

You can also write an 18-month growth plan (with a specific goal in mind) and ask your manager to help you get there.

“As the main liaison between you and the bureaucracy of the company, your manager holds some responsibility for helping you find training and other resources for career growth,” says Fournier. “This may be helping you find a conference to attend or a class to take, helping you get a book you need, or pointing you to an expert somewhere else in the company who can help you learn something.”

Here are some career-related questions you can ask your manager:

  • Are there professional development resources/courses that you would recommend for me?
  • What do you think are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are some skills that I could acquire that could really help me grow here?
  • What do you think I could do to accelerate my career development?
  • What are some books you’d recommend that could be good for my development?
  • What do you think it takes for someone to succeed at this company?
  • I’d like to talk about what the next step in my career looks like. What ideas do you have about what my next steps in the company could be?

Remember, as Camille Fournier writes in The Manager’s Path:

“Your manager can point out opportunities for growth, but the onus of figuring out what you want to do, what you want to learn, and what will make you happy rests on your shoulders.”

…And the best moments to figure out all these things are your weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings, where there is time dedicated to helping you succeed, not only in your job but also in your career.

How can you prepare for a one-on-one meeting with your manager?

Here’s a quick list of things you can do to prepare for your one-on-one meetings:

1 Collaborate on a meeting agenda

Use a shared document or a one-on-one meeting tool like Fellow to prepare a list of talking points ahead of time so you know what you need to do to prepare. With Fellow, you can send meeting reminders to your direct reports to fill out the agenda and get some time back in your day with automations!

2 Write talking points in advance

It’s hard to come up with talking points 10 minutes before your meeting. That’s why I add talking points to my meeting agenda as they come to mind (whenever I see something I should address with my boss or randomly remember something we should discuss).

Don’t wait until the day of the meeting to write talking points.

3 Create a recurring template

One of my favourite productivity tips is creating templates for all youy recurring meetings.

For example, my manager and I use a meeting templates in Fellow to guide our conversations. Our template usually includes sections like “priorities”, “learnings”, and “issues and proposed solutions.”

Having a template that we populate weekly saves us a lot of time. It’s also great to know that whenever I think about something I learned, or about a challenge I want to address, I can simply write it down as a talking point and know it will be there next time we have a one-on-one.

4 Help your manager get inspired!

If you’ve noticed that your manager doesn’t ask a lot of questions during your one-on-ones, sending them this list of 200 one-on-one meeting questions can be a good idea.

Encourage your manager to add items to the meeting agenda. If they see that you care about these meetings, they’ll probably invest more time and effort in them.

5 Document action items

Some conversations might not need action items, as the main goal of one-on-one meetings is to build positive relationships and trust.

However, if your meeting generates action items, make sure to write them down and follow through on them. Looking back at your action items from the previous meeting can be a great way to start your next one-on-one.

Template: what to discuss in one-on-ones with your manager

5 key topics to have a successful one-on-one meeting with your manager.

  • Personal check-in
  • Updates, learnings, and achievements
  • Manager’s section: cascading information and feedback
  • Priorities for the week
  • Professional development and growth

There you go! Five topics you can discuss with your manager + tips and tricks to come prepared and make a great impression.

We hope you’re feeling inspired to take the reins of your career and develop a great relationship with your boss.

Who knows? If you follow this career advice, you might be managing a team and scheduling one-on-ones with your direct reports soon 😉.

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