Engineering Managers: Here’s How to Get the Most From Your One-on-Ones

May 19, 2020

Perhaps the most important thing a manager can say during a one-on-one is nothing at all. 

Listening to employees’ concerns and career goals are the foundation for building trust and honest communication. In order to do that, engineering managers need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable opening up. 

Being transparent helps. 

Annika Peterson, a software engineering manager at Cisco Meraki, a company that provides cloud-controlled Wi-Fi and security products, recommends giving direct reports an agenda of their one-on-ones. Time alone with the boss can be intimidating. Giving employees a space to lead the conversation however they see fit encourages them to open up faster.

Meanwhile, Shruti Sharma, a senior engineering manager at photography mobile app VSCO, suggests tailoring one-on-ones to the individual.

Sometimes, that means casual chats will turn into serious conversations. Once direct reports feel safe, it’s easier for them to speak honestly about career goals, pain points, work-life balance and more. 

 

Questions for Managers to Use in One-on-Ones

  • What are you hoping I won’t bring up?
  • How was it working with person X on project Y this week?
  • Is there anything happening on our team that is worrying you?
  • What else is on your mind?
  • What are you doing for self-care?
  • How has your work-life balance been lately?
  • Do you have any advice for me?

 

Annika Peterson
Software Engineering Manager

While it’s important to share one-on-one agendas with direct reports, Peterson said that doesn’t mean meetings have to be too formal. Hosting one-on-ones over coffee or keeping chats informal are simple solutions to put reports at ease. 

 

Tell us about your approach to one-on-ones with engineers. 

I mix up my one-on-ones with my engineers. Most of the time we have an agenda. That agenda includes both technical and non-tactical agenda items. However, I let them choose the topics. One-on-ones are their time with me and I want my reports to always get the first say in what we talk about. To help them, I give each of them a list of questions that are non-tactical and ask them to pick one to discuss. I use this as a way to ensure we’re getting time to talk about other important life topics including work-life balance, team structure and career goals. 

I find having an agenda helps to give both of us time to see what is going to happen in our one-on-one. It also ensures that people can think about what they want to talk about beforehand and it makes it easier to give me feedback. However, every so often, I just take my reports out for coffee or have an informal chat. Sometimes you just need a break from agendas, meetings and the office. By mixing up the types of one-on-ones I have, I find we can relax and my reports know they can talk about anything they want.

 

What questions have you found to be particularly important to ask in your one-on-ones? 

I have quite a huge bank of questions that I let my engineers choose from but my personal favorites are, “What are you hoping I won’t bring up?” and, “How has your work-life balance been lately?” Both of these help me gauge what is going on with my team and see if I need to make adjustments. They also give me a great opportunity to do some coaching through problems before they get too big. From a feedback perspective, I love to ask, “Do you have any advice for me?” Feedback is hard to think of on the spot but framing it as advice helps to make everyone more comfortable.

Feedback is hard to think of on the spot but framing it as advice helps to make everyone more comfortable.”

 

What is one important change you made to your approach to one-on-ones that has helped you get more from the meeting?

I added a section on highlights of their week. After adding the agendas, I found that a section just on things they want to highlight gives us both a time to talk about their wins and gives me a history of all the great work they do. This helps a lot come promotion cycles and performance reviews because I have a list from each week. I can use this list to present my reports in their best possible light. It also ensures that we start on a positive note.

 

Shruti Sharma
Senior Engineering Manager, Machine Learning and Visual R&D

Tell us about your approach to one-on-ones with engineers. 

My approach to one-on-ones is to tailor them toward the individual as much as possible. Some of my direct reports prefer to have a structured time with a shared agenda that they like to fill out beforehand. Others prefer to have a more conversational style one-on-one and talk through the things that are top of mind for them and ask any questions they might have.  

Personally, I like to have the individual engineer choose the format of the structure and agenda according to their preference since this is their time. Whatever format an individual chooses, I do bring some of my agenda items to each one-on-one to make sure I’m supporting each individual through their day-to-day. The focus of one-on-ones can vary from one week to the next. Sometimes, the things that are top of mind for folks are technical so I put on my engineering hat and participate in technical discussions with them. Other times, I need to put on my manager hat and provide and receive feedback on certain happenings of the week during our one-on-one time. Regardless of what we spend most of our time on during a one-on-one, I like to ensure that we have time to chat about the person themselves and check in on how they are feeling, both personally and professionally.

 

What questions have you found to be particularly important/useful to ask in your one-on-ones? 

Though I do have go-to questions that I’ve found to be valuable to ask in my one-on-ones, the most powerful one is not a question at all — it’s silence. When I stay silent long enough, engineers always think of things that they want to talk about but haven't brought up yet. In a similar vein, the questions I ask are pretty open-ended. My go-to is, “What else is on your mind?” The question is broad enough to take the conversation in any direction the engineer likes.  

Some of the other questions that are a bit more directional that I find valuable to ask at regular intervals: “What’s one thing I can do differently that will help me support you better?”; “How was it working with person X on project Y this week?”; “Is there anything happening on our team that is worrying you?” 

One of the most recent additions to my list of go-to questions in the past couple months as we’ve all been adapting to our new lifestyles during a pandemic is, “What are you doing for self-care?” This has helped me nudge everyone to think about self-care first and foremost before thinking about their work. 

 

What is one important change you made to your approach to one-on-ones that has helped you (and your employees) get more from the meeting?

Tailor the one-on-one experience to each employee. Some employees prefer a formal setting in a conference room with a written agenda whereas others prefer a casual walk around the block to their favorite coffee shop. For me, it’s important to make the individual feel comfortable in the physical environment around them so I go where they want to go. This results in lifting one barrier of potential discomfort in communication. When an individual is comfortable, they can talk more freely about the things on their mind. 

Secondly, I’ve moved toward explicitly asking folks to rate how they are doing and keeping track of that in my one-on-one notes (qualitative vs. quantitative approach). For each individual, the rating question is different depending on the things we are working on together that quarter. For example, I might ask one engineer to rate the level of them feeling overwhelmed with context switching. Week over week, we compare the ratings and that comparison also sparks conversation around what was better this week or could be better next week. 

 

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