The Secret To Effective 1-on-1 Meetings

A few months back I started a new challenge in Jumbo, accepting the role of Team Lead for the customer service teams. As a first action, I choose to dedicate most of the time to 1-on-1 meetings. There is one problem: I don't know how to have effective 1-on-1 meetings. Trying to improve, I kept asking myself: "What make a 1-on-1 meeting a great 1-on-1 meeting?".


It's a fundamental rule of management that, to lead others, you need to have frequent and open communication. I can't agree more and that's why I started to read articles and listen to podcasts on how to have effective meetings. I thought it was an important topic, but it seems to be the topic for a Team Lead: having an effective 1-on-1 helps you understanding the problems and long term vision of your team members, it's a coaching moment and a feedback moment.

A 1-on-1 meeting should be something you look forward to.

Everyone has a different vision on the meeting itself, but some of the suggestions are shared across teams, countries, and industries. Most of the suggestions can be summarized in 3 points:

  • Be consistent
  • Be open
  • Be present

How to plan effective meetings

You are the Team Lead - or you have another leadership role - and decide to have meetings with the people you lead: that's a good start! To have effective meetings, it's important to have consistent meetings.

Have a schedule. Having a regular conversation is important, taking the time for it is even more. Talking with team members at the coffee corner is not effective: people don't have the time to feel safe and share their problems. Plus, with remote working becoming the new normality, is not always possible to be together in the office.
The key rule here is: plan your meetings.

Don't cancel, ask to reschedule. Everyone has work to do and it's easy to skip a meeting to focus on a different task. Don't. The 1-on-1 meeting is an important moment that shows that you care about the people you lead.

  • If you need to cancel, propose to reschedule and try to find time during the same day
  • if the other person ask to cancel the meeting, ask to reschedule instead and be ready to propose another time.

A little tip: I always have some spare time during the day that I keep for emergency meetings.

Take your time. In my experience a 1-on-1 has always been of 30 minutes, forcing you to go through the meetings without being sufficiently prepared. I'm now experimenting 45 minutes long meetings: it will give me 15 minutes between meetings to prepare and relax - yes, sometimes you need it too - and, if the meeting requires a longer discussion, I can spend more time without being late for the next one.

Have an effective 1-on-1

You organized your schedule, the meeting is started and the only question that pops in your mind is: "How is it going?"... That's not exactly a mind-blowing question. Plus, most of the team members won't share crucial information with you.

Bring topics to the table. Prepare for the meeting with topics you would like to discuss: they can be action points and notes you took in the last meetings, questions about the last sprint, or an update on the development plan.

If you don't know where to start, this is the list I always keep in front of me:

  • problems in the team: issues arise between people, you should help to resolve them mediating or providing solutions.
  • team: ask if they have suggestions to improve the way of working of the team, but be ready to help to apply them.
  • career goals: ask about the career goals and the steps they are taking to reach it.
  • personal improvements: feedback & coaching are important for a Team Lead. Try to ask for their vision and think how can you help them
  • personal topic: check if everything is fine in their private life. Be open to listening to their problems.

Have a meeting structure. Following the previous point, it's hard to keep everything in 45 minutes if the conversation is interesting. Try to manage the time, keeping a consistent structure. An example for 45 minutes meeting based on the suggestion of Kristi Hedges:

  • 15 Minutes: feedback about life in the team and team in general. Ask about the last achievements.
  • 15 Minutes: feedback about career goals and steps to reach them
  • 10 Minutes: personal topic, to find possible sources of the stress.
  • 5 Minutes: follow up and action points

If you want to get specific information, ask the right questions.. That's simple as that: no one likes pulling out teeth, but asking the correct question can help to get the answers we want. Some of the question I started to ask, based on a list by Mathilde Collin.

Questions for the life in the team:

  • In the past month, what have you been happy about?
  • In the past month, what have you been less happy about?
  • How do you feel about your goals for this month/quarter/year?
  • What can I do to make your professional life better?
  • What would you like to improve next quarter?
  • What would you like to achieve by the end of the year?
  • What are the things you’ve done since you joined you’re the proudest about?
  • In the next month, what would you like to do differently from last month?

Questions for the organization:

  • How is your team doing?
  • What don’t you like about our product?
  • What’s the biggest problem of our organization?

Questions for you:

  • If you were me, what would you do differently?
  • How could I be a better manager for you?
  • Any feedback for me?

It's important to share the time: it's a two-way meeting and a chance for both of you to grow and improve.

Take actions

Now that you had a great meeting, it's important that what you discussed won't be forgotten. You discussed team improvements, personal improvement, career goals: is there something you can do to help the people you lead?
As usual, don't guess but instead ask the proper question: "What do you suggest should be the next step to address what we discussed today?". Let your team member help you.

Happy 1-on-1,

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