Especially in a hectic agency environment, your 1-on-1 with your direct report is the most valuable opportunity for connection as a new manager.
Depending on your workplace dynamic, it may be the only time all week you make direct face-to-face contact. Even in roles where you connect daily via direct messages, huddles, and/or video calls, those discussions are usually centred around tasks or client-related issues.
1-on-1s are an intimate opportunity to guide, mentor, and support individual team members. Deployed thoughtfully, 1-on-1s are the most powerful tool in your leadership toolbox. You need strong relationships to drive results. There is no more powerful venue to forge strong relationships than regular, focused, vulnerable conversations.
Especially as a new manager, it’s all too easy to overlook the importance of 1-on-1s, treat them as a routine item to check off the list, or even cancel the meeting altogether to recover precious time in your calendar.
Here are some tips to avoid falling into these common traps as a new manager and turn your 1-on-1s into the highlight of your week.
How to lead effective 1-on-1s as a new manager
Ultimately, these components make a good 1-on-1:
- It actually happens!
- Both parties bring a positive and focused mindset
- Quarterly goals are discussed/reviewed
- There is a set agenda
- There are recorded notes and action items
- The manager is an active listener
Mindset & focus
As a new manager, you have a very busy role, jumping from client meeting to internal discussion to task to project and back. Sometimes, you might arrive at a 1-on-1 completely drained (or maybe amped up!) from the last activity on your to-do list.
How can you bring the right energy and mindset to your 1-on-1s?
- Practice whole wellness (hydrate, move, eat nutritious meals, get sleep)
- Treat virtual 1-on-1s as if you were in person.
- Do not book meetings back-to-back, give yourself buffer room
- Do not allow meetings to run over schedule
- Close all distractions (no phone, Slack/Teams, email pinging in the background)
- Practice active listening
- Here are some good discussion questions
- Care personally! When you genuinely care about the person you are meeting with, you will be energized and excited to connect with them.
First things first, you are scheduling a weekly 30 minute 1-on-1s with all full-time staff members. This time is sacred and protected. If there is an unavoidable conflict, always reschedule your 1-on-1 (do not cancel). As a manager you are always having your 1-on-1s unless you or the direct report is on a week-long vacation. If either of you is off the day the 1-on-1 falls, reschedule to another day in the week. This also applies for any recurring 1-on-1s that fall during statutory holidays. Do not skip the week; reschedule.
NOTE: If you have part-time direct reports or those who work on an hourly basis, a weekly 1-on-1 may not be practical or possible. In this case, you may prefer to have a weekly check-in/pulse check (just 5-10 minutes might be enough), followed by a deeper discussion biweekly, for example. The face time is still vitally important for connection and body language to get a read on how they are doing.
Best Time Schedule
If you have multiple direct reports, you have a choice of how you schedule your 1-on-1s. Do you prefer sessions back-to-back? Do you prefer to spread them out during the week? Are morning sessions more productive than afternoon sessions? Is there better energy at the beginning of the week or the end?
Feel free to experiment to find what works for you, balancing other time commitments with what will allow you to bring the most energy and focus to the session.
While there is no required agenda, this template may be a good place to start:
- Gratitude and Goals – What are you grateful for? What is your top priority goal?
- KPI or OKR review – Link to supporting documents (if applicable)
- Big Win
- Big Challenge
Your agenda template can be customized to your preferences and department, or even customized to each team member. Don’t be afraid to experiment, get feedback from your direct report(s), and evolve the template.
For example for a team member who is underperforming and needs an accountability check-in, you may want to have a detailed section of KPIs with a target, such as number of overdue tasks or number of booked sales calls.
For high-performing team members/deputies, you may focus more on process improvements and internal projects. If a team member is going through a difficult time, you may put more energy into interpersonal discussions and support instead of status updates.
Here are other discussion topics to explore in your 1-on-1s:
- Personal and professional growth and development, and training/courses/books to help grow these areas. This can also be used to expose the direct report to new tasks/projects (for example having them be more client-facing if that is a role they want in the future)
- Motivation – build a deeper understanding of what motivates this individual team member, and how to approach things with them so they buy into the company vision and get results
- Communication – giving feedback and helping them make improvements
- Philosophical discussion – ask an open-ended question like “If you had unlimited budget for your department, who would you hire and what tools would you invest in?” or “What’s the most important factor when it comes to local SEO?”
- For the best conversations with more reserved, analytical personality types, pose the question a few days in advance so they can reflect on it and then share their thoughts for discussion in the 1-on-1.
- Work/tasks but not status updates (more on this below)
Unless there is a performance issue that is being remediated, 1-on-1s are not status updates. There are better venues/tools for that, whether it is a status update meeting, asynchronous standup, or otherwise.
If work/tasks/client projects are discussed, it is in the context of blockers you can help push through as a manager, recommendations/feedback you can provide from your perspective, or process improvements.
For example, it’s not an effective use of the time for your direct report to rattle off: “this week I work on SEO strategies for these 3 clients, completed a site audit for that one, and later this week I am working on a keyword research for this other client.”
Instead, it can be discussed in a context like this:
- While working on my SEO strategies, I noticed that Google Search Console has a new report on Discover performance, what do you think of building that into our strategies going forward?
- I can’t seem to finish my blogs within the estimated time. Can we look at this together and see ways I can save time?
- I heard about this new tool for AI copywriting. What do you think about giving it a trial? I could test it out and report back findings to you.
Career Discussion / Growth Topics
At least a few times a year, if not more often, you will discuss the future, aspirations, and steps needed to meet those aspirations. To get the most out of these discussions, it is better if you give a heads up in advance, ideally as early as the previous 1-on-1. You will have more productive conversations if you say “next week I’d like to talk about your 5-year plan. Please prepare some ideas and we will discuss next time we meet,” versus immediately asking a team member to share this on the spot with no thought or preparation.
Occasionally, as a new manager, you will have to provide constructive feedback or discuss behavioural or performance issues. Play it by ear or talk with your supervisor about whether to give a heads up in advance or address it head-on in the meeting.
All discussions about performance or behavioural issues can follow the Situation, Behaviour, Impact model.
Describe the context of the situation you saw. Be specific – generalizing lessens the impact of this feedback and creates more wiggle room for rebuttal. For example, say “in Tuesday’s Client X meeting,” not “the other day” or “in the meeting last week.”
Describe the behaviour that you want to address.
Describe the impact you observed, or the impact this had.
During yesterday morning’s team meeting, when the client was asking questions, I noticed that you spoke over the client multiple times. I’m concerned it may have frustrated the client and potentially affected their satisfaction with your role on the account.
Then, have a discussion about strategies to address/resolve this. Follow-up, and if the behaviour is correct it, given praise (more on that below) to reinforce the desired behaviour.
Though this is a work meeting, you cannot possibly compartmentalize the full human person you are talking to across the table, room, or video call. There are days they are going to be struggling in their personal life and need a friendly ear to vent to; there are other days they are going to be overjoyed about a milestone in their personal, and they want someone to celebrate with.
Let the 1-on-1 take you where it naturally goes. Sometimes that might be hearing your direct report out as they work through the emotions of a breakup or feelings of homesickness; another time it might be spending the time gleefully swiping through pictures of their newborn baby niece. Sometimes the most valuable leadership action you can take is to be present and connected with the fully rounded human across from you, agenda be damned.
I believe in the philosophy of praising publicly, criticizing privately. That being said, do not overlook the impact of private praise! Use the same Situation, Behaviour, Impact model above to offer praise as well. This direct, private praise can be even more powerful for certain personalities who shy away from public recognition, and specific positive feedback from a manager can carry a lot of weight.
If this does not come naturally to you, keep a log and ensure you are giving praise with frequency.
If you do not feel there are any recent situations worthy of praise, or you do not feel this employee deserves praise, this itself can be a subject of discussion. As a manager, are you putting your direct report in positions to have an impact? If not, start. If they are being put in positions to succeed and coming up short, this can be discussed in the 1-on-1 as per the serious discussion item above.
While there are plenty of serious discussion topics that can fill up the 1-on-1 agenda, it doesn’t have to be all business. Care personally. Ask questions (while respecting the privacy and comfort of your direct reports). Follow up. For example if you hear one week that your direct report’s boyfriend is starting a new role, follow up the next week asking how it is going. If your direct report was sick last week, ask them if they are feeling better this week. These little social roots can bear big fruit in terms of strengthening relationships.
If this does not come naturally to you, set a reminder to follow up!
Finally, 1-on-1s are used to communicate company objectives as well as new policies and procedures. For instance, in our agency when we introduced the Work From Anywhere policy, one duty for our managers was to review the policy with each team member in a 1-on-1 and solicit any questions in that private setting.
It is possible you find yourself dreading 1-on-1s, either with a particular individual or in general. Or, you have a direct report who wants to cancel their 1-on-1s, or doesn’t bring much to the table.
If you are drained or not looking forward to your 1-on-1s, take a step back and try to pinpoint what is causing your disengagement. For example, if you have your 1-on-1s at the end of the week, perhaps your energy tank is drained, and it would be better to have 1-on-1s earlier in the week.
If it is related to your direct report not contributing much to the meeting, or bringing negative or hostile energy, this is something that can be addressed head-on in the 1-on-1. Asking questions like, “how would you like to structure this meeting to get the most value out of our time together” can help them take ownership of the meeting agenda and make for more productive conversations.
Additionally, is it possible that potential 1-on-1 discussions are happening outside of the 1-on-1 slot? For example if a direct report is asking you questions throughout the week on Slack, perhaps those questions are better saved in the Wrike meeting task to discuss at the appropriate time.
What does it look like when these practices start to pay off? You get fewer minor interruptions throughout the week on Slack/Teams. You have your direct reports empowered to bring ideas to the table. You build strong and genuine relationships with your team.
With this mindset, you can turn your 1-on-1s with direct reports from a dreaded calendar commitment into the most energizing part of your day.
Kim Scott, Radical Candor|
Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence
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