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Submitted by ssentes on



Recent attendee, Amanda White, at our Boston public conference kindly offered to pass this along! If you're having a hard time finding what to discuss at your O3's here are some ideas:

Whether they are weekly, monthly, or ad hoc, your 1-on-1 with your manager should be the most important and useful recurring meeting you have. But it is only useful if you make it so. It's up to each person to prepare and to figure out what use of this face time is most productive for them.

I've found that people can fall into the trap of thinking that a 1-on-1 is just a status update. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Personally I find status reports useless unless I have context for them. Additionally, we follow a model where both the direct and the manager are responsible for 10 minutes’ worth of agenda items. Most status updates don't take 10 minutes (at least, not if everything's going smoothly), so what else is there to talk about?

It's up to you, but if you find yourself struggling to come up with interesting agenda items, here are some ideas:

  1. Report on what's going well. We fall into the trap of feeling like we only need to report on things that are a problem. But the good things are important too, especially because your manager can't give you credit at annual review or promotion time for something they don't know about. It does more for you in the long run if you report on these things all year instead of waiting 'til you suddenly need to make a good impression! Small victories or areas in which things are progressing well are topics that make us all feel good!
  2. Self-critique. Your manager probably has some idea of what you do well and what you struggle with. Is it the same as yours? Maybe. Probably there is some overlap, but you have a different take on the situation. Not only is proactively bringing up areas where you need to improve a sign that you have self-awareness and humility, but it gives you an opportunity to share your point of view and inform your manager's interpretation. As a bonus, they might have ideas on how to help you improve.
  3. Ask for feedback on a deliverable. Whether you think you need help with your latest spec, presentation, or report, it never hurts to get a second opinion. It's great if you have specific questions, but if you have something small that you can just say "Do you have any feedback on this?" about, that is great too!
  4. Check in on objectives. In many organizations there is a bad habit of writing objectives at the beginning of the year and then forgetting about them until annual review time. In my opinion, objectives should be reviewed at LEAST quarterly, if not semi-quarterly. Even if they are, there's no rule that says you have to wait until your manager schedules a check-in. Especially if a stated objective needs to be changed due to shifting company priorities–this should be addressed as early as possible.
  5. Discuss long-term career goals. You don't have to wait 'til you're interviewing for a new job to think about the "Where do you see yourself in five years" question. Do you envision yourself progressing linearly, moving laterally? Do you want to try your hand at different positions in the company? Do you envision a title for yourself that doesn't exist yet? This is exactly the kind of thing your manager can be helping you with. If they know where you want to be, they can start grooming you for that role. Your manager makes lots of little decisions throughout the week–what projects to put you on, what meetings to include you in, what work to delegate to you–and knowledge of your personal goals should absolutely inform these decisions.
  6. Request stuff. I've asked my manager for things like clocks in the conference rooms and extra ethernet cables for the big meeting room. Your 1-on-1 is a good time for this sort of conversation, especially if it's a request you'll have to justify (easier in person than over email). Obviously you can ask for anything you want, but it's better to be realistic–nobody wants to feel like a bad guy buy telling you no all the time (and you don't want to use up all your favors at once unless you really mean it!).
  7. Reminders! Re: the above, I think I asked my boss for clocks in the conference rooms three times before I got them. My directs can do the same for me–I totally forget stuff. I am just not that super-organized note-taking task-checking fiend and I just forget. Remind us!
  8. Get your priorities straight. This is especially good if you are feeling overwhelmed. If you have a lot to do and are not sure where to start, ask for help sorting out priorities and deadlines. This not only helps the business, but can help you feel more in control of an intimidating workload.
  9. Request more work. Yes, really! If your pile of urgent work is dwindling and you're down to your back-burner projects, it's a good time to ask your manager if there's something else you should be doing. There might be some higher-priority and even higher-visibility work you could help out with.
  10. Provide feedback on colleagues. It’s awesome when you proactively provide positive feedback on your colleagues. This could mean people on your org team, people on your project team, or anyone else in the company you've had a memorable interaction with. And of course there is room for constructive, less-positive feedback as well. If something is going wrong under your nose, you have a responsibility to bring it to someone's attention. Your manager in your 1-on-1 is a good place to start. 
  11. Escalate blockers. Blockers (anything preventing you or your teammates from doing your work) that you can’t remove yourself need to be escalated. Usually that escalation is to your manager. While you usually don't want to hold off 'til it's meeting time–blockers should be considered urgent and escalated quickly–this is a good time to take inventory of any that might be lingering and to bring them up.
  12. Ask stuff you're just curious about. Just because something's not common knowledge doesn't mean it's a secret. If you're hearing rumors, or haven't heard an update on something in a long time, you can ask! That doesn't mean your manager can necessarily answer, but sometimes it's good just to get direct clarification instead of speculating.
  13. Non work-related stuff.  1-on-1s do NOT have to be about work stuff! Just like in an interview you might ask a candidate what they like to do in their spare time, it's completely appropriate in your 1-on-1 to talk about your weekend, your vacation, or your family. 1-on-1s are primarily relationship-building tools, and relationships are more easily built by talking about what's important to you–which, let's be honest, isn't ALWAYS your current project! Additionally, a little small talk can get you both warmed up for a deeper conversation, work-related or not.

This is far from a complete list, but it should be enough to get you started if need some inspiration!

shellandflame's picture

I've found in the 1x1s the non-work part is as valuable as the work part.  I always look for a few things we have in common, their interests outside work, or something I know they are struggling with.  I make notes on these so when I do my 1x1 prep, I can see if there's a follow up question to ask, i.e. How's the new deck going?  Is your dad feeling better?

These questions are hugely helpful in building the relationship because it shows concern for the whole person, not just what they can do for you at the office.