Spotify has a culture of 1 on 1’s. Look no further than Software Engineering Manager, Simon Cohen. His post on Spotify Labs titled A 101 on 1:1’s is a wonderful post highlighting the journey of being instructed from “just talk to them for half an hour” to having a purpose-filled game plan each week. Our work at WideAngle has proven there is a large degree of art that goes into a great 1 on 1 meeting. Simon’s post is quality writing around the journey of discovering a process for a meaningful 1 on 1 meeting.

WideAngle CTO, Tejus Parikh and I had the privilege of speaking with Simon on the phone about his findings. Below are excerpts from his story and key takeaways for you to implement in your 1 on 1 meetings.

1. Honestly Assess the Quality of Your 1 on 1 meetings

“It felt odd though. The first few 1:1s I did seemed to meander somewhere between chatting about beer to chatting about space travel. They were definitely educational (for me), but it wasn’t clear to me at all what I was doing there. I kept finding myself asking the questions: “what’s my role here?” and “what outcome should I expect to see from these meetings?” and of course “what is everybody else doing in their 1:1s?!” The prevailing answer when I asked around focused mostly on relationship building. That was nice. I like building, and I like relationships. Put the two of them together on a weekly basis, and you’re making my job pretty sweet. But, I still could not shake off the feeling that this time could be spent better than it was for me. That there was something more to having 1:1s than discovering how much a team member cared about what happens to beer at zero gravity was a notion I couldn’t quite shake off.”

Simon instinctually understands the value of 1 on 1 meetings but something inside of him desired more meaning and substance. If you’re a manager who currently holds 1 on 1 meetings, ask yourself questions and answer them honestly about the current value your 1 on 1’s provide.

2. Be Comfortable Not Being the Most Experienced or Senior Leader

“Everyone in my team was pretty senior, some more senior than me as engineers. Everyone had a lot more context about our technology stack than I did, because I spent the last decade in a cave tweaking bits and knobs to shave off nanoseconds from electronic trades. And, although some of what I’ve learned about engineering was novel and useful for folks here, overall, there just wasn’t much I could offer in terms of mentoring or teaching about the mastery or craft of backend software engineering that my team members didn’t already know or knew better than I did.”

The role you have does not necessarily mean you are the most experienced. Many managers get shaken by this fact; it affects their confidence and ability to lead. Great leaders help their team members do more than they thought possible. More on that below.

3. 1:1 Meeting are Not the Best Place for Continual Goal Setting

My team members also didn’t seem to have a good grasp of what they were supposed to do at our 1:1s. We tried setting goals, but most engineers didn’t feel inspired to do so. Those who did quickly abandoned the endeavor in favor of challenging engineering problems to solve in the team’s normal work. I tried asking open ended questions about all sorts of topics, because the common wisdom is that given enough space and time to talk, people will begin to vent, and you’ll naturally find out what’s not working for them or for the team. It never happened. We had stare offs which stretched the silence well beyond its tearing point. But no venting. Just the conclusion that unless otherwise stated, we really didn’t have much to talk about and should probably just head back to our desks and type out emails or code.

Remember, Simon is on Spotify’s engineering team. Goals and engineering are sometimes less tangible. Many managers in other area would strongly disagree that goals should not be discussed in 1 on 1 meetings. Although it is dependent on the role, discussing goals from the One Page Strategic Plan can be included in a meaningful 1 on 1. However, are 1 on 1’s a place where goal setting and brainstorming around goal setting should occur? Absolutely not.

4. Enter Every 1 on 1 Meeting With a Game Plan and Purpose

The main conclusion we drew out of our A3 process was that we didn’t have a shared understanding of what were our goals for having 1:1s to begin with. None of us could articulate well why we were doing 1:1s except through some hand wavy and gut feely kind of way. So, the first thing we set out to resolve was an answer as to why we do them at all. Answering this question turned out to be the most crucial part of what we needed to discover, so we summarized our findings as the set of meeting goals

Simon Cohen’s Goals for Every 1 on 1 Meeting:

Goal #1: Build trusting relationships between team leads and engineers.
Purpose #1: So team leads can support the engineers, and the engineers know better the person who cares about them and has their back

WideAngle’s Take: Simon hit the nail on the head. Trust is everything with a relationship and weekly 1 on 1 meetings are the best way to build individual relationships.

Goal #2: A safe place to discuss sensitive and private issues or provide personal feedback.
Purpose #2: So engineers can talk about personal life issues that may affect their work, and so team leads can provide specific feedback to the engineer to help them grow their career or get through struggle areas that are holding back their success.

WideAngle’s Take: The 1 on 1 meeting is often the most sacred of places to vent and converse around private issues. A trusted colleague listening to private issues is important in an authentic work environment.

Goal #3: Discuss and work on career development plans.
Purpose #3: So engineers can set goals for themselves and have a partner who helps them achieve these goals.

WideAngle’s Take: back to our point around goal setting. 1 on 1 meetings are good place to touch base around goals set at more strategic meeting prior.

Goal #4: Team reflections and engineer happiness.
Purpose #4: So engineers have a private way to ask for help with team related issues like conflicts with other team members, loss of autonomy or motivation, low morale, boring work and process issues.

WideAngle’s Take: absolutely critical to squash internal office politics before they spiral into bigger problems.

Goal #5: Discuss product vision and direction
Purpose: #5: So engineers can get support from their team lead to affect the product in ways that they believe is important to them and may be at odds with the PO’s vision or the rest of the team’s members

WideAngle’s Take: One of our favorites. The weekly 1 on 1 should be the place where managers solicit ideas about the future. Often times the best ideas come from the front lines. A weekly 1 on 1 that doesn’t touch on this is a wasted opportunity to leverage the entire team.

We hope you take some of these key findings and bring them into your next 1 on 1 meeting.

1 on 1 Meetings are the best way to provide stronger communication, greater alignment, and deeper team engagement. WideAngle is 1 on 1 meeting software used by companies including General Electric, IBM, AT&T, Google, and many more to make sure One on Ones happen, are productive, and documented.

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