How to Make a Difference with 1-on-1 Meetings

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One-on-one meetings are as much a leadership tool as they are a management tool. The main leadership requirement with 1-on-1 meetings involves a desire to make a difference. These meetings can make a GIGANTIC difference if approached properly. While we’ll cover some of the essentials for conducting 1-on-1’s, we’d like to share a few additional perspectives that you may not find elsewhere.

The Software Engineering Manager’s Role

As an engineering manager, your “job” is to manage a team of developers to deliver high-quality software, on time and on budget. So, are you focused on your project or team?

This is a classic result vs. process question. Our assertion is that if you perfect the process, you’ll consistently deliver great results.

The implication then is that your real “mission” is to engineer your team to perfection – as relates to your company mission and product objectives.

“Physician, Heal Thyself,” is a proverb asserting that people should practice what they preach.

To achieve a perfect software development team, you need to be a perfect engineering manager. Self-engineering, just like coding, depends on a feedback loop to verify that what you’re doing actually works as intended.

One-on-ones must be a two-way street. Just as you provide your team members feedback, they should be providing you feedback. It’s helpful to remember a sort of Golden Rule, “The best way to get to where you want to be is by helping others get to where they want to be.”

But, the effectiveness of every 1-on-1 that you ever do will depend heavily on where your head is at.

The Software Engineer’s Mindset - Your Mindset

Yeah, a deep, vast subject. So, let’s focus on just two things:

  1. Do you like your company/project?
  2. Does it have a future?

Even this is beyond the scope of this article. Leastwise, honest answers to these two questions tend to impact your mindset and 1-on-1s. They’re relevant points as developers tend to change jobs every ~18 months because their skills are in high demand. They have options, as do you.

Your answers can be plotted simply enough:

Like the project, but it has no future.
Love the project and it has a future.
Don’t like the project and it has no future.
Don’t like the project, but it has a future.

One goal of 1-on-1s is to inspire others. That can be very difficult if you aren’t inspired. If you don’t have a positive outlook, your team probably doesn’t either. But, at worst, you are only two steps away from shifting a job you hate to one that you love – and one that your team loves, too.

As a manager, you can see the big picture. As an engineer, you can break it down into small story-point tasks to remedy the things you and your team members dislike. Just having a mission like this can make it easier to reach a positive outlook.

Some projects have an inherently limited duration. That doesn’t change anything because it is a stepping stone to future projects. Your mission then is to establish specific objectives with each technology the project involves.

These are important issues and we will revisit them at greater length soon. For now, it is sufficient to be aware of your mindset – and that you can change it.

Benefits of 1-on-1 Meetings

According to Gallup, projects with managers who accept feedback are 8.9% more profitable and have 14.9% less turnover. O.C. Tanner Learning Group’s 200,000 person study of managers and employees found that recognition leads most employees (69%) to work harder and a lack of recognition is why 79% quit. That goes to support that people tend to quit their bosses, not their companies.

The benefits of 1-on-1s apply more or less equally to employees and employers. Both should desire and appreciate them. Here are five important benefits of 1-on-1 reviews:

  • Build Trust. Regular meetings to discuss important issues in a safe environment cultivates honesty and reliability.
  • Feedback Loop. When everyone knows what they’ve done well, can do better, start doing, or avoid altogether cultivates confidence and reinforces desired outcomes.
  • Simplify Obstacles. Sharing what’s impeding progress leads to more options in dealing with them and facilitates changes for what’s beyond an individual’s control.
  • Alignment. They can better understand where and how personal, project, team, and company objectives fit together.
  • Accountability. Making a commitment to someone increases the chances they’ll fulfill it by 65%. One-on-ones as a form of accountability appointment boosts it to 95%.

However, software engineer managers who really want to make a difference may find that 1-on-1s offer the potential for one truly gargantuan benefit. Actually, there are two, but we’ll save the second one for later.

Help to Self-Actualize

This is the stuff that Google’s made of. Well, at least, before they opted to stop being evil.

Your most powerful superpower as an engineering manager is being able to help your developers be the best developers that they can be. This entails paying attention to their work, and their metrics, to identify where they are challenged.

Then, your entire team can be a resource they can use to overcome it. This extends to learning new technologies, tools, techniques, and programming languages. Beyond mentoring possibilities, some companies may have continuing education programs.

In return, by listening to what your team has to say about your performance, they can help you be the best software engineering manager that you can be.

What does that look like to you? It’s worth asking your developers what it looks like to them, too. Where do they want to go – where do they want to be 5 or 10 years down the road?

The main “argument” is why not start “being” all that you can be… now?

Dr. Benjamin Hardy is an organizational psychologist with an extreme wealth of content on self-actualization, 10x’ing (OKRs), and productivity. I’m not easily impressed, but all of his material is quite good – and there’s a lot of it.

Is it possible to capture all of what you might learn over the next ten years in the next six months? No – because it hasn’t been invented yet. But, junior developers can achieve a level of expertise in technologies that do exist that even some developers may not have.

Best Practices for 1-on-1 Meetings

There’s a wealth of content available (some links below) that cover how to conduct 1-on-1s. You may find that the hardest part is actually integrating them into your team’s schedule. For this, we have some best practices for structuring and prepping them:

  1. Do not cancel 1-on-1 meetings. If truly necessary, they can be briefly postponed or rescheduled, but provide as much advance notice as possible.
  2. Customize 1-on-1s for the employee – cadence, length, tone, and also culture.
  3. Minimum cadence is monthly; fast-growing companies will want weekly or bi-weekly sessions.
  4. Adjust cadence/length to fit your team size. Large teams may require restructuring.
  5. Maintain a team member agenda – a list of all team members each with bullet points of items to discuss in the next 1-on-1 and notes from your last 1-on-1.
  6. Be prepared for each 1-on-1: agenda notes, performance metrics, and questions about specific aspects of your own performance.
  7. Feel free to experiment with the format, frequency, and duration of meetings to see what works best in conjunction with developer feedback of what they think, as well.

In large teams where your direct reports have their own direct reports, less frequent 1-on-1s with their team members is important, too. The intention is to reinforce, not undermine, their supervisor. This provides you a chance to respond to questions they may have about recent decisions and other concerns. You can always ask how they might have done things differently.

We welcome you to download our free 1-on-1 Meeting Template for Software Engineering Managers. This can help get you started if you’ve never led a one-to-one before or maybe it’ll give you some ideas on questions to add to your existing format.

Using Gitential Analytics for Your 1-on-1 Meetings

Having transparent and objective data of developer performance over time without having to dig for it is extremely helpful.

Gitential’s analytics make it easy to see how developers are improving over time – and what they can focus on to improve even more.

Defect Rates

“Awesome job, Amanda! A while back, you were really struggling with defect rates. We started looking at that three months ago and outlined things you could do to help reduce them. Since then, you’ve reduced your code complexity by 28%, increased test coverage by 20%, and reduced your defect rate by 32%.”

Skill Development

“I can see you’re making great progress picking up Python, Blaze. You’ve been our rock star on C++, but skill development is important for everyone. Since partnering with Monty, a third of your tasks have been for Python. How comfortable are you with that? Too much or not enough? Your productivity is edging up, and code churn is a lot higher than usual, but that’s still to be expected. And by the way, your efforts in mentoring the new devs on C++ are getting good traction, too.”

Pull Request Reviews

“Fernando, you have a smile on your face! A couple of months ago, you were upset that you and the other senior developer were active in doing pull request reviews. We agreed to work with our mid-levels to pick up more of the load. They’ve ramped up from 10% to 40% over the past two months with only a marginal impact on our escaped defect rate. We’ll keep working on it.”

Life Issues or Burnout

“Loren, you’ve always been a high performer. I hesitate to say anything, but in this past month, it looks like you’re going through a blowout. Your productivity’s tanked by over half, your commenting activity is near zero, and you’ve been silent during standups and retrospectives. Did something happen at home? Is there anything here at work that can be done to help out?”

In addition to individual metrics, Gitential provides you the full range of performance metrics that you can compare at the team, project, and entire organizational level. This can make it easy for you to set performance benchmarks.

Benchmarks are important for helping you identify when there’s a challenge requiring you to investigate further. Benchmarks also provide a great way to measure progress realistically.

One-on-Ones for Software Manager Feedback

One-on-ones are a two-way street, it’s not just about you providing feedback to your developers. These meetings provide the perfect venue to ask your developers about how you can improve – what you can start doing, stop doing, or do more of. Your team members are one of your primary feedback loops.

Receiving a critique, even when well-intentioned is not the easiest thing to do without getting defensive. But, that’s the #1 thing to not do. Listen to what they have to say, accept it, and thank your developers — even if they are overly critical of you or your decisions. Of course, you don’t have to accept abusive treatment under any conditions, but 99% of the time that’s not likely to happen.

It takes a fair bit of trust (and some guts) to tell managers when they’re wrong. They are providing you with a custom tip on how to be a better software engineering manager.

  1. Thank them for addressing the issue.
  2. If necessary, ask if they can explain their position further.
  3. Restate or summarize their points.
  4. Acknowledge that it could have been handled better.
  5. Ask them how they would have handled it.

Don’t try to assign blame, don’t scapegoat, don’t pass the buck, for mistakes or errors in judgment. It’s not necessary to even try to provide a reason why, unless they ask for one. When they do, be honest without necessarily being critical even if the issues originate with someone other than you (C-levels, new policies, angry customers, etc.).

Gitential’s Metrics for Software Managers

Gitential provides you with another, objective, and automated feedback loop. Your team’s performance metrics over time also reflect directly upon you as their engineering manager. You have a high level of influence, even substantial control, on whether your team’s performance improves, remains stagnant, or even declines.

Gitential provides you automated access to an already extensive, yet still expanding range of performance metrics. One thing we’re working on is integrating access and comparison to industry metrics. And, we love user feedback, too.

Want More About How to Do Great 1-on-1s?

It’d take many books to cover everything about how to do great 1-on-1 meetings. Heck, there are books just on how to make appropriate eye contact. Hopefully, we’ve added some useful perspectives for 1-on-1s, but if you want more:

Do you have an article that you’d like to recommend? Let us know at gitential@gitential.com or catch up with us on LinkedIn.

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Don't miss our latest updates. All About Software Engineering Best Practices, Productivity Measurement, Performance Analytics, Software Team Management and more.