Almost all books on (engineering) management agree on one thing. The 1 on 1 meeting is the most important tool for a manager. But how do you start with 1 on 1 meetings if you never had any good ones yourself?

For most of my career, I only spoke to my manager 1 on 1 at my yearly performance review. So I had no idea what a proper regular 1 on 1 meeting should look like. When I started as an Engineering Manager I struggled to find my rhythm and get the most out of the meeting. In this blog post, I’m sharing all the lessons I learned when starting 1 on 1 meetings.


One of my favorite books on Engineering Management, emphasizes the importance of 1 on 1s. Sarah Drasner could know, she’s a Senior Director of Engineering at Google.

Your 1 on 1s are the most important thing you do. This is a hill I will die on.

Sarah Drasner in Engineering Management for the rest of us

The goal of the 1 on 1 meeting is to spend time with your engineers outside of your regular meetings. Get to know them on a deeper level. What are their personal goals, their career planning, and what do they love/hate about their job.

1 on 1 meetings are ideal to get better insights into your teams. At a bigger town hall folks might not be comfortable sharing their real struggles. But after a few 1 on 1 meetings, they usually open up. Giving you better information to base your decisions on.

It’s easy to make the mistake of turning 1 on 1 meetings into status updates. Please don’t. There are plenty of other opportunities for that.

How often?

1 on 1 meetings work best when they happen at regular intervals. The ideal interval depends on a lot of things. But in general: Shorter is better. The most important factors are your number of direct reports and agenda. I have around 20 engineers, and for most of my engineers, I meet 30 minutes every three weeks.

I make the meetings a priority. I try my absolute best not to reschedule or cancel them.

One tip is to consider whether you like to batch similar meetings. It made a difference for me in mental energy. I learned that I prefer having 4 meetings in a row than having them spread over several days.

Setting Expectations

I noticed that 1 on 1 meetings work best when the agenda is set by the engineers. Let the engineer tell you what is important. And listen more than you speak.

My meeting invite

Here is my meeting invite to set the stage:

I’d like to set up a recurring 1:1 meeting for us to get together every three weeks.
So, you know what to expect, here are some details on how I like to run 1:1’s:

- Our 1:1’s are your meetings. They are a chance to speak about any topic on your mind, exchange feedback (both ways), and discuss your personal goals.
- These meetings are meant to help you be successful in your role, so anything you think can contribute to that is a great topic.

Let me know if you have any other questions.

A great tweet by Julia Evans can help your engineers come up with points to discuss.

Dealing with reluctant engineers

Not everyone might be thrilled by the thought of having 1 on 1 time with you. Shit happens. here are my tips for dealing with reluctant engineers.

One of the most common replies I received was “Not yet another meeting“.

Here are my 3 suggestions to help convince reluctant engineers:

  • It’s an experiment, let’s check in after 2 sessions.
  • We can adjust the frequency if you feel it’s too much.
  • Your input/success is important to me.

In most cases, I discovered that even reluctant engineers are happy with their personal time and attention.

Notes & Actions

Another common mistake I made was to try to fix everything myself. After failing a few times, I learned the important lesson of teaching my engineers to fish. Instead of feeding them a fish.

Take notes on what you discuss and agreements. It’s impossible to remember what you discuss with everyone. And usually, a good signal something is going on if the same topics keep coming up.

Something I haven’t tried personally but what I hear from other managers is to create a document together with your engineers, to co-write the notes and agreements in.

Thanks for following along! If you want to learn more about 1 on 1’s I wrote a 1 on 1 starter kit to get you started. Subscribe and get it for free!