The Perfect One-On-One Format: How To Manage Up
One of the first times I ran a one-on-one meeting with my old boss, she got so frustrated that she asked me to stop the meeting, prepare better, and come back later in the day.
I was flustered, to say the least. But when I calmed down, I realized that I’d waltzed into her office with a thrown-together list of things to pick her brain about, including questions I had about my new team and problems to flag. I had been thinking about the meeting in terms of what would be the easiest way for me to engage—not what would be most productive way for her to engage.
I wasn’t managing up. We usually think of management as something a team lead does to their direct reports, but you can manage yourself, too. And you can certainly manage projects, meetings, and responsibilities in a way that makes it easy for your supervisor to oversee: that’s called managing up.
Managing up isn’t sucking up, according to the Harvard Business Review. It’s “being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.” That means learning how your boss works best—which can include figuring out their preferred communication style, method of giving and receiving feedback and their most productive time of day—and thinking in their shoes when you interact with them.
Step back: What’s the goal of your one-on-one?
I should clarify: My one-on-ones with my boss were weekly, hour-long sessions. The object was to get in sync on priorities for the week and flag any issues, work-related or not. We’d also talk about my development and growth. These discussions were usually based around specific situations I was dealing with; the whole meeting was not about my career goals. However, you and your manager may decide that your one-on-ones should be solely dedicated to coaching sessions for you.
“Without meetings, organizational democracy, inclusion, participation, buy-in, communication, attachment, teamwork, coordination and cohesion would all be compromised,” according to organization science expert Steven G. Rogelberg in his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings.
A one-on-one between supervisor and direct report will look different depending on which of those goals its participants are seeking to achieve. Is the goal for you and your boss to coordinate priorities, like it was for me and mine? Or is it about getting to know each other better? Before initiating these one-on-ones, make sure you and your boss are aligned on its objectives.
The agenda is yours to shape
After agreeing on meeting objectives, you and your boss need to figure out a meeting format that works for both of you, including who will be responsible for setting the agenda, managing the flow, and collecting any follow-ups.
I’d suggest that no matter the goal of your one-on-one, as the direct report, you should be the person setting and controlling the agenda. If you and your manager agree to that arrangement, you should be coming up with discussion topics and sending them to your manager ahead of time, then guiding the flow of the conversation in the meeting to make sure you cover each topic.
While supervisors should know how to lead one-on-ones, these meetings are often about you: your goals, your problems and your growth. No one, not even the best manager, will be more invested in you than you are. Take control of your own success at work and advocate for what you need in your one-on-ones.
Plus, getting in the driver’s seat of leading a meeting with your boss—even if it is just between the two of you—is good practice for presenting to higher-ups and public speaking at work.
Use a set framework for every one-on-one agenda, so you and your boss both know what to expect. Here are a few of my favorites for managing up:
The question, information, escalation model
Each agenda item will fall into one of those three categories. Are you confused about the team’s strategy for the new year? That’s a question. Do you have an update on how your personal development goal is going? Information. And are you falling behind your hiring goals for this quarter? That’s an escalation. Let your boss know what kind of engagement you’re looking for. Active guidance, passive listening or hands-on problem solving? This allows them to engage more effectively while getting you exactly what you need.
The 10:10:10 model
You and your manager each talk for ten minutes on backwards-looking topics, such as debriefing successes and failures from the week prior, giving feedback or sharing life updates. Then you both collaborate for ten minutes on future goals or priorities. This can feel rushed, though, so it might not be the best approach if you have lots to discuss.
The urgent/important model
The credit for this one goes to President Eisenhower. Imagine that urgency is on the X-axis and importance is on the Y. Cover things in the top right corner (both urgent and important, such as timely project issues) first. Then go clockwise (urgent but non-important, such as getting your expenses reimbursed; then important but not urgent, such as discussing your long-term development goals). Ideally, things that are neither important nor urgent don’t make it onto the agenda.
The categories model
Pick subjects that are relevant to both you and your boss and order agenda items within them. Some common ones include: top of mind, priorities, wins/losses, team dynamics, personal development, career goals and mutual feedback. In the one-on-one, direct the conversation through each category (making sure to keep an eye on the clock so you can hit them all!).
The list comparison approach
You could also borrow from Google’s model. Former CEO Eric Schmidt used to prepare a list of topics for his one-on-ones and then compare it with his direct reports’ lists. Whatever was on both lists is what was prioritized.
Managing up in one-on-ones: tips and tricks
Go the extra mile and think like a manager when you prep for and execute your one-on-one. Here are some ideas:
1. Ask about preferences and expectations
You want to lead the best meetings possible, right? Get that goal out in the open. Ask your boss directly what they want to see from you in these one-on-one meetings and in general. Ask questions like:
- What are your priorities and goals, and how can I help you?
- What gives you confidence in the work of your direct reports? Am I doing that?
- How do you like to receive progress updates?
- How do you like to receive escalations?
2. Make sure one-on-one meetings happen
One-on-ones are usually the first victims of a packed schedule-induced meeting-canceling spree. And that makes sense; they often aren’t as timely as other gatherings. But if your one-on-ones are regularly canceled, you’re losing a great opportunity to manage up and to develop.
The next time your manager asks if they can cancel your time together, say something like, “Of course. I understand you’re busy. This meeting is a priority for me, and I’d like to get your thoughts on X, so can we find time later this week?” Bonus points if you’ve already looked at their calendar and can suggest a time that will work.
3. Don’t fill time
One-on-ones are often an hour long. But that doesn’t mean you need to sit together for an hour exactly, ticking off the minutes. If you’ve finished your agenda and have time to spare, end early and give the time back.
You can even adopt a rule from Rogelberg’s book on having better meetings. He suggests meetings be 48 minutes long, as it’s a unique (and “playful,” according to The Cut) amount of time that will force breaks between meetings and encourage brevity.
Use Toggl to track how long you’re actually spending in these meetings and adjust them down if you’re regularly coming in below an hour.
4. Give feedback, don’t just receive it
Managing up does not mean smoothing things over, finishing the one-on-one with time to spare and getting out of your boss’s hair. It also means giving feedback, flagging problems and sharing disagreements (respectfully, of course) with your manager.
Do so thoughtfully. The Harvard Business Review advises that you consider your relationship with your boss and craft feedback appropriately. If you haven’t been invited to share your thoughts, try something like, “Would it be helpful for me to provide you feedback about the project we just completed?”
If you feel your boss would retaliate for providing feedback, hold your tongue. (And maybe start looking for a new boss.)
5. Take notes longhand—and send them out same-day.
A 2014 study of college students showed that while people who take notes on a computer may remember the same amount of information as people who take notes longhand, the analog notetakers had a much better conceptual understanding. If you want to make sure you’re processing what you and your boss are discussing, jot notes down on paper, not your phone or laptop.
An additional bonus is that a pen-and-paper notetaking practice will keep you focused on the conversation itself. A KDM engineering survey found that though 70% of employees think having a smartphone out during a meeting is inappropriate, 50% do it anyway.
If you or your boss leave the one-on-one with tasks or follow-ups, make sure to send out a typed-up copy of your notes with clear takeaways that same day. A 2018 paper on the psychological science of meeting practices concluded that follow-ups sent within 24 hours were most effective.
Go forth and have productive one-on-ones.
And then when you find yourself in the position of being the manager in a one-on-one, encourage your direct reports to manage up!