How to remember ALL THE THINGS when conducting 1-on-1s as a (distributed) team lead

Tl;dr: I share a private Google doc with each team member, add an individualized agenda each week that includes questions specific to that team member plus information I want to share with all the team, keep notes in the shared doc, and mark action-items in red so I can scan the doc easily to find those follow-ups the next week.

In June of 2016, about a year and a half ago, I began leading a team of seven Happiness Engineers at Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com. I am based in Virginia in the US, and my teammates are based in various cities in North and South America. In the beginning, I could mostly remember everything I needed to discuss with each team member when we chatted one-on-one each week. By keeping the 1:1s relatively informal and asking open-ended questions like, “What’s on your mind?” we were able to cover a lot of ground, have great conversations, and build relationships and trust.

Now that the team has grown to 12 members, and as our entire support division has expanded, there are a lot of moving pieces to remember:

For Amy, what did I say I would follow-up on from last week? What was Rafa planning to follow up on from last week? When did this new department-wide initiative roll out relative to when I’ve spoken to each person on the team? I asked Samantha what she thought about the new weekend thing, but did I remember to ask Sam?

Template

I recently joined a group of team leads from Automattic to train together with leadership coaches from Reboot. Our coaches, Andy and Jim, shared a 1:1 template that as soon as I looked at it, I knew I wanted to try it. It splits the time of the 1-on-1 roughly into thirds, with the first part focusing on whatever the team member wants to share, the second part focusing on follow-ups and organizational information, and the third part focusing on professional development:

First ⅓ – Team Member
Choose from these questions (pick 2-3):

  • What’s on your mind this week?
  • Tell me about your week — what’s it been like?
  • Are you  on track to meet your deadlines/goals?
  • What did you stumble over?
  • What do you think about X change?
  • Where do you think I can be most helpful?
  • What areas of your work are you confident about?
  • What worries you?
  • What’s your biggest challenge this month?
  • What’s something you’re proud of from last week?

Second ⅓ – Followup/Org/Lead

Followup from last week

  • What do my notes say I need to act on? What updates do I need to share?
  • What feedback do I need to give the team member, and for what purpose?

Information and Team lead

  • What do I need to be sure to communicate from team lead discussions?
  • What am I working on?
  • What organizational efforts/news do I need to share?
  • What appreciative feedback can I give?

Third ⅓ Professional developement
Choose 1-2 from this list

  • Is there anything to delegate?
  • What high impact work/task/project would be helpful to the team member’s development and also match with the company’s needs?
  • Are there growth or learning opportunities to discuss?
  • What are the team member’s career dreams and aspirations?
  • Where do they see themselves after this company?
  • What’s something they’re proud of from a previous job?
  • Where do they see themselves after this role?

How I use this

I keep this general template at the top of a private “1:1 Template” Google doc. Each week on Monday, I select elements from this general template to create a specific outline for that week that I’ll use for the whole team, including two or three general questions from the first section, what to share or ask about from our internal news digests for the second section, and a professional development question or direction for the third section. For example, in the first week of using this template, for the third section, I added this:

Let’s talk about what to do when the queue is low and you find yourself with time to devote to other high impact work: what should your priorities be? Options: team goals, guides/guilds work, learning, buddying, translations, documentation, [or whatever skills-based work this team member is focusing on.

Once I have the master template completed, I copy it into each team member’s shared 1:1 Google doc and then fill in the individual content, like feedback on how I perceive the team member is doing with their goals, follow-ups from the previous week, and other content specific to that person.

As we go through our 1:1, I keep notes in the team member’s shared Google doc. Anything that is an action item or will require following up on, I write in red text. When I’m prepping for the next 1:1, I can then quickly scan the notes for red content to put in the follow-up section. Here’s an example template that helps trigger me to look for that red follow-up information:

1on1 template for blog post
Sample 1:1 template before individualizing it for a team member

Sometimes we aren’t able to cover everything, so as the 1:1 progresses and I see how much time we have left in our chat, I’ll pick the highest priority items from the agenda to make sure we get to them in our allotted time. Items we don’t get to I will mark in orange and either follow-up on asynchronously through Slack, will carry over to the next week’s 1:1, or if I find it happening in multiple 1:1s, I’ll bring it up in the team call to make sure everyone gets the information.

How it’s going

This format is helping me make sure I go over important things with everyone on the team, and that I’m hitting on three major components: the team member’s current strengths and concerns, organizational level information, and professional and skills development. Since we are spread all over the western hemisphere and I meet with different team members at different times during the week, I like the consistency of starting with a team-wide template then individualizing it. I’m also hopeful that I’m asking better questions to help uncover accomplishments and concerns that we weren’t digging deep enough to get to previously. I think I need to add this as a followup in 1:1s in the near future:

What do you think of our 1:1s in recent weeks? Have they seemed any different to you?

 

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