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John Luke Garofalo
John Luke Garofalo

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All Meetings Are Terrible... Except for One (on One)

Okay, maybe not all meetings. I’m just pushing a software engineering stereotype.

When I joined Fixt Inc., over a year ago, I was fresh out of college with little experience, other than a few internships under my belt. I accepted a job as a full stack software engineer at a company using React, React Native, and Ruby on Rails; none of which were taught to me in the four years pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Computer science.

Naturally, I had a lot of learning to do. I taught myself web development (html/css/js) and iOS programming (Swift) in college, while I wasn’t in class, so I had no problem with learning. I quickly hit an obstacle I wasn’t as familiar with; spending time learning on someone else’s dime. I would be perfectly content spending the rest of my life learning new technologies and being curious, but in reality, I knew that my boss had some sort of expectations regarding how long I should spend learning and when I should start becoming effective at building things for the company.

The problem was that he never gave me any clues about these expectations because they’re difficult to define. We were a four engineer team at a startup so we were all heads down, all the time. My internal gauge for my performance was all guesswork, so I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right.

Lumbergh always knows what he wants.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t need a pat on the back or reproach for every little action but I did want some affirmation for my own assessment of my performance. Imagine if our Google Maps just shouted out the cardinal direction, “Head North, to your destination every 15 minutes. I might eventually find my destination but I’ll waste a lot of time trying to determine if I’m making the right choices along the way. Looking back, there were a lot of actions I could’ve taken to remedy the anxiety and stress I was collecting. I was spending 11+ hour days, trying to learn 8 different web/mobile frameworks and catch up to the effectiveness of my coworkers.

It wasn’t until a few months later, my boss introduced the popular concept of “one on ones to the whole company. If you’re unfamiliar, the “one on one meeting is a recurring meeting between each employee and his or her boss and/or manager. It’s a dedicated time to talk about those personal expectations, performance, any obstacles faced by either party, process pitfalls or pain points, as well as big picture goals for the employee and the company.

Actual picture taken during our first one on one. (Circa 2016)

During our first one on one, my boss and I walked all around the Baltimore Harbor and I had the time and the place to bring up the lack of communication and directly ask him about what I was doing right and/or wrong and how I can improve. All of that anxiety and stress that I built up over the preceding months, affecting my performance and overall health, vanished in the span of hour.

I’m a simple man, I like to set goals and I like to try and blow them out of the water. The simple lesson I learned was this:

The only way to succeed is with clear intention. If your team members don’t know their goals, then they are not going to execute with intention. They’ll be moving forward but with no clear destination, which means that your team members, your company, and you cannot be the best that you can be.

Actual image of me with my dev team.

People want to feel useful. If you and your team members are emotionally mature, then you’re willing to admit that you’re not always going to be perfect. A good team is made up of individuals committed to bettering themselves and bettering the people around them. There are countless inspirational leadership quote posters on Google to back me up on this but here’s one of my favorites.

“Members of trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes, take risks in offering feedback and assistance, and focus time and energy on important issues, not politics.” – Patrick Lencioni

We shouldn’t expect others to be able to read our minds. This is why the one on one meeting is so essential to health of your team and the health of your company. You will find that your quality of life will improve drastically by keeping a regular one on one with your boss and/or your employees.

Here are some tips on having meaningful one on one meetings:

  • Prepare ahead of time. Keep a running note, in between your one on one meetings, and add to it whenever something strikes you as worth bringing up at your next meeting.

  • Get out of the office. It’s very easy to work too hard. I’ve spent entire days from 6:30 am to 7 pm, without leaving the office because I’m deep in a feature or problem. Get a change of scenery and away from your other co-workers. This is time to focus on the person you’re meeting with. Last week, my boss and I walked for awhile then grabbed the water taxi across the harbor, which was a great way to get some fresh air, bond, and talk.

  • Do not cancel this meeting. This time should be sacred and while you can reschedule to accommodate anomalies in your schedule, don’t ever cancel one of these meetings or push to the following week (unless you’re on vacation). Your colleague should be able to rely on this time as a regular time to discuss what he or she needs to discuss. Even if there’s not much to talk about and it’s very short, always honor this meeting.

  • Ask for constructive criticism. If we want to be the best version of ourselves, we must remember that not a single one of us is perfect. Every week, ask your colleague these three questions, “Is there anything that I did that bothered you? Is there anyway that I can improve? How can I make your life better? This can make your colleague feel a little more trust and is more likely to provide you with honest and constructive feedback, which is your golden ticket to finding success.

  • Give good feedback. Start with the good feedback and praise your colleague for even minor things that he or she did well since your last meeting. This reinforces his or her pride and encourages him or her to continue to repeat those actions.

  • Give constructive criticism. Provide your colleague with constructive criticism and ways to improve. Always keep in mind that you will never be fully aware of all of the factors that go into someone’s actions and that he or she may have a good reason to back up his or her actions. Always present it as your perspective, rather than a factual statement. This will allow your colleague to approach the conversation being less defensive and more appreciative for your honesty.

  • Consider your career goals. This is important. If this person is your boss, ask them how you can get to where you want to be. If you’re unsure, give him or her some insight into your thoughts on the matter and you might just learn something. It’s important to get as many perspectives as you can when it comes to big issues, like your career.

Here are some topics to discuss during your one on one:

  • Career goals within and outside of the company.

  • Things you’ve done well or poorly.

  • Things others have done well or poorly.

  • Pain points in your process.

  • Things stopping you from being efficient.

  • The company’s goals and direction.

  • Ways that you can improve the life of your colleague.

  • Neat puppers you’ve seen lately.

I’ve been alluding to this one on one meeting as regular (weekly or bi-weekly) and between an employee and his or her direct boss. I’ve done this because I think that is the where you’ll see the greatest gain, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be so conventional. I have personally found so much value in these meetings that I decided to set them up with my co-workers on a less frequent basis. Once a month, I make room in my forever-busy schedule to take a break and go grab a coffee with each of my co-workers. I’m not the only one who does this either. The CEO of my company does this with every one of his employees on a monthly basis. I guarantee that you will be surprised at the effect of simple regular communication with the people you spend most of your day with, can have on your happiness and your success.

I hope that you give this a try and I encourage you to share your experience with one on one meetings, either in the comments or send me your own post. I’m always looking for ways to improve my own life and productivity, as well as that of my team members.

Top comments (4)

codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald • Edited

1-on-1s are fantastic, and as an internship supervisor, I can attest to the fact that they're super important to employee growth. Great tips.

I also agree that many meetings can suck the life right out of you. However, at work, we really look forward to our weekly meetings. We follow a structure a little bit like a stand-up, but not quite.

  1. Team lead starts out with any major company announcements that might be relevant. We keep this brief.

  2. Everyone summarizes their accomplishments and obstacles from the past week. It's a good chance to share knowledge and get help, which always spawns some awesome group discussions. This is especially helpful, since most of us work remote.

  3. Everyone summarizes their goal for the next week.

  4. Floor is open if anyone has any questions/comments they forgot to bring up.

Everyone gets an opportunity to talk, but while we enjoy the meetings, we also want to get back to work, so that keeps most people from over-talking. If someone starts monologing, the team lead will bring the meeting back on track, sometimes asking that a conversation take place after the meeting.

Perhaps the funny part is, many of the principles you describe for 1-on-1s apply to those weekly meetings. We don't have a rigid structure or strict agenda, and many employees tend to stick around a little while after the meeting has officially ended because some awesome (and occasionally off-topic) conversation is going on. And yet, our meetings (COUNTING after-meeting convos) usually clock in around 20-60 minutes.

johnlukeg profile image
John Luke Garofalo

Thanks for that great breakdown Jason! I completely agree. I don't actually think all meetings are terrible, it's just a good headline for software engineers :).

My team has standup every morning as well and I think that it's another important meeting. I REALLY like your modifications to it. In fact, I'm going to propose the bit about every member presenting their plans for the following week on Fridays. Our stand up meetings can some time oscillate between being too in-depth or too shallow.

Thanks again for taking the time to share.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Awesome post.

Do not cancel this meeting

This takes incredible discipline, but is so important. The meetings are obviously important for all the reasons you've outlined, but it's also hard to gauge what the other person is looking to get out of the one-on-one. They might have been waiting all week to bring something up that you had no idea about.

"80 percent of success is just showing up" -somebody

johnlukeg profile image
John Luke Garofalo

You're absolutely right, Ben, that's a really important point! Even if the person isn't my boss, I prioritize this meeting as I would a job interview, which helps me avoid letting it fall to the wayside.