Why your one on one needs a meeting agenda and how to make them great

One on one meetings are a crucial tool for managers to keep their teams happy and motivated, yet many struggle with them.

Sometimes fixing your one on ones are as simple as asking some fresh questions, or making sure you have a foundation of trust and rapport before you talk about heavier topics.

Other times, you have to dig deeper and look at the overall structure of your meetings to understand why they’re not going as well as you may like. If you want to maximize your time investment in each team member, then you should add one on one meeting agendas to your process.

Why you need one on one meeting agendas

Even if your one on ones are already pretty good, adding an agenda can really enhance the meeting so you make the most of the 30-60 minutes you have for each of your team members. Here’s why:

1) Really make it their meeting

Times change and so do people. There’s always new challenges, issues, problems, and opportunities that come up that you have to help your team with. It’s why you have your one on ones in the first place: to stay on top of these issues that don’t neatly fit into their daily tasks. As Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel wrote on one on one meetings:
Andy Grove on one on one meeting agends

While many of you may know this, it’s still really easy to let some important topics slip in your one on ones.

Maybe something happened to them last Monday and so it’s no longer on top of their mind in your one on one this week. Maybe you had something you wanted to talk about, but you would have waited to discuss it if you had known what was pressing for them.

If you have your team member work on an agenda of what they want to talk about leading up to each one on one, you can ensure you don’t miss any critical issues that you should make sure fit into your one on one with them.

2) Maintain trust and keep them efficient

Meetings and management go hand in hand, so it’s really easy to get buried alive in them. As you run from meeting to meeting, you could easily sit down in your one on ones and have no idea what you discussed last time.

At the least, this sets you back in the meeting as you’ll spend the first 5 to 10 minutes jogging your memory. At worst, your team member will resent it and be less likely to open up to you, feeling like you won’t remember what’s important to them anyways.

By having an agenda for each of your one on one meetings, you can ensure that you sit down knowing what you’ll be covering. If you add to that glancing over what you talked about last time, you’ll make the most of your meetings by hitting the ground running when you start them.

3) Build momentum and continuity across one on ones

One of the challenges with one on ones is that they happen infrequently; if you’re meeting with people to talk for 30-60 minutes every few weeks, it’s pretty easy for each one to be an isolated conversation.

However, if you want to build valuable momentum from meeting to meeting, as mentioned before, reviewing your notes and having an agenda each time can be a big boost. You’ll also ensure you cover the variety of good topics for 1 on 1s like their career goals, feedback, praise, and shopping ideas.

One on ones become much more powerful when there’s continuity from one meeting to the next. Whether you ran out of time on a subject and need to push it to next meeting, or have something you don’t want to forget to check in on, an agenda ensures neither of you will forget.

It also avoids wasting a one on one on small talk, when you could have covered something more important that keeps them happy and motivated.

Want an easy way to keep all your 1 on 1s well prepared and effective? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse and keep all your 1 on 1s organized and set a great agenda with your team.

How to make a great one on one meeting agenda

So now that you can see why agendas are important, let’s take a look at how to create a great one on one meeting agenda:

1) Put them in charge of the agenda

This is their meeting so it only makes sense to ask them to take the lead on creating the agenda.  You don’t need anything fancy, just ask them to send you a simple outline of whatever is on their mind that they want to discuss.

Encourage them to “add it to the agenda” if they come to you mid-week with something they would like to discuss and you can’t handle it in the moment.

Then, as your one on one approaches, ask for it in advance of the meeting so you have a chance to review it, ask for any clarifications, and be in the right mindset in the meeting. Most managers will ask for it either the day before, or the morning of the one on one at the latest.

{Ed. note: If your team member is brand new to one on ones, this post can help them understand what to expect and what are good things to bring up with you in the meeting, and if you use Lighthouse, they’ll teach them and automatically send you the agenda.

Don’t use Lighthouse yet? Sign up now for a free trial and start having great 1 on 1s.}

2) Add your own questions and topics

While one on ones are their meeting, it doesn’t mean you don’t have any work to do. You still need to do your part to prepare and especially bring good questions.

While your team will build the habit of bringing pressing issues to you by adding them to their agenda, you’ll still have to develop the skill of probing deeper and asking good questions to leave no elephants in the room. Ben Horowitz captured this well when he wrote:
Ben Horowitz recommends you bring questions to one on one meeting agendas

Take the time to consider what areas you haven’t talked about in a while since there’s a variety of topics to cover in one on ones.

You can also arm yourself with a variety of good questions that may help you dig in on a subject your team member brings up. This list of over 100 one on one questions can help you get started.

3) Avoid status updates

Repeat after me: “one on one meetings are not status updates.”

It’s a massive waste of you and your team member’s time to spend a one on one on basic project and task management when there’s no other time to cover bigger issues like their career development, interpersonal issues, constructive feedback, etc.

If they’re looking for coaching or help on a blocker, that’s okay, but you should never have agenda items for things like: what they accomplished last week, what they’re doing this week, and what they are doing next week.  Save that for team-wide standups and tools like Basecamp and IDoneThis.

If your team member does put status items on there, work to prioritize other topics by giving those topics more time in the meeting. Your actions as manager set the tone and expectations, so if you don’t allow the meeting to become a status update, they won’t let it either.

4) Set a deadline

There’s always more work to be done than anyone has time, so it’s easy to procrastinate on an agenda or just flat out forget to make one.  That’s why setting a deadline to receive their agenda matters.

Tell them a set time before the one on one that you want to receive it by. This will help you prepare and ensure they have a deadline to get something to you.

When setting the deadline, choose a time that gives you room to prepare; most night-owl managers I know ask for it the day before, while morning people will be fine with receiving it first thing in the morning of the one on one.

Especially when you start out asking for a one on one meeting agenda, you may need to remind them.

You can do this by setting a calendar invite you share for the time you want it by, using an email reminder tool like Followup.cc or Boomerang can send a reminder back to both your inboxes, or Lighthouse can remind them for you while also coaching them on what to bring up in their one on one you.

5) Put their items first

While you both may have topics you want to cover in their one on one, to reinforce that it’s their meeting, try to let their topics go first.

This can also save you in a big way; they may tell you something that completely changes your priorities for the rest of the meeting or how you approach what you discuss. Here’s two simple examples:

  1. Death or family emergency: If it turns out something bad has happened in their personal life, work becomes a lot less important. That career discussion, or follow up on a minor question last week suddenly can wait when you need to instead talk about how they’re handling that situation and how it affects their work.
  2. Unexpected context: I had a team member once who had made a very poor hire we had just let go. I had prepared a detailed grilling to go over what went wrong; it was clear they didn’t follow our standard hiring process for that person to have ever been brought on board. However, before I could dive in, I found out how overwhelmed they were feeling and so the discussion focused first on relieving a bigger problem of managing their workload. The hiring feedback worked out even better than I hoped, because I was able to re-frame our discussion around how the process they had forgotten would actually save them time instead of just being critical.

If you’ve every felt like you stuck your foot in your mouth as a manager, you know how important context is. By having context from them on what they want to talk about before the meeting, you can avoid awkward situations where you wish you’d known something sooner.

One on one meeting agendas can turbo charge your one on ones and give your team a feeling that the meetings are truly an open forum for them.  While the meeting itself can be fluid and open ended, having a little structure before and after can go a long way towards maximizing the time you can invest in what matters most to your people.

Do you have an agenda for your one on ones? What advice would you give managers starting out with them?

Want an easy way to keep all your 1 on 1s well prepared and effective? Then sign up for a free trial of Lighthouse and keep all your 1 on 1s organized and set a great agenda with your team.