Effective One-on-One Meetings

Updated on October 25th, 2021
Effective One-on-One Meetings

Successful product managers need to motivate their product development teams, share crucial context at the right time with teammates, and solicit feedback from teammates on how they can continue to improve their product management skills. One-on-one meetings are valuable for product managers because they enable PMs to do all of the above!

But, I’ve noticed that many product managers fail to set up effective one-on-one meetings with crucial stakeholders and teammates, and that’s a huge lost opportunity. So, to help close the gap, I’ll lay out some best practices for how to drive effective one-on-one meetings as a product manager.

Here are eight best practices that I’ll cover in more depth below:

  1. Identify who to have one-on-one meetings with, and on what cadence
  2. Set expectations before starting a regular set of one-on-one meetings
  3. Don’t repurpose one-on-one meetings inappropriately
  4. Focus on the other person during one-on-one meetings
  5. When possible, take a walk together
  6. Plan for what to do if the conversation ends early
  7. Regularly review the cadence of your one-on-one meetings
  8. Log your one-on-one meeting notes and share them

So, let’s dive right in!

1) Identify who to have one-on-one meetings with, and on what cadence

Realistically, you can’t meet with every single person that you work with on a weekly basis, since that’d eat up your entire calendar. You’d have no time to get any work done!

So, we have to prioritize the one-on-one meetings that are essential vs. the ones that are optional. Here’s how I classify my one-on-one meetings:

  • Mission-critical
  • Important
  • Nice-to-have

You should only have about two to three “mission-critical” one-on-ones at any given time, and about six to eight “important” one-on-ones. All of your other one-on-one meetings should be “nice-to-have.” 

Mission-critical one-on-ones are those that can make or break your initiative. For these, it’s essential that your counterparts are tightly aligned with you. Many times, this might be your engineering lead, your design counterpart, and someone on your customer success team.

Important one-on-ones are those that can significantly change the outcome of your initiative, but are generally less time-sensitive. These might include people like an engineering group manager, a design group manager, the head of sales, etc.

Nice-to-have one-on-ones are more social in nature, and may include folks like your extended engineering team, your product management peers, and your customer-facing counterparts.

But, situations change. For example, sometimes my one-on-ones with my design counterparts are mission-critical, and other times they’re nice-to-have.

In other words, don’t fall for the trap of pigeonholing a given stakeholder into a particular one-on-one prioritization category. Your one-on-one prioritization should reflect the needs of your current initiatives.

Now that we know who to meet with, and how to prioritize those meetings, we can now talk about the cadence for these meetings. Here are my suggestions:

So now we know who to meet with, and how frequently to meet with them. How do we ensure that we use this time wisely, though?

We do so by setting expectations before we start having our one-on-one meetings.

2) Set expectations and share agenda before your one-on-one meetings

Similar to our guide on effective meetings, always make sure that you bring an agenda for each one-on-one meeting, and that you have a purposeful use of the time. Your goal is to maximize the use of this limited time, since time is a precious resource.

To be clear, getting to know one another, listening to the other person, or soliciting their thoughts are all valuable uses of time too. Many times, product managers deprioritize their long-term relationships with counterparts, which hurts the strength of the product, the product development team, and the culture.

But, you have to be upfront with how you want to invest this time together. Is the one-on-one meeting for them to share feedback with you? For you to share feedback with them? 

As an example, I have standing nice-to-have one-on-one meetings with each of my engineers. For those one-on-ones, I make it clear to them that we’re setting aside the time for them to ask me questions about customers, competitors, the product, the business, or their own professional development.

That way, my team feels tightly connected to the mission of the company and has clarity on how to build scalably and robustly for a variety of customer needs, use cases, and product adjacencies.

On top of that, send the agenda to your counterparts at least one day before you meet up. That way, you can identify whether there are other topics to cover, or whether it’s a better idea to reschedule instead.

Speaking of rescheduling, be clear with your counterparts that you both have the power to reschedule the one-on-one. Give your counterparts “modify event” capabilities so that they can move it or reschedule it as needed. After all, it takes two to tango, and if they’re tight on time in any given week, they can always move your meeting until later.

Of course, ideally you both give each other at least one business day’s worth of heads up that you’ll be rescheduling the meeting. That way, you both have sufficient lead time to identify a higher-value use of the newly freed up time slot!

And, also give each other the ability to convert the meeting into an asynchronous set of communications instead. For example, while I have regularly-scheduled time with my product marketing counterpart, we don’t always have actionable topics of conversation for each other. So, in those weeks where we don’t have actionable topics, we’ll ask each other questions or provide context to one another through Slack.

Of course, this only works if we send each other our proposed one-on-one meeting agendas beforehand. So, make sure you do your homework!

Too frequently, product managers treat one-on-one as low-priority, low-effort interactions. It’s far better to be intentional with each other’s time. After all, time is the single most precious resource for any product company!

Now we know that we should set clear meeting expectations and hygiene, and that we should send agendas ahead of time. Next, let’s discuss what not to talk about during one-on-one meetings.

3) Don’t repurpose one-on-one meetings inappropriately

One-on-one meetings should be used for topics that are “important but not urgent.”

If you need to discuss something urgent with a counterpart, you should set up a separate meeting for that, rather than waiting until your next scheduled one-on-one. After all, product management is about making good decisions at speed and at scale, and you can’t afford to wait if you really have an urgent issue on your heads.

As an example, if there’s a bug that you need to resolve immediately, don’t wait until your next one-on-one meeting; schedule a dedicated war room and dive in as soon as it’s feasible.

Why is that? Well, you don’t want to have people associate “meeting with you one-on-one” with “dealing with unpleasant bugs.” Rather, you want these one-on-one meetings to be shared spaces where you help one another grow.

Similarly, don’t delay decisions until one-on-one meetings. One-on-ones shouldn’t be used for making decisions. Use your standard decision-making mechanisms instead, such as writing up a decision document, scheduling a separate decision meeting, creating a poll, etc.

Another thing to keep in mind: one-on-one meetings are not meant to be status updates, nor are they meant to replace status updates. It’s okay to use a one-on-one meeting to dig deep into a topic that came up during a status update, but it’s not a good use of time to use one-on-ones for status updates.

That’s because status updates can almost always be given asynchronously. In other words, status updates can be shared through emails, Slack, documents, or some other means that doesn’t require the two of you to be there together.

So we now know what we should talk about during one-on-ones, and what topics are inappropriate for one-on-ones. Next, let’s discuss how to conduct one-on-ones.

4) Focus on the other person during one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings are all about building up empathy for each other. You should be building a personal relationship on top of your professional relationship with your counterpart.

Why is that? It’s because you’re going to be tackling lots of work together, and you’ll be facing down many challenges side-by-side.

So, it’s crucial that you both have a good understanding of one another. Knowing each other’s preferences and working styles helps to smooth out the day-to-day operational work that you’ll both be tackling.

Also, when you head into your one-on-one meeting, take the time to actively listen to your counterpart. If they need to vent about a frustrating situation, let them do so and make them feel heard and understood.

Don’t feel pressured to immediately find a solution for their concerns, and don’t prioritize (or deprioritize!) their needs as soon as they mention it. Let them talk through their feelings, make sure you have a good understanding of what’s going on, and then ask them what support they’d like from you to resolve their ongoing challenges.

5) When possible, take a walk together

Take the time to get away from your desk and get a change in scenery. You’ll feel more inspired and relaxed that way, and as a bonus you’ll also get to have some light exercise!

Even if you’re both remote, get on your phones and go walk together rather than staring at the screen. Remote workers regularly face Zoom fatigue, as they have to sit in front of the screen all day. Take the time to step away from the screen, and don’t let one-on-one meetings add on to your Zoom fatigue.

If you’re both walking in person, take the opportunity to wander into different streets, stop by a coffee shop to grab a drink, or buy a snack together. It’s a great way to bond, and having a different frame of reference will help both of you be more open-minded and more trusting of one another.

6) Plan for what to do if the conversation ends early

That said, even the most meticulously planned one-on-one meeting might wind up wrapping up early. There’s nothing wrong with that happening!

Don’t feel obligated to run out the clock if you’ve both covered all of the topics that you wanted to talk about, and if there are no compelling personal topics that you both want to chat about. As long as you both agree that you should wrap it up early, feel free to do so.

But, if you do both agree to wrap up the one-on-one early, you should take the initiative to let them know that they should feel comfortable reaching out to you at any time before the next one-on-one, especially if something comes up.

As product managers, many times we’re tempted to end our one-on-one meetings prematurely for the sake of “time efficiency.” But, that’s not the right call in this situation, since the goal is to learn more about one another and to strengthen your professional working relationship. If you’re pressed for time, it’s far better to reschedule for a time where you’ll both be able to fully focus on one another, rather than having your mind elsewhere.

In other words, it’s more important to be fully present for a short period of time than it is for you to only be partially present over a longer period of time. Quality beats quantity for one-on-one meetings!

7) Regularly review the cadence of your one-on-one meetings

Situations change. New initiatives start, and ongoing initiatives wrap up. Given that your working context is always evolving, you should take the time to review your one-on-one meetings and decide whether you should prioritize or deprioritize a given set of one-on-ones.

You should increase the priority if you and your counterpart will be working tightly together over the next few weeks. You should decrease the priority if you and your counterpart are regularly cancelling one-on-ones, regularly ending them early, or have less overlap with one another.

Ideally, you should review your one-on-one meetings on a monthly basis to see what needs tuning up or down.

8) Log your one-on-one meeting notes and share them

I personally find that recording my one-on-one meeting notes helps me to remember my conversations with others. I create one private document per stakeholder, and I create a new section for each one-on-one meeting that we have together. Then, I share the document with my stakeholder, but I ensure that no one else can see the document.

Why do I do this? By logging our one-on-one meeting notes, I make the other person feel heard and understood. And, if I’ve misunderstood a point that they brought up, they have the opportunity to correct me! This practice helps keep the two of us aligned.

But, please make sure you don’t note down personal conversation topics. For example, it’s a bit intrusive if you’re logging down their family birthdays or documenting their favorite flavor of ice cream. Keep your notes professional, please - even if they’re private to just the two of you!

On top of that, I get the following benefits by organizing our one-on-one meeting notes this way:

  • I can easily share the agenda for upcoming meetings, and we can collaborate on the same shared document to plan for what we want to talk about
  • I have a historical record of what we’ve covered before
  • We can assign one another “important but not urgent” action items and identify what action items remain outstanding

Closing thoughts

Product managers regularly underestimate the power of one-on-one meetings, which then means that they aren’t deliberate with how they invest the time.

One-on-ones are expensive! If you have 2 “mission-critical” one-on-ones, 6 “important” one-on-ones, and 4 “nice-to-have” one-on-ones, you’re investing around 7 person-hours per week: 3.5 hours of your time, and 3.5 hours of other people’s time.

In other words, that’s more than 15% of a 40-hour workweek! So, it’s crucial that you invest this time thoughtfully.

Take the time to prepare for your one-on-ones, to prioritize your one-on-ones, and to take the time to listen to your counterparts. By setting clear expectations with one another and by sharing information with each other, you can strengthen your working relationships and unlock multiplicative value for your product and for your company!