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Mounica Veggalam

Use 1x1s with your directs to grow your leadership career

published7 months ago
7 min read

Hey Reader,

Happy Friday!

Last week, I talked about what a weak 1:1 looks like and how you might change it by introducing inside-out leadership. Today, I want to dig into what can make your 1x1s more effective.

You’ll walk away with new frameworks for your 1x1s. If you follow this way of thinking,

  • you will become a hands-off manager
  • you will build trust with your directs
  • and you will start operating at a director level

In my coaching practice, my clients do wonders when I lead the relationship with these principles. I wanted to tie these principles into actionable advice EMs can apply. So, over the last week, I poured myself into all the advice on the internet about 1x1s and connected them with the best coaching principles. Btw, I linked the best articles at the end of this email.

Alright, let’s dive in. [Reading time - 6 mins]


Here's how most 1x1s look like:

Tina: Hey Josh, how are you?

Josh: I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?

Tina: Doing Good. What’s up this week?

Josh: Oh, not a lot. [A big update dump]

Tina: Sure, let me know if you need anything.

Okay, I agree this might be too trivializing. Your 1x1s probably have more meat than this.

My point is that most 1:1s are just status updates, rambles about that rattlesnake trek over the weekend, parenting issues, or your plans for world domination. I want to be clear here that none of this is bad. Small talk and project updates have a place and time limit.

Sure, they build connection and rapport. But we humans use rambling to mask our uncomfortable feelings and confrontations.

And a leader recognizes this.

High-performers want more, and they don’t know what that is.

When I was an engineer, the best managers provided plenty of opportunities in my 1x1s to connect with them, brainstorm technical problems, relax and simply have fun. I greatly valued this. It excited me to work for such managers. It made me feel that I belonged to the team.

But, when I became a coach, I realized a huge missed opportunity for the engineering managers and those reporting to them. If my managers had led me using these coaching models, I would have had better growth. I would have had more opportunities to develop my creativity and improve my visibility.

I believe manager training doesn’t focus enough on the coaching part of their job. If I could single-handedly change all the manager trainings in BigTech, I would focus on this one skill set - coaching.

You might say, “They do tell us to coach”.

I would argue - Kind of. Not enough.

They give you one training a year and then let you shoot in the dark. Most companies seem to reserve such training only for higher-level executives.

Which is why I want to share this strong opinion with you.

Your only job in your 1x1s is to coach your engineer (or manager) into a leader.

When you change your approach by solely focusing on coaching,

  • You retain your high-performers because they have you as a business partner for their careers.
  • You grow your engineers’ careers, and as a result, you grow yours.
  • You become more hands-off and have the bandwidth to take a more significant scope of work - which means you climb up the ladder quicker.

Which results in greater fulfillment for your directs AND you.

Now, how do you do this whole coaching thing?

Who better to ask this question to, than a professional coach? 😇

In all seriousness, though, there is a slight difference between professional coaching and coaching in the context of management.

I won’t get into the differences here, but the best way I’ve come to define this for an EM is to Model and Develop leadership.

Remember, the leadership I am talking about here is a mindset - ownership, responsibility, and creation.

  • Ownership - What do I need to own about my emotions or beliefs in this situation?
  • Responsibility - What is my responsibility in this situation?
  • Creation - What can I create given this situation?

When you are in a constant inquiry on ownership, responsibility, and creation for yourself, you get ready to develop it in others.

Let’s unpack how you can use this inquiry in your 1x1 conversations.

Check your inner stance

If you’re like any other average human, you want to sound cool, casual, friendly, and empathetic.

These ideals are great until it comes to modeling leadership.

You see, when you want to be seen a certain way or project a particular brand image, you’re bound to fail. It becomes exhausting to maintain that image, and you’re constantly threatened with disappointment (yours and others).

Your job as a manager is not to be liked. Don’t seek validation from your team that you’re a good manager, or worse, that you’re a good person.

Your job is to be of service to developing their leadership.

This means-

  • No posturing
  • No trying to be a certain way because you should
  • Saying no when you have to
  • Figuring out ways to solve a problem with them or getting support together instead of wanting to be an expert
  • Confronting them with fast feedback (more on this in the tactics section).

Come from an inner stance of leading them to be their best self, even if it means you’ll not be liked immediately or that they’ll experience frustration.

This is easy to say and hard to implement. It comes from working on your own transformation.

Develop your non-judgmental presence

The only question in your mind should be - “What is blocking this intelligent, capable and resourceful person?”.

Create a space where they can bring their emotions, vents, and rants.

Create psychological safety but don’t get stuck there. You’re not their therapist.

Move them forward towards their goals. And if they’re not willing to, then be open about it that you don’t see them ready for the conversation. Find out what might support them to get to a place of a moving-forward discussion with you.

Lead them into possibility

There are two schools of thought about giving advice when you coach -

  • Give it freely (which most managers do)
  • Don’t give advice. Bite your tongue and let them figure it out.

My opinion is to land somewhere in between. Hear them out completely, figure out (with them) what they want and where they are stuck, and then give them space to think.

When you fully understand their thinking, give your advice as your opinions.

Your opinions and experiences limit possibilities. You want them to explore their own paths.

However, don’t babysit. Take off the training wheels. Give them a playing field. If they’re struggling too much, have a conversation about getting support instead of you jumping and fixing their problems.

So what does this mean for your 1x1s?

This is the tactics and how-to part. I’ve added some of my own tips to the best ones from other coaches and leaders.

  • Clear your mind before your meeting so that you can be fully present with them. When you have back-to-back meetings, it is draining for you, and it’s a disservice to the other people involved in the conversation. I recommend blocking 10 mins before your meeting to clear your head, go through the notes of your previous 1:1s (build context) and make some notes of what they might need. Then after your meeting, take 5 mins to jot down the action items, think about what might help them, and follow up on that.
  • Don’t do walking 1:1s. Why? Presence. It creates a casual environment where you cannot dig deep into anything. Bring your entire self and encourage your direct to bring their whole self as well.
  • Give fast feedback. Don’t wait for months. When you’re clear about their goals, you can find opportunities to see where they can move towards those goals faster.
“Hey, you said that thing in that meeting. I remember we discussed X as your goal. I have some ideas about how you can get to X based on my experience. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • Have monthly or bi-monthly extended career conversations (preferably 1 hour) to assess if they’re moving as they want.

What I’m essentially saying here is, coach, coach, and only coach during your 1x1s.

But, wait, what about managerial tasks?

  • Async communication for unblocking people (slack chat, MS Teams, etc.)
  • If a technical issue arises in the 1:1, give them a choice - are you sure you want to discuss that or better use this time for personal and leadership development. Offer to schedule a separate meeting to get into the technical details.
  • You get to know them deeply during 1x1s. But how would they get to know you? Every week, send a friendly team email with your current priorities, what you’re dealing with, what’s ambiguous, and something personal (a picture of what you did over the weekend, perhaps?). This will also reduce the chatter and keep your 1x1s focused.
  • Consider having office hours if your team size suddenly grows (for instance, you absorbed different teams) and your 1x1 schedule gets crazy.
  • Keep the daily updates to team meetings (you have scrum for a reason) or to async chat or offer to schedule another conversation to hash something out.


Phew! There’s a lot here. Use these frameworks and tips in your next 1x1s with your directs and see how they respond. Hopefully, it gets magical.✨

I highly recommend these two articles as well:

This one from James Stanier

And this from Rands.

TL;DR

  • Don’t take your 1x1s too casually. They are essential to make or break your success as a manager.
  • You’re not a friend, a therapist, or simply a manager. You are a leader. Your single most important job in 1x1s is to develop leadership in your directs. They’ll go do wonders if you stick with this one mission. And when you develop leaders, you’ll grow up the career ladder into executive roles.

If this was helpful, hit reply and let me know. And if you have any follow-up questions, you can DM me on LinkedIn or hit reply and I'll help you out.

See you next Friday!

- Mounica