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Congratulations! You landed your new role, and you are busy getting to know the team, the projects, and the domain. There is one more thing you need to do. Set up regular sessions with your immediate manager. In this post, I will cover why it is important to reserve time to have a regular 1 on 1 with your manager and tips for conducting them effectively.

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What is a 1 on 1?

The main reason a one on one should exist is to give you direct access to your manager. Beyond other project-related meetings, this can help your manager get a temperature reading of the team on an individual basis. Ultimately, the manager needs to know are you happy with the work, career growth, and culture. If done effectively over time, the manager should have a clear picture of what is working or not working as far as timelines, workloads, organization, and leadership style. In turn, you should feel comfortable that your manager understands how you are or want to contribute.

[These] sessions were for me to discuss career and growth

Why is having consistent and focused 1 on 1 sessions important?

When I was starting out, one on one sessions were always an afterthought. I never prepared what I wanted to discuss nor did I keep track of our conversations. My manager and mentor at the time had to explicitly point out that those sessions were for me to discuss career and growth. And we have to do them regularly to push that along. Otherwise, a lot of time can pass without raises or promotions.

What are the different types of 1 on 1 sessions?

1. Performance checks

Performance reviews should not be a surprise at the end of the year. If they are, then you have not invested enough time talking with your manager to outline goals and expectations. When considering growth in terms of design or research skills as well as the ability to collaborate, mentor, and lead.

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The words, ‘mentor’ and ‘lead’ tends to cause a little anxiety for those new to their careers. When I started as a junior designer, all I wanted to do was be confident in my work. I believed that once I have perfected my abilities, then I can lead projects and people. Eventually, I realized that achieving perfection never arrived. However, along the way, I learned a lot that I could pass on to newer designers. Your manager should start talking to you about developing mentoring and leadership skills early. I was lucky that my first creative director started planting the seed.

For framing performance goals
  • Career goals for the next three to five years
  • Goals that you want to accomplish this year
  • Steps to achieve each goal

Pro Tip:
Document the work you did on these goals, and create a presentation. Show your manager a clear narrative of how this work helped you and the team grow.

Bonus Pro Tip:
Limit to four or five goals. These goals should align with something the company, clients, and/or the team needs. One of these goals should be for where you can grow your skills.

2. Temperature check

What is working with you and the team? As a new member to a team, you will start to get a feel for problems the teams encounter as far as culture, processes, and leadership. It is worth considering verbalizing what you are observing to see how the manager reacts. This will help you get a feel for where your manager needs help (see side projects below).

How can your manager help you? Once you surface your early observations of how the team is working and as you start to get work done as well, you can communicate where you may need more manager support. The unspoken belief is that you should be capable of handling your own problems. However, it is ok to communicate where you are struggling. Your manager’s first reaction should not be to take the work away from you if you communicate these struggles early. Together you can map out how you can realistically overcome obstacles on your own or together as a team.

Pro Tip:
Take notes. Some people take notes at the moment with their laptops. I like to use a small notebook, and then I transfer the notes from the sessions onto a digital document that I share with my manager.

3. Problem solving

No company or team will run smoothly. Some people will be difficult to work with. Directives from leadership may not make sense. One on one sessions are opportunities to surface concerns like these.

It is important for your managers to understand how you are working in the current conditions. You also have a responsibility to surface problems that your manager might not see. Nonetheless, use this time to also discuss what things you can do to help.

Pro Tip:
Same as above. Take notes to document you have discussed this issue with your manager. Use these notes as a record to show progress (if any) with the following meetings.

Bonus Pro Tip:
Bring ideas on how you want to solve the problem. Corporate culture rewards proactive problem-solving.

4. Long-term side project check-in

Design teams often need to create and refine systems and processes to help them work more efficiently. So, on top of day-to-day project work, designers will take on side projects for things such as a research repository site or onboarding guide for new teammates.

Pro Tip:
There is probably a laundry list of things your manager has identified as a need for the team. See which ones are a priority and who is already contributing to them. Then for the one on one sessions clarify with your manager which initiatives you want to work on.

If there is one initiative that you feel is imperative but your boss has not yet identified, then do your research to better understand the impact it would have on the team and the level of effort required.

What to avoid

This is your time to communicate how you are working on your career growth, solving a difficult problem for the team, or alerting your manager to a potential issue. Day-to-day work conversations should stay out of this. Make this a clear expectation. If day-to-day project work continues to creep into one on one time, then schedule a follow-up.

Pro Tip:
Take the one on one sessions away from where you do the day-to-day work. Ideally, go for a walking meeting to change the environment and behavior that you usually do. This will help stimulate the brain to think outside of everyday things.

Bonus Pro Tip:
As mentioned above, bring a notebook to one on one meetings. This helps keep the focus on the conversation and leaves distractions like never-ending Slack messages at your desk.

Closing thoughts

I have heard from my peers and designers and researchers that I have led that they do not prioritize one on one’s enough. When they do have them, they do not know what to say. At the end of the year, their reviews stress them out. If you use of one on one’s a method to communicate key things to your manager about things such as goals, bigger initiatives, and problems you and/or the team are facing, then you have one more tool to empower you to do better work.

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Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.