Make the Most of One-on-One Meetings with Your Manager

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One-on-one meetings with your manager present valuable career opportunities. How can you make sure you’re getting the most out of that time with your boss? Work with your manager to determine how the agenda for your meetings will be created and reflect on your priorities and professional development goals. During your meetings, use your body language to underscore your words and your actions. Be a good listener, embrace feedback, and default to solving problems. Use your time after your one-on-ones to consider areas where you can focus, adapt, or make improvements moving forward. This approach reinforces your commitment to problem solving for your boss, your team, and your own career, and that’s a powerful attribute to acquire.

The nature of how and where we do our work has shifted substantially during the pandemic. Whether you’re in the office, working from home, or adjusting to a hybrid approach, visibility matters. One-on-one meetings with your manager present opportunities to discuss priorities, gather feedback, build trust, and cement relationships.

According to a study of over three million workers, the pandemic has contributed to longer hours and an estimated 13% increase in the number of meetings. In other words, we’re swamped. But one-on-ones shouldn’t be the first to go. Evan Parker, senior vice president and general manager of content operations at The Athletic, recognizes that the demands of the workday can sometimes get in the way but asserts that that doesn’t diminish the importance of regular connection. “Sometimes regular check-in meetings are the first to get canceled,” Parker says. “If your direct report is strong, you can fall into the false thinking that the meetings aren’t necessary. But no matter how competent your direct report is, a regular session is vital.”

Your one-on-one meetings with your manager are critical for ensuring your accomplishments and professional development needs are front and center. Here are three tactics you can adopt to get the most out of your time with your boss.

Set Your Intentions

Through my work as a career coach, I’m often asked how much preparation is really needed before a meeting with a manager. My answer is always this: Planning and preparation are essential. I recommend this even if your one-on-one meetings are informal check-ins, because your manager’s time is valuable. Preparing in advance will provide the platform to get the most from your interactions. Where possible, clarify who will set the agenda for your one-on-one meetings in advance. Some managers like to take the lead, others want their direct reports to craft the agenda, and some prefer a collaborative approach. Summarize the agenda at the outset of the conversation, but be open to changes.

Albert Yeh, vice president of international sales and operations at Ergon USA, has direct reports in both Germany and the United States. “One-on-one meetings are important for the feedback loop,” Yeh says. “In general, the individual has items they would like to discuss. Sometimes there is a pressure to have some profound insight or milestone, but it is OK for things just to be as is.”

Meeting preparation often involves reviewing and reporting on immediate priorities, especially when time is limited. In addition, reflect on the broader context of your work. For example, how is your current relationship with your manager? What’s working well and what isn’t? Where do you need support or want to develop further in your career? If your reflections identify that your working relationship needs improvement, don’t be discouraged — your one-on-one meetings provide an opportunity to invest in building trust and demonstrating your commitment to your role.

Do your best to be objective and consider if the fracture in your working relationship is the result of a performance issue, a breakdown in communication, misaligned expectations, or a personality clash. Then explore how you can use your time together to repair the root cause. Be proactive and focus on what you can control. Ask your boss where you can help, solicit feedback on priorities, and listen closely to their goals and preferences.

Beyond your meeting agenda, determine how you want to be perceived at work. In essence, the question I encourage you to ask yourself is: “What do I want my manager to walk away knowing about me, my performance, what I’m working on, and what I’m building toward?”

When you’ve reflected on that, determine how to convey and embody it during your time together. Bring your best self to your one-on-one meetings, whether that’s on the phone, on video, or in person. Embrace a positive attitude because positivity is palpable and often infectious. It’s a smart and straightforward way to make a good impression from the get-go.

Pay Attention to Your Body Language

A big part of bringing your best self to a meeting involves an awareness of nonverbal cues. It can be easy to forget that our body language speaks volumes. Think about how you show up for meetings, whether they’re virtual or in person. For example, sitting up straight conveys attentiveness, while slouching in your seat during a meeting silently screams that you don’t want to be there. Smiling and making appropriate eye contact doesn’t just build rapport, it also makes you appear trustworthy and confident. Your physical cues are just as important as your verbal ones. Even when on the phone, your tone of voice matters.

Your body language is your secret weapon, and that’s not just because of the impression you’ll make — adjusting your body language can pay dividends for you, too. In her viral TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy explains that when you practice powerful, positive body language, you simultaneously give yourself a boost by sending subliminal messages to your brain that reinforce positive, confident feelings.

Demonstrate You’re a Problem Solver

During your one-on-one meetings, be ready to share results, but also be ready to discuss challenges. If you endeavor to solve problems for your manager, you’ll stand out. Learn when to listen and know when to speak up with a suggestion.

I learned an important lesson early in my career. Without realizing it, I had the tendency to highlight things that were wrong. During one of those observations, my boss turned to me and said, “Don’t come to me with the problem; come to me with the solution.” In that moment, a lightbulb went off for me. I thought I was being helpful by pointing out the hurdles. Instead, what I needed to do was to identify potential problems and present ideas for how we could avoid them.

When it comes to problem-solving, consider where you could step up and deliver impact to a business objective that’s important to your manager. When you’re assessing the bigger picture, don’t forget your peers and junior members of the team. Ask your manager if there are areas where you can lend support to help solve a problem by working with others. You could teach someone a new skill or share insights that can help with an obstacle.

A problem-solving approach means being open to feedback — negative as well as positive. Being on the receiving end of negative feedback isn’t easy. Good managers will do their best to give constructive feedback in real time, and in private. If you’re getting constructive criticism, use it to your advantage. In the moment, it can be hard to swallow, but be respectful and professional. Be a good listener and an even better problem solver. Take it, learn from it, and solve it.

One-on-one meetings with your manager present valuable career opportunities. Work with your manager to determine how the agenda for your meetings will be created and reflect on your priorities and professional development goals. During your meetings, use your body language to underscore your words and your actions. Be a good listener, embrace feedback, and default to solving problems. Use your time after your one-on-ones to consider areas where you can focus, adapt, or make improvements moving forward. This approach reinforces your commitment to problem solving for your boss, your team, and your own career, and that’s a powerful attribute to acquire. Importantly, in between your meetings, do what you say you’ll do — don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Hold yourself accountable to your deliverables and your career goals. If you do so, I promise it won’t go unnoticed.

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