The Most Powerful Tool That a Manager Can Use
The 121 meeting is probably the most powerful tool that you have which can enable you to be an effective manager.
Because no matter what, problems and challenges are going to arise when you manage people.
The 121 meeting is the primary way that you’ll discover these problems and challenges early enough that you can stop them from escalating and put fixes in place.
If you skip 121 meetings or don’t run them effectively, problems and challenges are likely to fester and get worse, making them harder for you to solve when they do get onto your radar.
Even aside from this, 121 meetings can allow you to build momentum with your team and to enable their progression, both short and long term.
This means that putting in the time, effort and headspace for running effective 121 meetings is worth it and will make everything else that you need to do as a manager, far easier.
Types of One on One Meetings
Let’s get into the nitty gritty details. There are a few types of 121 meetings that you can run as a manager, running from formal to informal.
In summary, these are:
Let’s take a look at each one.
The workload 121 is designed to be a regular, high energy and short timeframe meeting to ensure that a team member is able to focus on their current and upcoming to-do list. It’s designed to be a space that is very tactical, focused on the next week or so of work and is an enabler to them getting things done.
Ultimately, a team member needs to get things done and execute against the projects that they’re involved in. The workload 121 is your way to ensure that this happens and should give you confidence that an individual is getting things done.
The progression 121 is designed to focus on the progression of your team members, whilst keeping day-to-day tactical topics to a minimum. It’s likely to take a bit longer than a workload 121 and will deliberately focus on medium to long term goals and targets.
Day-to-day problems or challenges may enter the conversation, but they shouldn’t be the focus of the conversation. Instead, the focus should be on enabling a conversation that moves a person closer to their goals.
The review 121 is the most formal of these 121s and zooms right out on the individuals career and progression. It will go deep into long-term goals and how they have performed against these goals in the past few months.
The review 121 is also likely to be when things such as promotions or pay rises are discussed, hence the slightly more formal approach to them. They probably take place every quarter and may also include annual reviews.
A Framework for Effective 121 Meetings
Now, let’s look at each type of 121 meeting and break down how you can run them effectively for your team members. You don’t have to stick rigidly to each framework, you can adapt each one as you wish to suit your own style, but if you’re new to running these types of meetings, the framework can give you a good foundation to work from.
Each framework has four parts:
- Time needed.
A framework for a workload 121
Time needed: you’d usually need 10-15 minutes for a workload check in, maybe a little longer if needed. I tend to run these on a Monday or Friday so that you can lead into a new week or speak ahead of the week ahead.
Frequency: my default recommendation is to run workload 121s on a weekly basis so that you can keep on top of issues as much as possible. If you’re managing a more senior person who is good at managing their own workload and to=do list, then you may be able to move to bi-weekly.
Agenda: here is a suggested agenda for a workload 121:
- Workload check: the idea here is to review the individuals to-do list for the week and ensure that they have everything under control and can meet any commitments that they’ve made for that week. You’re trying to ensure that their workload is manageable and that they are as organised as possible heading into a new week.
- Calendar check: take this time to review their calendar for the next week and make sure that their to-do list aligns with any calls, meetings or time off that they have. If they have about 35 hours of work for the week, but 20 hours of meetings, then they aren’t likely to have the time required to complete all of their tasks.
- Blockers: finally, with the context of their to-do list and their calendar in mind, ask them about any blockers that may prevent them from completing their to-do list and if they have any, help them remove them.
Goals: the goals of a workload 121 are to:
- Ensure to-do list and workload is balanced.
Remove blockers to effective work.
Spot potential niggles or grumbles early.
A framework for a progression 121
Time needed: being a little more detailed, I’d suggest allowing 45-60 minutes for a progression 121. This should allow you plenty of time to go deep into someone’s progression, objectives and a plan for moving forward.
Frequency: typically, a progression 121 meeting should take place every 4-6 weeks or so. This allows you to keep momentum going but also enough time in between the meetings for progress to be made against objectives. Also try to sync these up with quarterly or annual reviews.
Agenda: here is a suggested agenda for a progression 121:
- Open floor – how are they doing: start with asking generally how things are going and give them the opportunity to raise anything that they’d like to talk about first.
- What has gone well: ask them what they feel has gone well in the last 4-6 weeks since their last progression 121 and do the same in return.
- What hasn’t gone well: now ask about what hasn’t gone so well and review anything that they could have done better recently or can learn from.
- How are they getting on with quarterly objectives: now take some time to review any objectives that you’ve set them, such as quarterly or even annual objectives and ensure that they’re moving forward with each of them.
- How can I help: finally, ask them how you can help them with their objectives and general progression.
Goals: the goals of a progression 121 are to:
- Ensure they have worked on personal objectives.
- Dig into any larger niggles or issues of unhappiness.
- Learn what you can do to support them more.
A framework for a review 121
Time needed: try to allow around 60-75 minutes for a review 121. It’s typically a little more formal and structured and may include things such as pay reviews or promotions, so it’s important to leave plenty of time for it.
Frequency: review 121s can take place every three to four months, usually every three months for most people. You should also sync these up with annual reviews, as well as the progression 121s so that you’re not doubling up.
Agenda: here is a suggested agenda for a review 121:
- Review of all objectives: go through all objectives and see how the team member has performed against them. Talk about what went well, what didn’t go well and what they may have done better or differently.
- Review of any new objectives: if they’ve completed some of all of the objectives, work with them to set new ones and a timeframe for each one. Ensure that there is value in the objectives for their role and career progression.
- Review of long-term goals and career progression: finally, zoom out and talk about their career, not just their job or current role. Give them a chance to talk about their long-term goals, ambitions and what they want to achieve beyond their current role.
Goals: the goals of a review 121 are to:
- Formal review of objective status.
- Setting of new objectives.
Understand career plans and longer-term goals.
Again, don’t feel like you need to stick to these frameworks too strictly. You can adapt them, take the bits you like, remove the bits you don’t and use something that works for you and your team.
Possible Topics of Focus for 121 Meetings
There are a range of possible topics that you can focus on during the various types of 121 meetings above. It’s worth proactively thinking about these in advance and starting to work through them little by little.
Of course, you should let your team members lead on this too and tell you what topics are important to them too. But sometimes, particularly with less experienced team members, they don’t know what they don’t know, meaning that you’ll need to provide some direction on what to talk about.
Not to mention that you may also be a new manager yourself, so here is some inspiration for topics to bring into your 121 meetings.
- Learning and development
- Career progression
- Problem solving
- Current role
- Team feedback
- Company-wide feedback
Do you want more detail? Here is a cheatsheet for you which contains a breakdown of each of these topics and more inspiration for what to cover in your 121 meetings:
Principles for Effective 121 Meetings
An effective 121 meeting is just as much about how you behave as it is what you talk about. You need to treat 121 meetings with the level of respect and importance that they deserve. After all, they will feel very important to your team members, you should behave accordingly as a result of this.
Let’s take a look at a few key principles that you need to keep in mind when running 121 meetings.
When you’re in the room, be in the room with the team member and give them your full attention. It’s their time, not yours.
Nothing damages trust or your relationship with them as much as arriving to a 121 meeting clearly having not prepared. Take the time to plan each 121, especially progression and review ones.
During the meetings, don’t just reel off each agenda point or your pre-prepared questions. Respond to the answers and be curious about the answers and your team members. Show curiosity for their story and learn as much about them as you can.
Even when conversations are hard and challenging, try to remain positive and not get sucked into a spiral of negativity.
Don’t cancel unless there is nothing to discuss
Try to avoid cancelling 121 meetings unless there is nothing to discuss, which should only really apply to the odd workload meeting.
Ask informal questions at the start or end
Don’t be afraid to make some valuable small talk or chatter about non-work stuff at the beginning or end of the 121. Ask how their weekend was, what the plans for their upcoming holiday are etc.
Frame meetings as productive time
Many of us can fall into the trap of thinking that meetings aren’t “real work”. Do your best to avoid this yourself and also frame 121 meetings as productive time.
Logistics of Effective 121 Meetings
Finally, let’s touch upon the logistics of an effective 121 meeting. There are a few basic things that may seem small, but they can be important.
Have an agenda
Part of being prepared and showing that the meeting is important is having an agenda which you share in advance. Above, we’re talked through some example agendas that give you a good starting point for this. Whether you use these or not, you should take time to prepare an agenda for each 121 meeting to ensure that it runs as effectively as possible.
Stay on track but know when to deviate
Try to stick to your agenda but don’t be afraid to deviate if it seems appropriate to. For example, if your team member brings up a topic that is troubling them and they clearly want some help with it, yet it’s not on the agenda, it’s completely fine to step outside of the agenda.
Be on time
Remember, you set the standard in your team. If you are late, you’re telling your team member that it’s fine to be late to meetings, even 121 meetings which are important.
Keep a note of actions and email them
There are few better ways to encourage accountability with your team members than noting actions during a meeting and then following up on them afterwards. Make sure that you do this during every meeting and then start the following meeting by briefly discussing those actions that you set last time.
To Wrap Up and Where to Start
Don’t underestimate the power of the 121 meeting. If you get them right, pretty much everything else that you do as a manager will be far easier. But this doesn’t happen without conscious effort and being proactive. The ideas, frameworks and principles above should give you a good starting point to build upon.
If you’re not sure where to start, simply start by focusing on the workload 121 and getting that right. If you can help someone manage their workload effectively and prevent them from being overwhelmed, the progression and review 121s will be far easier for both of you.