Back when I was part of the corporate machine, I worked under a director who was very fond of 1:1 meetings. She encouraged us to schedule 1:1 time with everyone on our team, whether we worked directly with them on projects or not. As a result, these 1:1 meetings were mostly unstructured. We rarely had a set agenda or a problem to solve or a project to discuss. It was just time to chat with a teammate and to give and receive undivided attention.
I resented those meetings. See, I largely found meetings, in general, a waste of time. So, scheduling a meeting once every two weeks to talk about nothing felt so pointless. I could be working on real projects! What on Earth was the point of forced 1:1 conversation?
Then one day, a colleague scheduled a 1:1 with me with an agenda. “That’s weird,” I thought. “Nobody ever sends agendas for these things. I wonder what she wants to talk about.”
I opened the invite and found that my colleague wanted to discuss a piece of software that I had offhandedly mentioned I was good at. She had specific questions about that software and wanted to pick my brain about best practices.
That 1:1 meeting turned into a twice-weekly training session, which later turned into my colleague taking a class and changing careers using the skill sets she developed in our 1:1 calls. And I realized then that all of my colleagues had information, insights, skills, and stories to share with me. All I had to do was ask.
That incident changed the way I thought about 1:1 calls. Instead of chat time to shoot the bull, I started asking myself, “What does this person know that I don’t? What would I love to hear about from her? What is she good at that I find challenging? What is interesting/funny/amazing about this person? How can I plumb the depth of her awesomeness?”
I asked colleagues to tell me stories. “You mentioned once that you used to be an accountant. Now you’re an HR director. How did that happen?” Or, “That presentation you gave last week was stellar. Can you show me how you created those transitions in Powerpoint?”
I was surprised at how much people were willing to share. Some colleagues shared professional development stories that empowered me to ask for (and get!) a raise. Another was brilliant at analyzing data, and she taught me some useful tricks I still use to this day.
Whether or not your 1:1s are mandatory, if you’re only using them to chit chat about nothing, you could be doing yourself a disservice. If you don’t have ideas about how to make the best use of the time you have with your colleagues, here are four ideas to get your ideas flowing.
Have 1:1 Meetings with Colleagues
I was surprised to find out that most of my clients don’t have regular 1:1 meetings with their colleagues. Creating dedicated time for probing, professional conversations with peers and indirect managers is a tremendous asset to any developing career. Colleagues have information you don’t–perhaps they sat in on a call you missed, overheard news of upcoming changes, or were part of a tiger team who recently made a breakthrough. Most companies and teams communicate poorly: infrequently and without clarity. It’s up to us, individually, to communicate with each other to share information.
You have to know what’s happening in your company and on your team to advance your career. So setting aside dedicated time to exploring information about the company–what’s happening, what’s new, what’s coming, what were the results–is fundamentally important. Just like you read the news every morning to know what’s happening in your world, talk to your coworkers regularly to learn what’s happening in your business.
Ask for a Demonstration
In my story above, I asked a colleague to show me how to use a specific feature of PowerPoint. So many of the tools we use in the office are more robust than we realize. We only learn the few things we need to do our jobs, but if we learn a few tips and tricks, it can take performance to the next level.
When you ask for a demonstration, be specific. Broad questions like, “Can you show me how to use Word?” are too unwieldy, time-consuming, and unfocused. Figure out specifically what you want to know (“Can you show me how to make transitions in PowerPoint?”) if you can. Alternatively, you can ask slightly more general questions like, “Your presentations are always so engaging. What features are you using to make your presentations beautiful and interactive?” Questions like these also give your colleague an opportunity to share information you didn’t even know you wanted. For example, she might tell you about a plug-in or an intranet repository filled with templates you didn’t know existed.
When you ask for a demonstration, be sure to make it easy for your colleague to help you. If you’re remote, have your screen sharing software ready and include your login information in your meeting invite. If you’re in person, make sure you’ve booked a suitable meeting room. Asking for a demonstration in the middle of an open office is probably bad form.
Ask for Data and Information
I’ve been in situations where I didn’t have the data I needed to make good decisions. For example, I once had to choose a new vendor to work with, and my boss gave me three options. I hadn’t worked with any of the companies, but I had teammates who had. I solicited advice from each of them, careful NOT to ask, “Which should I choose?” That question could lead to faulty decisions because what YOU should do depends on many different factors. Instead, ask questions like, “What was your experience? Would you work with them again? Were they responsive? Did you like what they delivered? How expensive were they?” etc. Just ask for data–not solutions. You can solve your dilemmas; you just need the right amount of reliable data.
Talk About Your Career Goals
If your manager is any good, he or she already knows what your career goals are, and you have an action plan to achieve them. However, your colleagues are also valuable sources of information that your manager may not have. Talking with colleagues about career goals can open useful doors.
For example, one of my clients once mentioned to her colleague that she was thinking about transitioning from marketing into product management. Her colleague perked up. “Have you spoken to So-and-so on John’s team? He made that transition two years ago. I can introduce you if you like.”
That client accepted the offer and moved into product management within a year.
In addition to offering to make connections, your colleagues might have brilliant insights about skills you should hone, teams you should research, or even other areas of interest you hadn’t considered before. Two heads are better than one, and learning how your colleagues might go after a similar transition can be very eye-opening.
One on one meetings are supposed to be enjoyable. If you’re not getting much out of them, try some of these techniques to make the encounters more useful for both of you. And as always, be open to reciprocating and keeping those work relationships in tip-top shape.