Help your manager help you by owning the one to one agenda

Dear new developer,

You need to realize that your manager is pulled between two goals (this assumes you have a good manager–if you don’t have a manager who wants to help you, find a new job).

1. Helping you.

2. Helping the company for which you work.

Unfortunately, the latter takes precedence. It’s more work (because it includes helping everyone else out) and higher priority.

So what can you do? Make your manager aware of how they can help you. This doesn’t need to be done in a demanding manner, but you need to make sure you are heard. So, for instance, mention that you are exploring or have been reading about a new technology like machine learning, and really want an opportunity to use the skills professionally. Realize that you might not get exactly what you want (if you are working for a webdev shop, you won’t get a chance to build compilers). But if you don’t ask, your manager won’t know your career interests.

I like one to ones for this purpose. These are regular meetings (once a week to once a month) for a short period of time (30 minutes to 60 minutes) where you control the agenda. It’s not a status report or a troubleshooting session. Instead, it’s where you can ask questions and inform your manager.

Things I’ve learned in one to ones (all at different jobs):

  • a colleague wanted to go to clown school
  • I was managing as I wanted to be managed, not as a report wanted to be managed
  • a colleague’s spouse had a long commute and that a move was imminent

All of these were helpful to me in assessing the health of a team, planning for change and understanding the person. These are really what a manager should be focusing on.

Next time you go to a one to one, think about what kind of questions you need to ask or what kind of conversations you need to have to make sure your manager can help you. Here’s a list of topics that might help jump start the conversation.

If you don’t have a one to one, set one up. If your manager is resistant, find out why, and see if there is something less formal, but still regular, that you can set up. Maybe you just need to calendar a regular reminder to yourself to stop by the manager’s office. If you don’t have regular lines of communication with your manager then when things get tough, you’ll have a hard time having conversations that will help both parties. The trust and ease that regular contact builds is key for defusing a tough situation, or at least de-escalating it.

Sincerely,

Dan

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