Be a Great Leader, Master the One-on-One

Updated: Oct 28


Something that sets great leaders apart from the “just ok” ones is the ability to establish a routine for effective one-to-one meetings with staff. (Operative words here are routine and effective.)


This specific and tactical activity, a one-to-one meeting, supports every aspect of what high performing teams do. These meetings are sacred time to listen, ask questions, give and receive feedback, and develop each member of the team.


Yet, here’s the problem: many mangers conduct them already and think they’re nailing it, but their employees think otherwise. This survey reported that 94% of managers surveyed conduct one-on-ones but only 10% of employees found the meetings effective. The Association for Talent Development reports that these opposing perspectives create a big leadership blind spot.


Explanations for this blind spot include:

  1. Managers do schedule one-to-one meetings, but they cancel them.

  2. Managers spend most of the time talking (instead of listening).

  3. Managers struggle to get a conversation going, or employees don’t know what to say or talk about.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. While one-to-one meetings are a leadership best practice and an integral part of team performance, many leaders aren’t taught how to conduct one. They’re just told by HR to do it with little specific guidance.


Those specifics are shared this week to help every leader master the one-on-one meeting to make a real impact on their team.


What are they?

One-on-one meetings are dedicated spaces of time for the leader and a direct report to connect. This is for the leader to learn from the employee.


They may be conducted weekly for 30 minutes or twice a month for 60 minutes. There is no pre-defined cadence to 1-to-1 meetings. The frequency is based on the needs of the team. Often, new employees receive more 1-to-1 time than tenured employees.


Recommendation: Start with 30 minutes two times/month. If you find you run out of time, extend the check-ins to 60 minutes or meet every week.


The goal is quality, not quantity. And consistency too! The meetings get better with time.


Finally, leaders must remind themselves that this time is more for the employee, and less for the leader. The leader may think they have more important things to do, but this 1-to-1 time is about the leader demonstrating:

  • Curiosity for each team member's unique contribution.

  • Appreciation and gratitude for their work.

  • Openness to feedback about their own performance.

1-to-1 check-ins are an investment in the future performance of the team.


Some Dos and Don’ts

When conducting one-to-one meetings, there are some definite leader dos and don’ts.

Do

  • Ask direct reports to schedule the check-ins on calendar. Leaders don’t have to take on that task.

  • Provide direct reports with a structure to follow, to be addressed in the next section.

  • Be curious about their work, prepare questions in advance to foster dialogue.

Don’t

  • Talk more than the direct report. This is their time to share, reflect, and even brag a little. (Don’t worry if they don’t have much to say, especially at first.)

  • Multi-task. Give the direct report full attention. No checking email or scrolling through a smartphone.

  • Cancel. It’s ok to reschedule if a conflict comes up but rarely cancel.

Follow a Format

The best way to get the most out of a one-on-one meeting is to have a consistent format. This ensures everyone is prepared and (maybe most importantly) the leader remains consistent with each team member. Ask each employee to arrive to their one-to-one prepared to share the following:

  • Successes and Progress Achieved – These are accomplishments and goals met since the last meeting. Let them brag a bit.

  • Challenges and Obstacles – This relates to current or upcoming work and anything getting in the way of their success.

  • Motivations, Support Needed, and Future Aspirations – This is a catch-all for checking in on the employee’s engagement, growth, and professional development.

Remind staff that the one-to-one check-in is about them and their performance. It’s their time to shine.


Also, this format shouldn’t result in a “report out” of bullet points, but rather some dialogue. Here are questions to ask that align to each of the above sections:


Successes and Progress Achieved

Leader Questions:

  • What have you learned?

  • What strengths did you use to achieve this progress?

  • How would you like to share these accomplishments with the team?

  • What was the best part about this work? How about the worst part?

Challenges and Obstacles

Leader Questions:

  • What would be most helpful to you here?

  • What other perspectives or experiences are at play?

  • How do you want this to be handled?

  • What is the best part about this problem? What is the worst part about it?


Motivations, Support Needed, and Future Aspirations

Leader Questions

  • What support do you need to move these ideas forward?

  • How can I help you get to your next step?

  • How are you feeling about your job? What is the team’s level of engagement?

  • If nothing was holding you back, what would you do?


Establishing a routine and conducting effective one-to-one meetings are what set great leaders apart from the rest. Putting the onus on the employee to schedule and share while following a format and asking great questions is the recipe for a meaningful experience for all.


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Until next time!

 

Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.


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