One of the first questions I always ask any leader I’m coaching is, do you regularly have one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports?
Over the years, the data I’ve gleaned from discussing this question with individual leaders indicates that moderately to highly effective leaders engage in these meetings with their direct reports regularly. Among managers who are having issues with their teams, a much higher proportion don’t even know what one-on-one meetings are, let alone what they might look like.
One-on-One Dialogue with Direct Reports is Time Well-Spent
Regular, scheduled, consistent one-on-one meetings with your direct reports are time well-spent. They can help build trust, engagement, and retention. They can encourage creative thinking and generate ideas, keep positive, productive lines of communication open and they provide a conduit for addressing issues before they become problems.
Setting the Agenda
Many leaders that I’m coaching ask what an outline or an agenda looks like for these meetings. Creating and using a consistent and clear meeting template is one of the best things you can do to make your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports more effective. Here are 10 steps and an outline of a suggested agenda to help you lead your team more effectively.
10 Steps for Effective One-On-One Meetings:
Set up regular frequency and timing – As a rule, meeting with each direct report once a month is plenty. These meetings don’t need to drag on; carving out 30 minutes once a month is usually plenty of time. To help ensure consistency, set up a recurring meeting on both of your calendars. Depending on the number of direct reports that you have, it’s a good idea to spread these meetings out or stagger them so they don’t all fall on the same day, or even in the same week. For example, I like to schedule mine on Tuesdays with no more than two one-on-one meetings on any given Tuesday. I also like to make sure I don’t have back-to-back meetings around my one-on-ones. That way, I’m well prepared at the beginning, and if we need to go over 30 minutes, I don’t have to cut the conversation off.
Set a clear agenda – With the meeting agenda or pattern, there’s a lot of room for individual variation. Personally, I like to devote the first half of the meeting to what the employee wants to discuss. This time might be used for topics such as what’s going well for them, any obstacles I can help with, what’s going on personally that they want to share, or what’s something they want to learn and/or grow and develop within their skill set. I also suggest sharing the agenda with the employee and inviting input, to encourage a sense of ownership in the dialogue. A suggested one-on-one meeting agenda is outlined later in this article.
Be consistent – Just like annual performance review discussions, do your best to avoid canceling or rescheduling these meetings. Doing so may send the message that these meetings aren’t especially important to you. Consistency and frequency are critical components of effective communication, and especially valuable in the context of one-on-one meetings to help build trust and develop open, positive two-way communication.
Have the employee’s best interests at heart – From a leadership perspective, I’ve learned the best way to get a direct report to do what I need them to do is to show that you care about what they care about. Employees who believe their leader cares about them will reciprocate—as long as you are genuine and sincere. With this in mind, learn to ask questions about their career and life goals, then keep up to date with progress, changes and updates to these goals. To quote Coach John Wooden, “Be more concerned with what you can do for others than what others can do for you. You’ll be surprised at the result.”
Build trust and rapport – As mentioned in the previous steps, consistent, frequent, and intentional communication can prevent or solve a lot of problems, create energy and momentum, and make for great professional relationships. Keep in mind that whenever we work with other people, we are building relationships. We get results through people as leaders. Be intentional about building strong relationships.
Switch up the discussion topics – Ensure the discussion topics vary by changing the discussion focus: short-term versus long-term goals and projects, discuss work versus personal situations and interests. Or brainstorm and solve specific problems when they arise, and sometimes…just check-in and enjoy a friendly chat. Always pay attention to, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about, signs of mental illness, depression, or stress that you may be able to help alleviate. One CEO told me they always look out for the “three Ds”: Depression, Dependency, and Divorce.
Prepare effective questions – Every one-on-one meeting is different. It can sometimes be awkward to get the conversation started, especially if you are just beginning to engage in regular one-to-one meetings, or you are a new manager, or you’re getting to know a new team, then you might need a little more help initially. Prepared questions give you something you can use when the conversation stalls or if you need to move things to a more positive tone. Invest time in crafting a question bank for each of your direct reports. These questions might be something about their likes and dislikes with their current role and responsibilities, what they like about the culture, or what training or development interests them. The key is to get the employee talking and encourage it to continue. One question I recommend all leaders ask their direct reports is “what do I need to stop doing that I’m currently doing, what do I need to start doing that I’m not currently doing, and what do I need to continue doing that you value?”
Listen first, ask questions, listen more – A leader is only as effective as the questions they ask. The key to asking effective questions is to avoid responding defensively to the answers. If you fall into this trap, you damage trust and reduce the value of these meetings. Ask questions to confirm or clarify what the employee is trying to tell you. Be mindful of your words, tone, and facial expressions when asking clarifying or confirming questions. Listen actively, take notes, and pay close attention.
Provide goals and objectives – Whether the conversation is about improving behavior, performance, or just about project status, performance metrics, and overall expectations, it’s vital to communicate clearly about goals, objectives, outcomes, how to achieve the desired outcomes, and what success looks like. Document this information via email or using some form of a goals/expectations document. These meetings provide great opportunities to go through checkpoints on progress and make sure the course is maintained so that expectations and goals are achieved.
Provide positive feedback – Use one-on-one meetings as opportunities for coachable and teachable moments. Teach rather than judge. Build rather than tear down. Encourage rather than discourage. Guide people to success rather than blocking it. Be the answer to the question, “who was your best boss?” One of my favorite stories about the importance and impact of one-on-ones concerns a leader who was asked by an employee how she can make more money. An honest question coming from a 25- year-old, I told him, and one that tells me there’s trust in that relationship. They discussed a plan where she could begin doing some sales & business development work. She went on to generate several hundreds of thousands of dollars by giving demos and closing deals as a result. She was happy with the extra income in commissions, and he essentially added another proven, motivated person to his sales team—and gained an even happier employee and a happier sales manager as a result of building on the conversation that comes out of consistent one-on-ones.
Example Agenda for a 30-Minute One-On-One
What’s going well at work and/or in your life (start off on a positive, get to know the employee, and focus on things outside of work)
Top of mind items (upcoming time off, growth opportunities)
Key or important updates (any important information that might be helpful to share)
Obstacles/challenges (ask how you can help)
Priorities and action Items (provide help with confirming or resetting these)
What the employee is doing well
Obstacles you can help remove
High-level feedback on performance and outcomes
Priorities and action items
One-on-one meetings let you discuss important topics that would probably not come up otherwise. The most precious resource you have is your own time and energy, and when you spend it on your team, it goes a long way toward building healthy relationships. This is why one-on-one meetings are a vital part of effective management.