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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • December 27, 2020
  • minute read

One-On-Ones: Why and How to Use Them Effectively 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

The single most undervalued tool for any leader trying to get her or his team into Predictable Success is one which is much-misunderstood, often feared, sometimes misused, easy to implement but rarely used effectively.  

It's the 'one on one meeting'.

Why are one-on-ones so important? Because unless they are used effectively, as any organization grows in size and complexity, two things happen:

1. Leaders, previously in close day-to-day contact with everyone and passionately involved with the organization’s overall goals and objectives, become increasingly remote, issue-focused, and over-worked, and

2. As a result, their team members slowly, (imperceptibly, at first) become disoriented, then disconnected, and ultimately, disengaged.

When rich, two-way engagement declines like this, team-work suffers, and the quality of information and communication is impoverished, sometimes to fatal effect, if as is often the case, leadership becomes starved of the ‘real-world’, front-line perspectives one-on-ones should bring and begins to drink it’s own kool-aid.

Usually, this is a slow process – the leadership team doesn’t wake up some day and discover it has ceased to function as cohesively as it once did. Instead, over a prolonged period, morale, creativity and employee engagement all decline to the point where eventually, someone calls out the fact that cohesiveness and team spirit have atrophied.

It might show up as a rise in what's perceived as ‘griping’, or just a general sense that people aren't pulling as hard as they used to, but one way or another, it becomes clear over time that culturally, all is not what it should be – or used to be.

The answer must be “fun”!

And here’s where the big mistake often happens: Often, the leadership response is to try to put the genie back in the bottle – to re-enthuse managers to go back to the way things were before – to be more ‘happy-go-lucky’, more freewheeling, more involved with their employees.

“Let’s put some fun back into working here” is a common cry.

We re-instate the events committee, hold barbeques, start a hobby-sharing Slack channel, have “Zoom socials”, - whatever it takes to mix it up and bring the fun back.

And guess what…it doesn’t work.

Sadly, complexity beats fun every time… people are just too busy, too harried, too disoriented, too unfocussed – darn it, just too concerned to have fun.

So, after a quick burst of semi-committed activity, the social events wither or cease, and before you know it, everyone is back where they where previously, except now they’re even more disengaged than previously, because the “let’s have fun!” initiative didn’t work.

Beat complexity with process, not fun

This doesn’t mean that the organization cannot regain a sense of fun – just that the chronology needs to be right.

The way to beat complexity is not with fun, but with process. In practical terms, this means that managers need a process to re-engage their employees, to regain that sense of focus, commitment and energy.  Instead of wishing and hoping that the ‘good old days’ will return when ‘we all just got along’, it’s vital to put in place a process that systematically re-injects employee engagement.

And that process is an ostensibly boring, mundane one - it's the one-on-one meeting.

Going to the gym

It is vital for leadership in a growing, increasingly complex organization to realize that they cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

You’re never going to find a block of time suddenly opening up for you to address your team’s engagement and commitment – you have to make the time – formally and consistently, every week, for the rest of your leadership career. 

It’s like reaching a certain age and realizing that I’m never again going to ‘naturally’ stay fit and healthy. It’s just not going to happen – now, I have to go to the gym consistently and regularly – and if I don’t plan it, it won’t happen.

One-on-ones are just that – the consistent and regular gym visit that keeps your employees healthy and fit for what they do. And guess what – once we’ve achieved that, we can start to have fun again.

If you think one-on-ones are something that would make a real difference to how your team overcomes complexity and growth, read on for guidance on how to initiate and conduct a one on one, and what to expect from them.

The Goals of an Effective One-On-One

The goals of a one-on-one meeting are straightforward:

  1. To improve morale, by acknowledging the contribution the employee makes, and demonstrating that what he/she does is both relevant and important to the organization; 
  2. To increase productivity by establishing and reviewing their medium- and long-term goals; 
  3. To demonstrate respect and concern, by taking an interest in their professional and career development; 
  4. To increase performance, by discussing barriers to successful performance and developing plans to overcome those barriers; 
  5. To build rapport and trust by asking for input on the team’s processes, operations and overall direction, and by giving (and seeking) regular feedback.

How Often Should You Have A One-On-One?

Your mileage will vary, and it's more important that you commit to something you can stick with than that you start with an enthusiastic burst of activity that then quietly ebbs away,

I usually recommend committing intially to two 20-minute sessions per month with each of your team members or direct reports. Some leaders find it more effective after a while to combine these two 20-minute meetings into one session of around 40 minutes per month, which is fine. 

But to get started, I suggest beginning with the two shorter sessions, as they are easier to keep focussed and content-filled and shift to the single 40 minute session when you feel you would both benefit from a longer single session.

For a leader with an average of seven direct reports, this means investing a total of just under 5 hours per month to your teams’ personal and career development, and their productivity and performance. That's a fair chunk of time to invest in one-on-ones, but  if it's done correctly you'll reap a high return on investment.

A Suggested Agenda For Your First One-On-One

Below is a suggested agenda for your first one-on-one (of course, you should and must customize this to suit your specific circumstances). 

I also recommend that you make the draft agenda available to your team member ahead of the one-on-one meeting, and ask for their feedback and suggestions for any amendments. 

Don’t feel that you need to ask any or all of the questions I’ve listed – they’re just indications of the type of question you should ask. 

Finally, it isn’t necessary to cover all areas in each meeting – you might want to cover only one or two topics in one meeting, and a different set of topics in the next: 

1. CURRENT PROJECTS: 

  • What are the key projects you are currently working on?
  • What questions do you have about this project?
  • How can I help you with this project?
  • What concerns / suggestions / observations do you have about how we are addressing this project?
  • What have you learned while working on this project?
  • What would you do differently next time?

2. UPCOMING PROJECTS: 

  • What do you have coming up?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • How can I help you achieve it?
  • How will you approach this challenge?
  • What would you like to do, but don’t have the time or the resources?
  • How can I help you find the time or the resources that you need?

3. PERSONAL / CAREER DEVELOPMENT: 

  • What do you feel good about in your role at present?
  • What are you unhappy about?
  • What do you want to achieve this month / quarter / year in terms of your personal and career development?
  • How can I help you attain those goals?
  • What would you like to know from me?
  • Is there anything I can be doing differently to help you?

A Suggested Email To Your Team

Here’s a suggested text for an email to your team, letting them know about your decision to start having one-on-one meetings. 

Feel free to cut and paste it – but, please, treat it as a draft – you must amend it to suit your own style and situation.

Hi {firstname} -

I’ve decided to introduce a series of one-on-one meetings, primarily to give us both the opportunity to step back a bit from the hurly-burly of everyday activities and review progress from a broader perspective.

These meetings will last approximately 20 minutes, and will be held every two weeks.

I know we talk / text / email every day – often multiple times, and you may wonder what an additional meeting can add to the picture.

The fact is is that most of our day-to-day interactions are reactive: they’re usually about issues at runway level – tasks on hand, problems to solve, etc.

The purpose of the one-on-ones to be more proactive: to give us an opportunity to plan, and to think creatively about how we can do things differently.

I also want you to have a regular opportunity to talk with me about anything that might improve your understanding of what we are doing as an organization (and why we are doing it), and about your personal and career development within the organization.

Finally, I want to make it clear that these are not performance assessment sessions – the goal of the meetings is not to ‘grade’ you on your performance, but rather to informally explore ways in which we can improve and develop both as individuals and as team members.

I’ve attached a draft of a proposed agenda for our first session – please feel free to return it to me with any comments, additions or suggestions you might have.

{your email ‘signature’}

What about you? Have you used one-on-ones successfully as a leader? What tips do you have for getting traction with them?

Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. Thank you Les! One on ones have been crucial to our success as an organization; don’t know how leaders function without them. This article helps us improve the agenda for our meetings. Your questions and topics will keep us focused on the right questions/ideas and moving forward. Thanks very much

  2. Les – good stuff, adding to my 2021 "getting out of the whitewater" list. One thing I will add though is repetition of key initiatives, core values or messages that need to be reinforced. Communication is the hardest thing we do as leaders and we too often think our messages have gotten through long before they actually have. Just one minute of the 20 minutes, being intentional about communication.

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