Start Making Your One-on-One Meetings More Meaningful
Every week, at least one of my clients will bring up the topic of one-on-ones (also written 1:1s or 1–1s). A lot of my clients are founders, and the one-on-one is a sacred part of startup culture. But one-on-ones are everywhere and come up as topics with my Fortune 500 corporate clients, too.
How to set the right cadence? What should be the focus or agenda? Is it just problem solving? How do we lead or participate in one-on-ones in a way that makes the time actually valuable? What can we do to make the most of this short time?
I’ve written about the value of approaching team development using the TAM model: trust, accountability, and motivation. And I believe that this same model adds depth and richness to one-on-ones.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about what makes one-on-one meetings valuable (and what doesn’t).
Set the Stage for Effective 1:1s
First, let’s agree on what we mean by “one-on-one.” I’m not talking about status updates or performance reviews or even problem solving sessions. The purpose of the one-on-one is fundamentally focused on people, not projects or problems.
The one-on-one should be a valuable, meaningful meeting between a leader and her or his direct report. This isn’t a time to jump into process or to-dos, it’s a time to take a step back, build the relationship, and offer mentorship and coaching.
These meetings are more valuable today than ever. The complexity of work has never been higher. Business growth today isn’t defined by how well leaders manage, but by how often and how effectively they invest in their people.
This mindset is a critical prerequisite for one-on-one meetings. They can be immensely meaningful, but only if used to their full potential. If you find yourself questioning the value of the one-on-ones on your calendar, check in on how they’re actually being used and their expectations.
Once all parties are aligned on the value and purpose of the one-on-one, the next question is how to get maximum value out of the meeting. Just like building a high-performing team (HPT), try taking the TAM framework of trust, accountability, and motivation into one-on-ones.
One of the key objectives of one-on-ones is to deepen the relationship between leaders and their team members. When relationships are strong, teams perform at peak potential. Team members feel invited to ask questions, make mistakes, and bring their true selves to work. The essential building block here is trust.
The easiest and most effective entry point into a trust-based relationship is simple: ask more questions. Asking questions is foundational in coaching as a leadership tool. It turns the attention over to the other person, activates deeper listening in ourselves, and invites richer, more honest discussion.
In your next one-on-one, try keeping track of how many times you are asking questions versus giving advice or making statements. If the former is less than the latter, you may be leaving out opportunities to coach and empower others.
Here are some great questions to kick off the one-on-one and invite a richer discussion:
What are you feeling really excited about right now?
What are you most worried about right now?
What has been the most rewarding thing about the last week?
What has been the most challenging thing about the last week?
Notice that these questions are all open-ended, meaningful, and personal. Read more about what makes a powerful question here.
One last note: ask mostly questions, but don’t only ask questions. Share and role model vulnerability, offer genuine support, and engage at the human level.
At some point in the one-on-one, I encourage you to bring in a bit of accountability. On the surface, this means checking in on action items from the last meeting and asking what support is needed. But the single greatest thing that contributes to effective team accountability is having clear, and compelling goals.
Having goals that are crisp and aligned to the business objectives is a cornerstone of team members understanding where they’re heading and whether they’re putting effort into the right things. Transparent conversations about goals deepen the relationship by elevating it into what matters. They maximize clarity and minimize rework and frustration down the line.
Here are a few questions that you can bring into the conversation to gently encourage accountability:
What are the goals for your team this week/month/quarter?
What’s changed since the last time we met?
What’s holding you back from achieving your goals?
What higher-level business objectives do your goals contribute to?
As a leader, asking about goals gives us a glimpse into alignment. We learn firsthand about the approach and priorities of our team. We may also hear something that sounds out of step with expectations.
Remember, too, that this meeting isn’t a status update. It’s not about progress on tasks. Try to elevate the discussion to bigger, more long-term goals. Focus on strategy not tactics.
Fostering trust and encouraging accountability both help to motivate our team, but we can also focus on this directly. There are lots of ways to think about motives and incentives, including this article on the same, but what really matters is values.
The single biggest thing we as leaders can do to motivate our teams is to make sure that the team’s values align with individual values. And the easiest way to discover those individual values? Just ask people what’s important to them!
Here are some great questions to save time for at the end of a one-on-one:
What are your own personal goals, inside and outside of work?
What are your goals for professional growth and personal development?
What can we do to make this the best team environment for you?
What can we do to give you more of the opportunities you want?
Just like earlier, we learn more when we ask open questions about what’s important. We as leaders get to learn what really matters to our team, what motivates them. And this can be difficult — we’ve been conditioned to prescribe advice and offer words of wisdom. But this is what can make a one-on-one valuable: being an uncommon break from the typical meeting.
Bringing It All Together
There are a hundred ways to run a one-on-one meeting. The approach should reflect your leadership style, your company culture, and the objectives you’re trying to reach or the values you’re trying to grow.
Regardless of the details, I encourage you to try bringing in three deliberate lenses of trust, accountability, and motivation into your one-on-ones. The order doesn’t really matter, but there is logical flow in focusing on each in that order. To recap:
Foster trust by kicking off with powerful, open-ended questions on how things are really going (hint: “how are you doing?” rarely solicits a genuine answer), building deeper relationships through genuine care and interest
Encourage accountability by focusing on big, meaningful goals, asking first for them to describe what their goals are and staying at a higher level to avoid getting sucked into process and tactics
Build motivation by asking about what’s really important and meaningful to them, as human beings; take the time to check in on goals or objectives at a personal level and identify ways to support their development
If that’s all you do in a one-on-one, it’s more than enough. Think quality over quantity and do less to do more. Here are some final parting tips collected over the years:
Keep the time as sacred and cancel or move as a last resort to really signal how much it matters
Set up the right cadence; usually 30 minutes every week or 60 minutes every other week works as a starting point
Try to minimize distractions and reflect on the meeting ahead of time — this will help you be more present and listen actively and pay attention to nonverbal cues
Try getting out of the office or taking a walk, even if it’s a virtual meeting
Avoid using these as working sessions or status updates; if you feel like you’re getting pulled into tactical problem solving, call a timeout (it’s probably not the best use of time for either of you)
Decide on whether feedback is on the agenda (I don’t do feedback in one-on-ones, but others do; if you allocate time for feedback, make sure it’s deliberate and mutual)
Co-create an overall agenda in your first one-on-one, but keep it high level and delegate ownership of the agenda to your team members
Similarly, empower your team by delegating the tracking and updates for any action items that come out of the meetings
I hope that these ideas have left you with some new ways to think about one-on-ones. What has worked for you? What have you discovered makes a good one-on-one meeting, either as a leader or as a direct report?
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in The Innovation