Effective One-on-One Meetings

One-on-one meetings are held between a manager and direct report with the objectives of setting priorities, gaining clarity around progress, and improving performance. The value of the meeting should be, at a minimum, equal to the cost of the time spent in the meeting. The agenda is standard and simple:

  1. What happened last week?
  2. What’s the plan for this week?
  3. Whatever the direct report would like to discuss.

Through dozens of implementations, we’ve found the ideal meeting length is 15-30 minutes if being done every week, longer if monthly. Never go over time (use a timer if you have to). The meeting is meant to be a tool to enhance pro-activity. If the manager knows what is happening, they can use their experience and broader perspective to provide coaching and feedback for performance improvement and to set priorities that align with the strategic priorities of the business. As our client Melissa, a Sales Manager, recently told us,

“I am a really approachable person and I just figured everyone was already telling me all of their issues. In fact, they were holding back because they didn’t want to ‘bug me’ or thought I might be ‘too busy’. Now with the one on ones, there is a dedicated time to cover those things off. And you know what? Sometimes it’s not just one person with the issue it’s two or three – so it could seem like something small, but when you start multiplying it across everyone it’s actually really significant, and they’d have no way of knowing that.”

The alternative to the one-on-one is firefighting, when critical activities go awry and problems must be addressed immediately and with a significantly reduced set of options.

The first two points of the agenda are for the manager’s benefit – to keep them up to date on the most important activities in the report’s world. The final third of the agenda is in the report’s control, and they are encouraged to discuss whatever they think is most critical to bring to the manager’s attention. However, remember that the agenda is the manager’s, and the first two items should be fully covered before the meeting is handed over to the report. If the manager’s priorities take the full meeting, the report’s items are bumped to the next week.

The manager and report each take their own notes in the meeting. At its conclusion, each party jots down a few comments of what they would like to cover next week so the next meeting can start promptly and remain focused.

3 Key Success Factors

1. Regularly Scheduled

Pick a regular day and time that you and your report are most likely to be able to maintain. For sales people, Monday mornings and Friday afternoons seem to work best. For senior managers, Tuesday mornings are often available. Vacations happen and surprise appointments do too – but treat this meeting as important, and you should be able to hit three of every four meetings that are booked.

The most common objection managers have to one-on-one meetings is the amount of time they will take. It usually sounds something like this: “Seven direct reports at 30 minutes for each meeting? A half-day a week of one-on-ones is not possible – this is too theoretical. How will I get my work done?!” This reaction demonstrates a good assessment of the costs of one-on-one meetings, but misses an important variable: the amount of time spent firefighting when something slides off track.

2. Rarely Missed

The full value of one-on-ones can be realized when the meetings happen routinely. To create the new habit, meetings should be held every week. They must be prioritized over other activities to deeply ingrain the habit and give it time to take root. As your skills at managing the meeting develop, the depth of the conversation and value of the interaction will increase.

3. Face-to-Face

If you and your direct reports work from the same location, meeting in person is easy. However, people are increasingly working remotely. Add in a commute just to hold a one-on-one and you’ve increased the cost of the time, and the meeting, significantly. Yet, two thirds of communication is non-verbal, so being able to see each other is important. There’s no substitute for meeting eyeball to eyeball, but one solution is Microsoft Teams or Zoom. When you video conference, you can assess body language and facial expressions, and have a deeper interaction knowing attention is not being split between reviewing emails or reports and listening to the conversation.

Implementation Checklist

You’ve decided to start holding formal one-on-ones and want to begin strong to make sure you carry on. Here’s an implementation checklist to make them stick:

  • Start with three key people that report to you. Once you experience the benefit of the one-on-ones you can add more.
  • Identify a regular day and time that you are likely to be able to maintain for at least a couple of months.
  • Calculate how much it will cost to have these meetings. 45 minutes x your time + 45 minutes x the other person’s time.
  • Set up a binder with loose-leaf paper and insert one divider for each person you will be meeting. Always keep your notes from the meetings in this binder in chronological order for quick reference.
  • For the first meeting, spend a few minutes before hand determining the priorities to discuss.
  • After the meeting try to quantify the value of what you discussed. Also note if there are fewer fires to fight that week and “urgent” interruptions in your day. Add this to the benefit side of the meeting value equation.

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Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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