High performance team & leadership coach. Author of Is This A Question?

Yes! To be fair, few leaders or managers are as cynical about 1-on-1s with their team as the title of this article suggests.  But it is fair to say avoidance of 1-on-1’s, frustration and dislike of 1-on-1s, and even a complete absence of 1-on-1’s (because they fell by the wayside months ago) are all common.

Reasons are easy to find:

  • I don’t know how
  • We’re in a rut – every 1-on-1 feels the same
  • It takes too long to prepare
  • 1-on-1s don’t make any difference to performance – it’s wasted time
  • 1-on-1s have become demotivating….

Conversely when 1-on-1s work they quickly become a highlight, considered amongst the most valuable time in the work calendar, often are the birthplace of ideas that lead breakthroughs personally or for the team or company and they are a hallmark of professional relationships that are exciting, enabling and enjoyable.

When 1-on-1s work they’re a source of frequent surprise and delight!

How can I make 1-on-1s great again?

Chances are it’ll be no problem to have valuable, productive, enjoyable 1-on-1s once a good momentum has built up.  The same creativity that emerges to make these conversations valuable will keep your 1-on-1s fresh and in a good place.  It’s getting started, or re-started, that can be tricky.

Here’s three ideas:

Keep your 1-on-1s different

Good 1-on-1s are unique to the individuals in them and distinct from most the other meetings that fill our calendars.  Avoid having a common agenda and don’t let your 1-on-1s feel like other meetings.  Do something different.

Perhaps introduce walking meetings.  Or, a healthy breakfast meeting.  Or, make it a rule that each 1-on-1 will be in a new place.  If you’re remote from your colleague how about you each head to a favourite place and have a walking meeting on your ‘phones.  They key point is to let 1-on-1s be spontaneous.

Keeping 1-to-1s different achieves two more things.  Old 1-on-1s are consigned to the history books and this is especially useful to escape being stuck in a rut or a run of less than productive impact.  And constantly changing approach tends to lead to flexibility in agenda too.  Perfect for letting 1-on-1s be unique to the individuals involved.

btw by making 1-on-1s different with each of your colleagues you’ll soon find plenty of choices build up.

Ditch the agenda.  Instead establish ground rules

Far more important than any agenda are the principles that a 1-on-1 must be:

  • We both commit to regular great 1-on-1s.  This means making sure our conversations happen and both putting our inventiveness into making these conversations great!
  • We’ll both tell it how it is.  Including the things we’d rather not say but really should.
  • Big Impact. These conversations are not for updates and reporting.  That’s what reports are for!  We’ll limit updates to the big stuff and we’ll always make time for a deep conversation about the opportunity, challenge or dilemma that has the potential for big impact.
  • Two way. Our 1-on-1s should surprise both of us.  Stretch both of us.  Challenge both of us.
  • Enjoy it. If either of us is not enjoying it then our #1 question is – what needs to change so that we both enjoy these conversations.

Agree your own set of ground rules up front.  (This can be a good team session).  Attach them to the calendar invite in place of an agenda!

For a copy of my own ‘Ground Rules for great 1-on-1s [Ask Ben link]

Ask THE Question

Essential, and the heart of every great 1-on-1:

What is the most important item you and I can discuss, and improve our thinking about, today?

Make this discussion the largest part of the conversation.  For some 20 minutes is ideal for a conversation that takes thinking forward a step.  For others its twice that.  Or more.  Learn what works for each person you have 1-on-1s with and adjust the length of your 1-on-1 accordingly.

Once 1-on-1s are great again often they take the form of:

  • A short update on the big/important stuff.  btw: this is two-way!
  • Anything awkward? Anything we’d rather not say but really should?
  • THE Question and an uninterrupted discussion.  What is the most important item you and I can talk about, and improve our thinking about, today?
  • Debrief: key points and did we enjoy this?

How will I know?

You’ll know because great 1-on-1s feel good and your colleague will tell you! Also,

  • Both of you will feel connected and informed
  • Few bad surprises. Plenty of good surprises
  • New thinking happens. Topics don’t drift.  Things move forward
  • Small stuff is handled effectively between 1-on-1s. Big stuff is the stuff of 1-on-1s

Ben Wales is a coach to entrepreneurial CEOs and their senior teams and author of forthcoming bookIs This A Question?‘. Originally a rocket scientist for the UK’s equivalent of NASA, Ben pivoted into a 19-year career running and growing start-up and scale-up companies in entrepreneurial hotspots London and Stockholm. Today, in his coaching practice, Ben focuses on individual and team high performance. Learn more at benwales.com or Ask Ben.