When mentoring newer managers, one of the questions I am most often asked is about how to hold effective one-on-ones. Here are 10 tips to help you make your one-on-ones more effective.

1. Open the channels of communication

Holding regular one-on-ones with your employees is all about creating open lines of communication. An established, trusting relationship is the essential vehicle for successfully delivering influential feedback that lands.

2. Listen more than you speak

You have two eyes, two ears and one mouth: use them in that proportion. Listen to the person’s tone of voice and watch their body language. Make eye contact and resist fidgeting. Focus on truly listening to what is being said and being present in the moment. Listen for multiple layers of meaning. Ask questions. Be interested. Be curious.

3. Learn where they come from and where they are going

There are two open-ended questions that I like to ask people in their first one-on-one:

  • What is your ‘life story’ that led you to be here?
  • Where do you ultimately want to go in the future?

Allow the person to speak about whatever they like: be it their childhood, their education, or their professional career. Pay attention not only to the content of their answers (the what) but also how they choose to answer the questions. These innocuous ice-breakers can quickly reveal useful insights and help you learn about your employee as a professional and as a person. They also signal that you are interested in your employee on a personal level.

4. Understand their personality and culture

Pay particular attention to your employee’s personality type and to their culture. This is one of the most valuable lessons that I have learned as a manager.

For example, consider some of the following questions:

  • What motivates this person?
  • What is the best way to persuade this person?
  • How best can you work with this person?

Knowledge of personality types, cultural differences and communication styles pays dividends. Some resources that I have found valuable on this topic are: Crystal Knows, The Culture Map and the Merril-Reid communication styles.

5. Respect your employee’s time

How often should one-on-ones occur, and how long should they be? This may depend on the employee. Some of the factors include:

  • Where are they in their career?
  • How independent are they?
  • Is the employee generally more communicative or more reserved?

A good starting point is half an hour once a week, adjusting based on how it goes. Aim to meet up at least once every two weeks.

6. Keep it personal, keep it awkward

Explain to your employee that one-on-one time is their time. It is not a standing session for you to be updated on the status of their business-as-usual work – that can always be done in the team area or in some normal meeting, such as stand-up.

A good rule-of-thumb is the Awkwardness Test: Is this topic too awkward to discuss in public? Then it is a good candidate for a one-on-one.

Such topics may include:

  • Career development
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Feedback

7. Allow the employee to structure the session

Encourage the employee to structure their one-on-ones as suits them, in order to maximise the value that they get out of it. An effective format is one that works for the employee. What works well for one person might not work for another.

These are all valid options:

  • Casual conversation
  • Regular checklist of talking points
  • Development plan

You as the manager may need to be the more flexible one, adapting to the needs of the employee, and keeping your own notes in a manner that makes sense for you.

8. Respect your own time

A well-liked but ineffective manager is one who spends face-time with all who ask, neglecting their other important duties. While networking and relationship-building are critical to success, remember to give priority to your first team of peers and to those for whom you are directly responsible. If you find yourself spending entire days in one-on-ones, you may need to think about ruthless reprioritisation and optimisation. As a manager, the first thing that you are managing is your own time.

9. Grow your top performers

Offer at least as much attention to your high-performing and high-potential people as to your lower performers. This may be counterintuitive, because lower performers have more obvious needs of your time, while higher performers are more autonomous and appear to require less from you. Remember that the curve is non-linear: a great employee may be thousands of times more effective than a good employee, who may be thousands of times more effective than a mediocre employee. It makes sense to spend the same X hours helping a good employee become great. This is one of the most difficult lessons that I have learned as a manager.

10. Hold your employee accountable

Make it clear that the responsibility for the one-on-one is with your employee. Since it is their time, they are responsible for ensuring that the sessions are scheduled, that they are present and on-time and that they arrive sufficiently prepared for the content to be valuable to them. If the one-on-ones do not happen effectively, the one worst affected is the employee, so they should be encouraged to call out if their needs are not being met. This is one way in which employees are expected to exhibit ownership over their own career progression.

I hope you found this article helpful! Please let me know if there is anything that you’d like me to explain further, or if you would like more examples. Or perhaps you would like to give feedback or discuss something of your own! Just let me know, in the comments below, or by reaching out directly. Until next time… - Ronen