May 25, 2022

The One-on-One Meeting Manifesto

The One-on-One Meeting Manifesto

The One-on-One Meeting Manifesto

Nathan King

One-on-one meetings are like tire tread on a race car – at times forgettable, often uninteresting to talk about, but vital to victory.

They hold potential to solve the leader’s biggest problem: a shortage of time. The only way out of the scarcity of time is a full dependency on the people they lead. That’s true for any leader, and Peter Drucker points out that as the leader grows in responsibility and as the company experiences success, time scarcity, along with the importance of working through delegates, become even more important.

The more responsibility a leader takes on, and the more complex the environment in which she works, the less time available to the leader to produce important work herself:

The leader needs mechanisms to remain productive with diminishing time, or the leader’s team and organization – and career – pay a price.

The one-on-one meeting between leader and subordinate provide the mechanism for the leader’s need for producing high quality work to transmit to her team, made of the people who have more available time to produce.

The Fundamental Components of a Successful One-on-One Meeting

A successful one-on-one meeting:

  • Is an execution meeting

  • Has agenda about the work needed to get done

  • Results in accountable commitments to be completed by the subordinate

  • Is a recurring meeting

 Since one-on-ones result in execution, many leaders make a mistake by limiting the discussion to merely defining action items.

 This is too simple.

The Deeper Value of One-on-One Meetings

Every employee has a burden, a mix of emotional and logical challenges spread across work and personal categories. The one-on-one meeting gives the subordinate a pause to set down the burden. The meeting doesn’t need to cover personal ground, and the decision to do that would be entirely up to the leader and the subordinate’s chemistry. But the subordinate should feel comfortable and open about sharing challenges and frustrations.

The leader knows that the strain of the subordinate’s day to day work results in not seeing the bigger picture. The leader uses the time to reinforce visionary and strategic elements of the work, to point out where the company is going.  

 A one-on-one that combines candid sharing of challenges and short term tactics and bigger picture strategy will result in more valuable action items outside of the meeting, and to do so requires more art than science.

The Two Steps to Creating Accountability in One-on-Ones

 The easiest way for a leader to ruin a one-on-one is to control the meeting: dictate a list of to-dos, talk about issues and needs, and not give space to the subordinate. The leader’s most important contribution to the one-on-one is to make it the subordinate’s meeting. Consultant Dave Kline says it perfectly:

 It’s their meeting. Their agenda, they bring the metrics, they surface problems first.

 You can’t give responsibility to people. They have to take it. A leader doesn’t dictate great work to be done. The leader creates an environment where great work is done.

 The subordinate takes responsibility by defining the action items. In and of itself, defining action items help to generate motivation to complete the action item. And a motivated employee is a lot more powerful than one who isn’t, even if they have clarity on an action item the leader defined and provided.  

 Giving so much control to the subordinate makes many leaders nervous. It seems counterintuitive. So how does a leader know that the subordinate won’t drift into valueless territory and do unimportant work?

The most important contribution of the leader to the one-on-one is not the answers she provides but the questions she asks.

The Importance of Good Questions

When a leader specifies tasks for a subordinate, the subordinate gets trained not to think.

As a leader, do you want someone who thinks, prioritizes, tackles important challenges? Or do you prefer an automaton to carry out rote tasks?

The answer is obvious. You want a thinker. When the subordinate thinks, he becomes a partner to the business. And to prompt this thinking, the leader asks questions in a one-on-one. Thinking produces greater ownership, because the subordinate come up with his own ideas. Often, these ideas are better than the leader’s own ideas.

16 Great Questions to Ask in a One-on-One

Help them set down the burden

  1. What is consuming most of your time right now? Where is your job hardest right now?

  2. What is your biggest energy drain at work? What else?

  3. Name five minor annoyances that sap your energy and drag you down?

Alternatives to yes-no questions

  1. To what extent...

  2. Say more about that...

Help them shape the work

  1. What feels most important right now? Follow up: how will the business be impacted by that action?

  2. What was the biggest miss of the company last week? How did we let people down?

  3. Where are we doing really well and how can we use that strength elsewhere?

Create Measurable accountability

  1.  Our next meeting is on date X. What are the top 3 commitments between now and then?

  2. Follow up: how will we know you've accomplished this?

  3. What could get in the way and throw this off track?

  4. What help do you need?

The Mechanics of a One-on-One Meeting

Every person inside of a company should know with confidence that she will have a one-on-one meeting with her boss. She should also know that her boss is not likely to cancel the meeting, or routinely reschedule it.

The most fundamental drivers of one-on-one meeting success are administrative in nature:

  1.  One-on-one meetings are recurring. They can be weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. I find that weekly is best, but I work in a rapidly changing environment with complex situations that people need input on. The key is that they occur on a day and time when other items are not competing for attention, resulting in short-notice cancellations or rescheduling.

  2. One-on-one meetings start and end on time. They can be 30 minutes, or an hour and a half. The shorter the time, the more efficient the meeting must be. Because cultivation of relationship is so important (more on that below), I prefer an hour, which is a somewhat luxurious time to explore a wider range of topics and inquire about the individual. What time length is best for you? Just pick what seems best, and re-evaluate if it is too short or too long. Honor your subordinate by showing up on time and not keeping them too long.

  3. A standing agenda. It benefits both leader and subordinate to have a routine sequence of topics. An example for a one hour one-on-one would be

    1. Review commitments from last meeting (10 minutes)

    2. Discuss open challenges (15 minutes)

    3. Prioritize and commit to specific action items to be completed by the next meeting (20 minutes)

    4. Identify barriers or potential obstacles that the leader will advise or follow through on (15 minutes)

And the leader should look forward to one-on-one meetings too. For the leader, this is the time when the continuous pressure of “I don’t have enough time” gets some relief knowing that the subordinate is producing what the leader doesn’t have time to do.

Think of a one-on-one meeting as regular time to:

  1. Build relationships

  2. Offer subordinates the opportunity for more ownership

  3. Define accountable action items that move the business forward

  4. Be curious about what the subordinate is dealing with to uncover internal and external barriers where they need help




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


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