One-on-one meetings with your direct reports are the most powerful engagement and productivity tool you have as a leader.

As your business scales up and you bring on more and more team members, you will inevitably need to spend more time on people-related challenges and opportunities. To some of the founders I coach it is a transitional moment. 

“I’ve had a frustrating week, I spent most of my time dealing with people issues and very little time getting my work done. I am not their therapist!”

But then the realisation. 

“Well maybe that is now my work, helping my team members work more effectively and listening to their concerns.”

Yes indeed! Welcome to the scale up. When your head pops up from the start up phase and you realise you have a bunch of people you need to manage and lead, that is the time to start focusing on helping others thrive.

So how do you help your team members be productive and engaged?

The answer is you can do it in a variety of ways but one of the most powerful tools in your leadership toolbox is regular one-on-ones.

Some of the founders I coach enthusiastically embrace the concept of one-on-ones and start offering them to all their staff.

Other founders I coach have never heard of one-on-ones or if they have they treat them more like regular status updates rather than an opportunity to help their team members grow and develop. 

As you will discover in this essay, one-on-ones are something you NEED to master to succeed as a leader and to maximise the probability of success. 

I have split this topic of one-on-ones into two separate essays.

This first essay is about the why of one-on-ones i.e. the benefits of having them.

And the second essay is about the how – i.e the skills and mindsets you need to master – and the what – i.e. the practical tips to help you run exceptional one-on-ones.

So let’s begin by looking at the definition of one-on-ones!

The What

What are one-on-ones?

In simple terms a one-on-one is typically a meeting between a leader and their team member who reports to them.

Many leaders use one-on-ones as a status update i.e. how are the specific projects coming along. I believe that is a misuse of this invaluable time. 

A one-on-one meeting should not be a status update but dedicated time where the team member can open up about issues which are on their mind, to get help/guidance from you, their leader, to understand and eliminate roadblocks and to develop their skills.

9 benefits of one-on-ones

I don’t think you can afford not to have one-on-ones as you scale your business up

When you hire specialists who have much more experience than you in certain areas, the temptation may be to leave them to it. Or imposter syndrome may kick in and you don’t think you can add value to a seasoned expert. Mistake.

In the Harvard Business Review article about what great leaders need to do, it stated that when a leader doesn’t have one-on-ones at all: 

Employees … are four times as likely to be as disengaged… and two times as likely to view leadership unfavourably.” 

Some of the most successful leaders, entrepreneurs and investors believe one-on-ones are critical including Andy Grove, who took Intel from nothing to a $20 billion turnover business. He dedicated a whole chapter to one-on-ones in his must-read (for any leader) book High Output Management.

Here are some of the benefits of running effective one-on-ones:

  1. Higher engagement leading to high productivity and profitability

Gallup defines employee engagement as “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work.” Why should we care about engagement? Because engaged employees produce better business results than other employees. In the chart (data from Gallup) below you can see the differences in results from business units with high engagement compared to low engagement. Pretty compelling, don’t you think!? 22% higher profitability and 21% higher productivity.

1:1 meetings impact employee engagement

And whose job is engagement? According to Gallup 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined by the leader. Employee engagement should be a leader’s primary role. In order to perform that role successfully leaders need to be equipped to have ongoing one-on-one coaching conversations with their colleagues.

  1. Increased retention

There is a lot of noise about the big resignation and retention is rightly on leaders’ minds. One bit of research at Adobe showed that when leaders switched from performance reviews to regular one-on-ones there was a 30% reduction in staff turnover. Research done by Hogan Assessments found that 65%-75% of workers say their boss is the most stressful part of their job. And also rather worryingly they discovered that 20% of the Baltimore workforce say they fantasise daily about killing their boss! The old adage that people leave their managers, not their companies appears to be true. 

  1. Growth and development of your team member

A recent survey by Amazon found that 2 out 3 employees are likely to leave their employer within the next year and the reasons are primarily about growth opportunities or lack of.

  • 64% plan to quit because there aren’t enough opportunities for skills development
  • 66% plan to quit due to lack of career advancement opportunities

And for Millennials and Gen Z the percentage increases to 74%. One-on-ones give leaders the opportunity to facilitate that growth, keeping direct reports more engaged with their work.

  1. Build Stronger relationships

As I wrote in a previous essay about relationships, great relationships will help your business succeed and in order to build them they require commitment and effort. It is through conversations in your one-on-ones that you can connect and communicate and generate the cocktail of chemicals and hormones which lead to a sense of trust, fairness and cooperation.

You’ll be able to figure out how to create the right environment for your team members to thrive by paying attention to what motivates and is important to them. One-on-ones allow you to do that.

  1. The gift of feedback 

We all need feedback to get better. We are unable to fully appreciate the impact we have on others. Our good intentions do not guarantee a good impact. As the leader, you need to learn to give difficult feedback skillfully and help your team members to receive it with curiosity not defensiveness. 

Feedback is more effective the more immediate it is. And regular one-on-ones provide you with the opportunity to give timely and constant feedback. In between the meetings record the behaviours you have seen and then explain what behaviours need to change, be maintained and be improved.

  1. Receive feedback on yourself and your leadership

The one-on-one meeting is a perfect opportunity to solicit frequent feedback on your leadership style so you can continue to hone your leadership skills. Don’t ask a vague question like, “Do you have any feedback for me?”, ask more specific questions such as: “What is something I could have done differently this week to make your job easier?”

  1. Catch problems early

Most of us avoid conflict because it feels so uncomfortable to confront someone and/or we don’t know how to. One-on-ones are an opportunity to raise issues or frustrations or unmet needs. It’s easier to raise problems before they develop into major conflicts or crunches. You want to encourage your direct report to express their concerns early when it is just a pinch. A pinch is less likely to raise the emotional stakes. But a pinch left to fester, can explode into an emotional and organisational mess. 

  1. Source of knowledge

As Andy Grove says in his aforementioned book High Output Management one-on-ones are ‘the best source for organisational knowledge that a manager can get.” Without them you will know a lot less about what is happening in your company. 

  1. Less burnout, higher well-being 

According to Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workforce  stress among the world’s workers has reached an all time high. Left unchecked stress can lead to burnout. There is a strong correlation between having the opportunity to talk about managing stress and a healthy culture. And what better opportunity to talk about potential burnout in the safe space of a one-on-one?

The immense leverage of one-on-ones

According to Andy Grove:

“Ninety minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eight-plus hours.”

Clearly one-on-ones exert immense leverage. 

A leader’s job is to help their team members deliver results in a sustainable way – not through power and authority but through nurturing a set of human relationships. 

And ultimately the one-on-one meeting is an opportunity to build a human relationship based on rapport and trust. It is a place to have real, honest conversations where you draw out your colleagues’ dreams and motivations, fears and challenges to help them along their path of progress. 

If you treat your team member as an equal, as someone you respect, as an interesting fellow human you will likely be surprised by what this does for their motivation, and engagement. If your team member doesn’t feel you care about them and can come to you for guidance they will end up leaving you. 

Investing proper time and effort into your one-on-ones will create upsides and prevent downsides beyond your imagination. 

Do you need help improving the effectiveness of your one-on-ones? Reach out and let’s discuss how we can help you.

Mark Farrer-Brown
Founder and CEO Coach, Entrepreneur, Business Builder and Angel Investor

Mark Farrer-Brown

Mark is known for his scale up expertise having been part of multiple successful exits over the last 25 years as a founder, business builder, coach, mentor and investor.

Follow Mark on LinkedIn.

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