The secret to rocking your one-to-ones

This week we are featuring a fascinating guest blog by Ally Jones from We often get asked by our founders ‘How do we hire the best people? How do I create a fantastic company culture? How do I become the best manager I can be?” Anouk and her team are are experts in these difficult but very common issues for founders.

Read about how to get real value out of those all important one-to-ones here…

One of the recurring themes that often gets brought up during coaching and training sessions are one-to-ones. I hear about them all the time.

Despite what you might be thinking, that isn’t a moan. I love one-to-ones! They’re one of the most impactful (or damaging) conversations you can have with your team members, which makes them a juicy topic!

I often ask Managers to describe (and to be brutally honest) what they think of one-to-ones. Typically, I get the following kind of responses:

  • “They’re far too time consuming” or “I just don’t have time”
  • “They’re a tick box exercise”
  • “They’re really important, but my team just aren’t engaged. They turn up totally unprepared”
  • “I can’t see any tangible outcomes off the back of one-to-ones”

If you resonate with any of the above, then know you’re not alone. Plenty of Managers think that. In fact, I’ll let you into a secret – a long time ago I thought that too. At one point I was trying to hold 30 one-to-ones a month, plus run a busy department. It was exhausting!

On the flip side, when I ask people about their experiences of one-to-ones with their Manager, the things I hear most are:

  • “My manager doesn’t care about them”
  • “They’re always changing the date and pushing them back”
  • “It just feels like a tick box exercise”
  • “I just don’t have time”

Interesting, right? Both Manager and the individual are saying they haven’t got time for them and that the other person isn’t engaged or bought into the process. Yet, we wonder why so many companies struggle to introduce – and stick to – any kind of consistency when it comes to one-to-ones!

I’m going to put it out there – the root cause is almost always a conflict in agenda. Let me explain…

Let’s do a bit of role play (actually, let’s not, because role play is a little cringey but bear with me!)

This is how I see most 1-2-1 processes work:

  1. You (the manager) sends out a meeting invite for someone’s one-to-one (either ad hoc or recurring).
  2. If an agenda is pulled together, you set it (usually working from a template form you need to complete). You likely ask the individual to send you anything they want to add to the agenda. Where the individual is left to set the agenda, they often leave it to the last minute (giving you no time to prepare).
  3. During the meeting you work your way through the agenda. When it comes to note taking, often managers go from one extreme to another – taking copious notes (but therefore not REALLY listening) or not taking any at all and then not taking the time to write up afterwards and forgetting what took place.
  4. At the end, you ask if they have any other business. They shake their head politely and you both get up and the meeting ends.
  5. After the meeting, you write up the notes (if you took any!) and send them over.

Sounds exhausting – and like neither of you are really getting much value from the conversation.

Here’s what you want from your one-to-ones

I’m no mind reader, but having worked with fair few Managers, I’m going to make an educated guess that you’d like one-to-ones to positively impact your teams performance. If they’re done right, this little diagram shows how they should influence performance.

Basically, done right, one-to-ones will give your team a sense of immediate positive impact (they’ll go back to their desks in a better place and remain in that operating mode until you next meet), help them navigate challenges, make important decisions + boost their confidence. All essential ingredients if you want to see an uplift in their performance!

Put simply, a one-to-one is a development meeting. Not an update meeting.

One big problem…

No two people are the same. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Without pushing people into boxes, there are three (generalised) trends that I see amongst people and their approaches to time with their Manager:

  • Those that want to work a 9-5. They do a great job but aren’t interested in additional development.
  • Those that are interested in development but find inspiration from self-directed learning.
  • Those that crave one-to-one time with you. They see you as their coach and mentor and find feedback a super-important part of their development.

Taking a blanket approach just doesn’t cater for those variances.

If it’s not increasing performance, what’s the point?

Jumping in a meeting room with a recurring agenda for 30 mins with your team technically qualifies as a one-to-one… but they’re unlikely to drive performance, and what’s the point in investing all that time if neither of you are getting much out of it?

So, to start getting the most out of them, you need to go back to the drawing board and put the responsibility on the individual from start to finish – after all, it is all about them, not you.

Better than best practice

Want to up your one-to-one game? (and save time and energy). Then here’s how I approach one-to-ones (and have tested hundreds of times):

1. Don’t assume one-size-fits-all.

Catch up with everyone in your team and ask them what they actually want from their one-to-ones. How often do they want them? How long do they want them to last for? What do they want to walk away having achieved?

And remember, there’s no such thing as a wrong answer to this. Some people will want more from you, others will need less, but it’s on you to accommodate those differences into your approach.

2. Put the ball in their court.

Instead of you putting the 1-2-1 into their diary, put the ball in their court and empower them to take care of the booking – it’ll give them the opportunity to allocate enough time to cover what’s important to them. You’ll probably find some meetings end up being super-short and others take a little longer.

Tip: remember to share your calendar with your team so they can book around your other commitments.

3. Let them set the agenda

Feedback should be given when you see the behaviour, not put away for a one-to-one, so for the most part – your team can set their own agendas. Encourage people to attach the agenda to their meeting request – in advance. This will give you both something to prepare for and ensure you’re getting the most out of the time you’ve got together.

Tip 1: it’s totally OK – and encouraged – to add any additional items to the agenda. But remember, nothing should come as a surprise.

Tip 2: Remember, agendas are discussion items not action items!

4. Take a back seat

During the meeting, let the individual take the lead and set the pace, make sure you ask questions to show you’re engaged and put yourself in the role of coach and mentor.

Tip 1: If you find it hard to sit and listen and naturally want to steer the conversation, try following the 80:20 rule. Your team member should aim to fill 80% of the talking time and you just 20%!

Tip 2: Be mindful not to put too much on someone’s to do list/on their plate – 80:20 is a good rule to follow here: make sure that you’re enabling your direct reports to have maximum positive impact from the minimal possible tasks

Tip 3: Asking open questions such as Who, What, Why, When, Where and How will help you to move into coach mode and encourage the individual to do the talking.

5. They can write up their notes

Last but not least, finish by asking them to write up the notes and send them across to you – that way, they’ll feel totally empowered all the way through.

Tip: Try not to make a tonne of notes during the meeting. If you’re writing, you’re not listening. Try going into your next one-to-one with zero distractions. Simply listen and enjoy the conversation.

Worried people will be a time-hog?

Some people might have read this and started to worry they’ll get a flurry of requests or super-long meeting invites from the same individual if they put the booking onus on them – don’t.

Since becoming a Manager, some ten years ago, I’ve directly managed over 200 individuals (not all at the same time!) and people booking excessive one-to-ones rarely happens. If it does – which is unlikely – find out why the need for so many meetings. Work from there and remember, your job is to help them be the best version of themselves.

A simple pie chart of how you might want to dissect a one-to-one.

Give it a go!

So, that’s my two pennies worth on flipping one-to-ones on their head to get the most out of them for you and your team. Go on, give it a go, I promise you’ll see the benefits!

P.s. Before you go, here’s a few tools to help you.

Whilst this all sounds good (thank me later!) perhaps you’ve tried some of this before and you’re thinking:

  • ‘how do I help people who simply don’t know what they want’ or
  • ‘how do I help someone who pays lip service by nodding, but not really contributing to the one-to-one’.

Fear not. If you click here, I’ll share with you a bunch of coaching-style questions you can use to help overcome both of these challenges.


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