This is part three in a four-part series on one-on-one meetings. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on how NOT to run a one-on-one meeting. Read those first.

“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.”

My mom was incredibly smart. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, but she totally taught me how to do one-on-one meetings. Unfortunately, after going 17 years between hearing that advice and doing my first one-on-one meeting I forgot mom’s wisdom. After all, the other person had two ears and one mouth too, so who’s the genius now?

One-on-One Meetings
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As I mentioned in part one, when I first started them, one-on-ones were all about me, the boss. I quickly learned that did not work, so I reversed course entirely. I made four mistakes, which I outlined in that post, and here were my four corrections.

Five Tips to Run an Effective One-on-One Meeting

  1. Pick and Stick to a time. When I first started, they were held when I wanted, usually with little notice. I learned that in order to signify that this time was sacred, I let team members choose a specific time each week and that was their time. Less than four times per year would that time change due to vacations or holidays. Tip: Don’t do them on Monday or Friday. 
  2. Remember it’s not about you. Once I realized that the one-on-one meeting was for my team, not for me, things started to change dramatically. They opened up more about problems at work (and outside of work…see point #3 below). I became less interested in spouting what I thought, what I needed, and what I cared about, and began to listen…really listen. 
  3. one-on-one-downloadFollow a format…but not rigidly. I used a form that I creatively called my One-on-One Meeting Form (you can download it by clicking the link). This form provided the basic outline for the meeting and gave me some basic questions to ask with each section of the meeting along with plenty of space for taking notes. The outline of the meeting was 15-10-5. Fifteen minutes was entirely for them to talk about their life, their problems, their whatever. At first, this required a lot of prodding by me. I had to ask a lot of questions to get them to talk about themselves because they weren’t used to me actually caring. If any section of the meeting should go long, it is this section. If it goes twenty minutes, that is fine. The next ten minutes were for me to communicate to them. Only on very rare occasions did I use my full ten minutes. I never wanted them to feel rushed with their time so I ordered my communication by importance, kept an eye on the clock and really tried to keep it under seven or eight minutes. The last five minutes was about coaching, again focused on them, asking how I could help, where they feel they need to improve, etc. Download the one-on-one meeting form.
  4. Get personal. At first, it was all about business, but I remembered that people genuinely do like to talk about themselves. So I began to ask more questions about how their lives outside of work were going. I learned spouse names, kids’ names, hobbies, and more. “How is Sarah?” is an entirely different question than “How is your wife?” Asking a golfer if he made it to the golf course this weekend is a much better question than “How was your weekend?” Their fifteen minutes could be spent entirely on personal stuff or entirely on work. It was up to them. I found that over time it usually followed a progression of a few minutes of their biggest work problem or success, five to ten minutes of personal stuff, and a few minutes back at work. 
  5. Make it very informal. This isn’t an inquisition and it’s certainly not a weekly job interview. This time is strictly for me to learn about them and how I can help them as their leader. That is it. I’ve done them in a conference room (sitting at a 90 degree angle to them on a corner, not face to face), at their desk, outside at a picnic table, and once in a car on the way to a meeting. But never at my desk. Always make it as private as possible and always keep it informal. That is a huge key to developing transparency.

Which of these tips will have the most impact on your one-on-ones?

This is a part of my series on one-on-one meetings. For all posts in the series and free downloads to help you start and run the meetings go here: One-on-One Meetings for Leaders


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9 thoughts on “How to Run a One-on-One Meeting Part One

  1. Wade Thorson says:

    Excellent information Matt, I have enjoyed reading your last three posts on one-to-one meetings.
    How many meetings should a group have? Currently we have a weekly staff meeting to look at metrics, projects, tactical items, etc, and then we have 10-15 minute daily huddle meetings to discuss the day. Does it make sense to add the one-to-one on top of these meetings or replace the daily meetings with this?

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Stay tuned Wade…lots more to come. I will covering those, for sure.

      OK, that was a cop out and a way to make you want to come back. Lame.

      To answer your question, since you asked me for my opinion, I will give it to you.

      10-15 minute daily huddles are too long. 1″0-15 minutes” is usually leadership-speak for “15 minutes.” If that is true, it’s way too long. I would shoot for 5 minutes. In a team of 5, that is 30 seconds per person. That is enough time to get through what they’ve done, what’s hindering them, and what they will be doing. Mine went 12 minutes at first, so we set a goal to knock off 1 minute a week for 7 weeks. It was gradual, doable, and we did it.

      Weekly staff is great. Plus a once a month get-together socially…during work hours.

      Hope helps!

  2. Carol Dublin says:

    Great advice Matt, and so practical. I love the format of 15-10-5, and encouraging your team member to talk about themselves. Kind of like the highs and lows on the weekly report – personal life is so intertwined with work life, and it’s helpful as a leader to be supportive through those challenges as well as the work ones.

  3. Lily Kreitinger says:

    Great insight. I really like the idea of “this is not a job interview, you’re not applying to keep your job”. I can be very outgoing but get a little intimidated on one-on-ones with my supervisors. I do tend to rattle off all my accomplishments to show I’m making progress and I have difficulty sharing my struggles. I like to figure out those for myself and ask help when I can’t handle it. I have great leaders now and I’m sure these meetings will be easier for me as we get to know each other more. Plus, now I have a team of my own to get things done too. Useful info! Thanks!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      That is great Lily!

      You gave me an idea though…how to do one-on-ones…from the other side 🙂

  4. Chance Smith says:

    So why do you recommend not doing these meetings on Monday or Friday?

    I definitely like your ideas on making personal and learning more and more about the team players. These details makes it genuine for thank you cards in moments of praise.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Mondays are just too busy for both parties.

      On a Friday, if something does come up and you have to reschedule it will be for the following Tuesday or Wednesday. Now they missed a week.

      It also gives a day or two after the meeting for follow-ups and action items that are fresh.

      Personally I found Wednesday to be the best day but I’ve done them on Tuesdays as well and they worked. I never have done a Monday, Thursday or Friday unless it was a rescheduled one.

      1. Chance Smith says:

        Makes sense. Thank you Matt!

  5. Heidi Bender says:

    #4 is very important (to me anyway). When my team lead changed a few months back, the new team lead didn’t ask me anything personal or share anything personal for the first few 1:1 meetings. I felt like he cared more once he started asking some personal questions.

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