The Power of Employee-Lead One on Ones

What not to do…

When Pete announced that he’d be holding regular one-on-one’s, I was pretty excited. There had been some big changes in the organization, and I had a lot of things on my mind that I wanted to talk to him about – just the two of us. I figured a one-on-one would be the perfect opportunity.

In preparation for the anticipated one-on-one I made an organized list of topics I wanted to discuss, questions that I had, and recommendations on strategic changes we could make. However, when the time came, I wasn’t given much of a chance.

“Okay, okay.” Pete said, sitting down across from me, and straightening his tie. “I’m running late, but we need to do your one-on-one, Chuck is really stressing this. He wants us to do these things at least once a quarter and well, I haven’t been great, have I? Not that it matters, really. I mean, we talk all the time, don’t we? But whatever, what Chuck says, goes. Am I right?”

I nodded uncertainly.

“You’re doing great.” Pete said with some resignation. “You are. I don’t know what else to say. Should we review your projects? Let’s take a look.”

For the next ten minutes, Pete talked about my progress on a half-dozen projects scarcely giving me time to respond.

Then he suddenly cut off and shooed me out of his office so that he could make another “one-on-one” on time.

“See,” Pete said, as I left of his office. “That was great, but I don’t know why we do these things. You’re doing great. Keep it up!”

Letting the employee lead

Needles to say, that “one-on-one” experience ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied and let-down. Despite liking Pete, I ultimately didn’t feel like he cared about me or my ideas.

When I became a manager later in my career, a good friend recommended The Effective Manager, by Mark Horstman. Reading that book – cover to cover and taking notes as I went – changed my thinking on manager-and-employee relationships and introduced me to the idea of employee-lead one-on-ones.

What an employee-lead one-on-one looks like

Based on what I learned in The Effective Manager, my weakly one-on-one’s with my employees looked like this:

  1. 15 minutes before: Review my notes from the previous week’s one-on-one and make any notes of questions or comments I had.
  2. On time: The employee shows up and gets comfortable. I start off by asking an open ended question such as “What’s on your mind?” or “What’s going on in your world?”
  3. 0 – 20 minutes in: I let the employee talk. If they don’t have much to say I ask some probing questions. The focus here is on the employee, not on me. I don’t ask for updates on projects, or give feedback on their work. It’s simply two people having a conversation.
  4. 20 – 30 minutes in: We talk about the employee’s goals and aspirations. One of the things I ask my employees in the very first one-on-one is “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” We then make a plan to get them there. They execute on this plan weekly.
  5. 30 minutes in: I ask the employee if they have anything else to discuss, or if they have any notes they’d like me to write down for the next meeting. After that we close the meeting.

My experience

My experience with this format was always positive. From what I could tell, my employees knew that I supported them, that I was interested in their lives, and that I wanted to hear their ideas.

When I had an employee begin looking for work elsewhere, I knew immediately. I knew his ambition to grow in his field, and I knew that the company could only take him so far. When he confided that he had an interview, I congratulated him and eventually wrote a glowing letter of recommendation. He and I still keep in touch to this day (in fact, I still keep in touch with all of my former employees at that company).

Importantly, because I knew of his intentions far in advance, we were able to fill his position with very little impact.

In Closing

Holding employee-lead one-on-ones is a fantastic way to build a meaningful, professional relationship with your employees. It demonstrates your dedication to the relationship, and shows that you truly value their contribution.

It will ultimately enhance employee engagement and reduce turnover.

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