There's no meeting quite like the one-to-one.

In a fast-paced business environment, this vital pow-wow presents the opportunity to slow down and communicate in a more intimate context. Learn to conduct effective one-to-ones and you strengthen the bonds of trust and loyalty with your team. In contrast, fail to give these meetings the attention they deserve and you increase the disconnect between you and them.

So, how do you make sure you're making your one-to-ones all they can be?

I reached out recently to Kevin Varadian, a senior manager with LinkedIn who's responsible for managing the professional social network's small-business clients. He's held various leadership positions over the years, having worked for startups and major corporations alike. I had the chance to view a great slideshare presentation Kevin put together on the topic; I recognized some similarities between his methods and the advice I give regarding one-to-ones, and wanted to hear what else he had to say.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

1. Do your homework.

Well before the meeting, Kevin recommends learning about a direct report's previous weekend and future travel plans. Of course, the key is to be sincerely interested in people, and not to just "check the box."

"You have to be invested personally with each and every person on your team," says Kevin. "If you don't care, they won't either."

Other conversational topics include big wins from the previous week and current gossip or news around the office.

2. Give ownership to the employee.

It's important to remember that this is the employee's meeting. They should be responsible for providing the agenda (five points or less).

Of course, you can add to the agenda if needed--but as the leader it's your responsibility to find time to discuss their points sufficiently.

3. Listen first.

Some managers tend to dominate the conversation in a one-to-one. But by going in with a "listen first" mentality, you gain a new perspective and make sure any coaching is well directed. In addition, you give them the chance to "clean out the cobwebs" and air any grievances.

Kevin encourages making yourself a captive audience, "fascinated by their every word with a 100 percent focus on them." Effective listening means resisting the urge to interrupt and developing the ability to ask discerning questions. (You can find more powerful listening techniques in my previous article about using listening to learn.)  

Remember: No one learned anything while speaking.

4. It's all about trust.

This should go without saying, but it's vital that managers never share personal information without the express consent of the person involved. If this trust is broken, it may be impossible to recover.

Additionally, the importance of follow-up can't be overemphasized. This is true of any meeting, but especially of a one-to-one. The quicker you act upon the individual's requests (Kevin recommends getting the ball rolling within 24 hours if possible), the more valuable the one-to-one meeting becomes.

And the more motivated that person will be to follow up on your action items, as well.

5. Look for coaching moments.

As a coach, it's important to ask good questions and inspire your team member to self-reflect.

For example, if the person communicates a lack of confidence in handling a matter, you could say:

"I get the feeling that you weren't sure what to do in this situation. What would you do differently if you could do it over again?"

As Kevin reminds us: "You are the manager largely because of your experience. Don't forget to bring your experience to the table for every single one-to-one."

6. Make it exciting!

It's easy for one-to-ones to become monotonous. It's your challenge to keep that from happening.

Instead of just having a discussion, how about using a whiteboard? Make your team member's narrative visual to help him or her think through what needs to be accomplished.

It's also important to get away whenever possible. Can you schedule your meeting on a rooftop? How about another unexpected location?

Kevin fondly recalls his most memorable one-to-one as an employee, when his manager surprised him by holding it on top of the Empire State Building. You may not have that option available, but there are countless others--like making your one-to-one a walking meeting, or buying an individual his or her favorite coffee or tea. Get creative!

Remember, great leadership is about building mutual respect and cultivating relationships. The more effort you invest in one-to-ones, the greater the opportunities to inspire your team.

Published on: Jan 13, 2016
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