# Building An Effective One-on-one Strategy

Quality one-on-ones only have a few key requirements, but managers must adopt and practice them with discipline and consistency. For the team member this is scheduled time when they have the full attention of their manager and can explore career progression or discuss sensitive topics. For the manager this is an opportunity to delegate and an early warning system for the risks that lead to boredom and unhappiness.

# Fundamentals

Your one-on-one strategy can be tailored to your team and personal style of management, but it must include these fundamentals:

  • Regularly scheduled

Building a deep relationship with your teammates takes time, commitment and focus. A regularly scheduled meeting helps you practice consistency and set expectations for the discussion of important topics.

  • Never missed

One-on-ones are Sacrosanct and good managers never miss them. This time belongs primarily to the team member and is an opportunity for the manager to redress the power imbalance that often prevents frank and honest communication. This starts with respecting the schedule.

PRO TIP: How often would you ask to reschedule a meeting with your CEO? You should treat your one-on-one schedules with the same level of importance.

  • Focus on the team member

Managers often drive the agenda of meetings with their direct reports, and while you want to facilitate the execution of the one-on-one, you should not be setting a detailed agenda beyond strategic areas and high priority topics. Active listening and intentional silence let the team member steer the focus of the conversation.

  • Follow-up is critical

Articulate and assign action items identified during your one-on-ones. Most items should be tasks assigned to the manager that address concerns of the team member, though some might be for them occasionally. The scope of action items will generally be tasks to be completed prior to the next scheduled one-on-one.

  • Not a status update

One-on-ones make terrible status updates. Their frequency, duration, and focus don't reflect the context needed for day-to-day decision-making and waste a valuable opportunity to explore deeper topics. If your conversation is moving towards a status update you need to steer this discussion to a more appropriate channel, like a daily scrum or ad-hoc discussion.

# Frequency

The timing of your one-on-one sessions depends on situational factors for each team member, and should include their geographic location (are they co-located or remote?), their experience-level (are they a new hire or senior contributor?) and any relevant personal factors.

Typical One-on-one schedules have a distribution of:

  • some weekly
  • most bi-weekly
  • a few monthly

You can ask these questions when determining the frequency of your one-on-ones:

  • How stable is the team member's current role?
  • Has their performance improved or declined recently?
  • How often are notable events or changes happening that impact the team member?
  • Has this team member explicitly suggested (or do their actions hint) they would like to talk more frequently?
  • Do they seem disengaged, bored or unhappy?
  • Am I comfortable in letting this team member go [current interval between one-on-ones] without discussing how they are doing or addressing important questions?

# Duration

One-on-ones should be scheduled for at least 30 minutes but probably not more than an hour.

PRO TIP: Schedule 30 minutes but leave the following 30 minutes free so you can run long if the team member's schedule allows for it.

When talking with a team member you don't want to cut them off in the middle of an important discussion to go to your next meeting, and it usually takes most of the scheduled time to dig into the important stuff.

# Location

One-on-ones don't need to be in a private location, but they shouldn't be "in public".

  • A cubicle is bad
  • Your office exacerbates the power imbalance
  • Another office or a meeting room is good
  • Out of the office with some privacy and not too much noise is great (example: "Want to go for a coffee or hot drink? My treat")

PRO TIP: always pay for the coffee.

# Agenda

You don't need an explicit agenda for your one-on-one, but if you have scheduled 30 minutes a good ratio to start with is 10/5/15:

  • 10 minutes for them
  • 5 minutes for you
  • 15 minutes for career development and growth plans, or further discussion of topics they have identified

Your agenda is not a sequential allocation of who talks, but represents an overall ratio of what is discussed and who is leading the conversation.

# One-on-one Content

The manager should spend their limited air-time in a one-on-one on the areas that address the most important concerns of your team member. Topics might include:

  • What do I need to be sure to communicate?
  • What behaviours (positive and negative) am I focusing on?
  • What projects are highest priority?
  • What organizational news and updates do I need to share?
  • What team-level items do I need to share with everyone?
  • Did a deliver positive feedback? Why not?
  • Is there any corrective action I should raise?
  • What things can I delegate to this team member that help both of us?

# After the One-on-one

A good one-one-one will generate action items that require follow-up by you and the team member. Action items need due dates to keep you focused, ideally prior to your next one-on-one.

Follow-ups should be highly actionable and have explicit completion criteria, but address longer-term, strategic goals and plans.

An Example: A team member has shown interest in exploring a people management role like Development Manager.

Action items could include

  • The manager inquiring with HR about upcoming leadership recruitment opportunities and sharing feedback at the next one-on-one.

  • The team member running the next sprint planning session.

  • The manager sharing these notes on running one-on-ones and scheduling a peer one-on-one for the team member and another teammate.

# Strategies for Overcoming Resistance to One-on-ones

Some senior contributors and established team members will advocate for less frequent one-on-ones, or none at all. You need to push back by communicating the value to both parties in regularly discussing important topics. You can tweak the frequency or timing but should keep within the fundamentals. Focus on the positives for the team member by articulating the value they receive:

  • Feedback on performance that guides their path to promotions and salary increases.
  • Opportunities to explore their priorities and interests.
  • Company-level news that impacts their role.

Initial one-on-one sessions can feel awkward and unnatural, but this is expected because you're consciously starting to build a deeper personal relationship, an activity that takes time. You need to persevere through the first several sessions to build a path from resistance to acceptance and ultimately to mutual enjoyment.

# Establishing One-on-ones

Start by sharing why you both need one-on-ones. Give the team member some early value by setting a follow-up action item for yourself that does something meaningful for them.

An Example: If they express an interest in a specific technology, your action item might be to find them a relevant book, online resource or event they can attend.

Don't try to jump into bigger topics like career planning immediately; give the team member a "heads up" that these are the things you will be discussing in future sessions, but at the start keep conversation relatively light. Focus on identifying the team member's areas of interest and passion, ask general questions about aspects of work they really enjoy or dislike, opinions on important processes or new policies, and advice on how they could help you with an aspect of managing the team.

Building a relationship requires mutual vulnerability, and it's scary to put yourself in this position. As the manager you control the power dynamic and need to make the first move. A good approach is to share something that shows you have underlying concerns and challenges just like anyone on the team. You can frame this as questions asking for direction and feedback:


  • I'm actually really nervous speaking in front of the entire team and wish it came more naturally; what do you do when you need to present to a group?

  • Lately I feel like I'm not doing a good job of finding opportunities for you to explore [team member's area of interest]. You know so much more about this than me; do you have any suggestions?

  • Sometimes I suggest new ideas without thinking through all their potential impacts, but I get really excited about new technology. I'd definitely appreciate you helping to identify unintended consequences before I go too far.

PRO TIP: Walking one-on-ones are great because they promote conversation while providing an alternative activity that de-emphasizes the more formal "meeting with the boss" aspects. Mild exercise also promotes engagement and thinking!

# One-on-ones are an Ongoing Journey

When you first introduce one-on-ones they can feel unnatural and forced, but over time they will become one of your most powerful management tools. They provide a unique opportunity for team members to share their most pressing concerns, goals and aspirations, and help you build deep personal relationships with each team member. Start now, practice consistently and develop your own strategy by experimenting to find what works and adds value.

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