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  • Writer's pictureSusanne May

The future of one-on-one meetings

4 communication practices which help to change your company culture.

Now let’s have a close look at a couple of best practices tested in our company before we answer this question. In Ben Horowitz’s playbook for entrepreneurs The Hard Thing About Hart Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Horowitz states that leaders’ most important responsibility is creating and implementing effective communication architectures including one-on-one meetings.

One-on-ones are about more than productivity. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, believes one-on-ones are one of the best places for leaders to show their team members that they trust, value, and care about them. For leaders, this means stepping back and exploring ways to work “side-by-side with this person to get things done.” Easier said than done!

It’s essential to establish certain practices around one-on-ones to get the most out of them. I recently implemented a new one-on-one structure based on the advice of Horowitz and Grace Saunders at May & Company and have been astounded at the results they bring. Here is how I honed my one-on-one practice:

Practice #1 – Same day, time, team member: Productivity is a game of habits, rules, and routines. Science suggests that employees whose leaders hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged than those without regular meetings. Therefore, one-on-ones work best when you have a non-negotiable time slot in your weekly agenda. Do not cancel, move, or prioritize something else. There should be only very few exceptions which allow you to pause this practice, for instance sickness or vacation. This creates reciprocal behavior from your team members.

Practice #2 – The 10/90% meeting rule: Consider yourself as a humble guest to the one-on-one meeting. You talk 10 percent of the time and listen 90 percent of time. This could prove hard to overcome for some leaders, particularly extroverts or those under a lot of pressure. In his book Leading With Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, Michael J. Marquardt suggests a few ways to apply this rule. One method is to use empowering questions, which push your employees explore answers on their own. Over time, these questions generate positive attitudes and higher self-esteem by empowering people to discover and create.

In his book, Marquardt suggests some empowering questions for us to try:

  • “How do you feel about the project progress so far?”

  • “What key things need to happen to achieve the objective?”

  • “What kind of support do you need to ensure success?”

  • “What are a few options for improvement?”

  • “What will you commit to do by when?”

You can also use strategic questions to get your team’s perspective on issues and problems in your company. Strategic questions provide valuable insights to help leaders better understand how to steer the company. Horowitz provides a few great examples:

  • “What is the number-one problem in our team?”

  • “If you were me, what changes would you make?”

  • “What are we not doing that we should be doing?”

  • “What is the biggest opportunity we miss out?”

  • “How do you feel in this team?”

By using questions frequently, you will help your people learn to speak up and take ownership of their development and growth. At the same time, your employee’s answers provide a valuable perspective and contribution to the company’s challenges.

Practice #3 – Empower your directs to take ownership: Team members might come to you with a problem to solve. That problem, argued William Oncken Junior, is like a “monkey on their shoulder”. You want to be kind and listen, but you know there is not enough time to solve this problem. Then you take it on for yourself. Now you have the monkey.

When ownership and responsibility for one-on-ones shifts to employees, you cannot take their monkeys. Employees need to feel empowered to take total ownership of their work. How far your people embrace empowerment depends on your ability to provide feedback and their ability to take it.

Practice #4 – Measure and improve: To ensure that your one-on-ones are productive, and your employees take ownership of their work, measure it. At our company, we rate one-on-ones. Rate My Meeting, a tool whose outcomes are openly shared, helps us constantly improve collaboration to better focus, save time, and improve results. This makes one-on-one interaction joyful and satisfying for both ends.

By shifting complete ownership of one-on-ones to your people, you establish a lasting, self-organizing, and problem-solving mechanism in your company. Your team takes ownership of their challenges and ultimately their careers. As Stephen R. Covey says, “accountability breeds response-ability.”


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