How to Run Effective One-On-One Meetings, Part 1

Three things to consider before the meeting

Steffen Maier Impraise

So you've heard about others doing one-on-one meetings. Some do a one-hour session every other week with each team member. Counting preparation time, one-on-ones would take up a significant part of your busy schedule. You ponder: Would all the hours be well spent and justified?

It is true that one-on-ones can be time-consuming. Yet the hour you spend on a session will benefit you and the team a great deal if done right. That is 60 minutes of honest feedback, which is often difficult to seek otherwise. You can also take the chance to offer timely guidance to your team.

If you aren't having one-on-ones with your team, you are missing out. Timely feedback is valuable, and opportunities to motivate and support your people are priceless. So, what do you reckon?

If you would like to give one-on-ones a try today, here is a two-part guide you can use to run effective sessions so you can help your team grow. In this part, we will look at how to prepare for the meeting; in the next part, we will discuss 10 important questions a manager should ask during the meeting. 

It is important to prepare for one-on-ones. Three factors to consider: the mindset, the schedule, and the agenda.


Think of a one-on-one as a free-form meeting: no fixed agenda and no minute taking. It is not a form of performance review and you should not use the feedback you get here for that purpose. Let a one-on-one conversation flow naturally around whichever matters to a team member. You can discuss many things from her short-term goals to her learning plan. If she somehow feels isolated in the team, make sure that she can also talk about it with you.

The employee should be the main focus of one-on-one conversations. Ben Horowitz recommends that a manager should only talk for 10 percent of the time. The rest should be saved for her team member.

Recurring Schedule

When you set up one-on-ones with an employee for the first time, make sure that you explain the concept. Give her a short description, and some suggestions for the first session. Don't forget to mention that the sessions will be recurring. Here is an example:

"I plan to start doing one-on-ones in our team -- just informal conversations to get more feedback from you. We can talk about anything. What is bothering you? Your progress? Or whichever else that you find important. I suggest we start next Thursday, the 20th at 11 a.m. Then we can talk about making it a regular thing. Let me know if you have any questions."

It is advisable that you schedule enough time for these conversations. A session lasting from 30 to 60 minutes is reasonable. Andy Grove, former CEO and cofounder of Intel, actually advised to do one-on-ones for at least one hour.

"I feel that a one-on-one should last an hour at minimum," he says. "Anything less, in my experience, tends to make the subordinate confine himself to simple things that can be handled quickly."

It is important to keep the sessions on repeat. If your team has five members or fewer, you should do one-on-ones on a weekly base. Otherwise, you can arrange one meeting a fortnight.

These meetings will take up quite a bit of your time -- four hours a week if you manage a team of four. But don't wait a month until you start the next session. A lot of things can go right or wrong in four working weeks. If you want to make an impact then, it would be too late.

Besides, recurring one-on-one sessions help make feedback sharing a routine and a habit. It encourages a culture of continuous feedback.

Last but not least, regular personal conversations help build strong relationships based on understanding and respect. When you listen often to personal issues of an employee, she will like you and trust you more. It is more likely that she will be open for feedback from you. Next time, she will come to you earlier with her problems. It is also likely that she is more motivated to work hard and prove herself.

Agenda Is Optional

A general agenda might help get the conversation going in the first few meetings. You can prepare a list of five topics that you are most interested to know. Your employee's happiness at work and her opinions of your management style can serve as two topics.

Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt used to start his one-on-ones by comparing his lists with the ones prepared by his employees. They then prioritized the items found on both lists because they were likely to be the most pressing issues.

A prepared agenda gives a structure to a conversation. It ensures that every pressing issues will be discussed. Managers should, however, keep in mind to use the list for reference only. You should let the conversation flow as it is to get the best out of one-on-ones.

How should a manager behave in the meeting itself? We discuss that here, in Part Two.

Steffen Maier is cofounder of impraise, a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Based in New York and Amsterdam, Impraise turns tedious annual performance reviews into an easy process by enabling users to give and receive valuable feedback in real-time and when it's most helpful. The tool includes an extensive analytics platform to analyze key strengths and predict talent gaps and coaching needs. Follow him at @stgmaier.