Wednesday, October 6, 2021

One-on-ones: Five Minutes Before and After

Actions to take: During the one-on-one, take notes. Most importantly, take notes on 1) action items either of you must take, 2) feedback you've given, 3) problems that need to be solved. In the 5 minutes after the one-on-one, transfer those notes. Put any of your action items in your relevant to-do bucket; put a note to follow up on their action items in future one-on-ones; make notes to follow up with other employees if they might benefit from having a similar discussion. In the 5 minutes before your next one-on-one, review the planning notes you've made. Think about the best way to tackle each topic.

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.

If you have been following this blog since it started, maybe you have taken my advice and started doing weekly one-on-ones. Maybe you were already doing them. You've seen me write about how one-on-ones become the most efficient way to get "management work" done and how they become smooth, natural, almost reflexive over time. Perhaps your experience doesn't quite match up. Your one-on-ones still feel a little disjointed from one week to the next. They are going fine, but you want to take them to the next level. Here's how.

The very short version is: 1) take notes during the meeting, 2) transfer those notes to relevant places after the meeting, 3) prep each topic just before the next meeting. We will discuss the details of each in a moment.

If you spend this little bit of time before and after each meeting, you are going to see several improvements. First, the meeting itself will flow more naturally. Without this little bit of prep, there tend to be awkward pauses when you shift from one topic to the next. Second, there will be a sense of continuity between meetings. It can be very easy to discuss, say, a professional development opportunity one week, only to have that idea drop from your radar for three months. Third, you will appear more competent. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. When it is clear that the boss is ready for the one-on-one, most employees understand that as a signal that these meetings matter. If the boss isn't ready, it communicates the opposite message.

Fourth, and most importantly, you and your employee will both become accountable to the things you discuss in your one-on-ones. You will keep yourself accountable for the things you say you'll do. If you promise to look into an issue in a one-on-one, you'd better do it. These few minutes before and after are the easiest way to guarantee you will. You will keep yourself accountable for following up on status. You'll stop letting that useful-but-not-urgent topic slip through the cracks. You will keep your employee accountable for the things they promise to do. Again, without these few minutes, it is easy to let their missed action items slide.

Let's walk through an example to show you specifically how to do this. Imagine you are in a one-on-one meeting. Your employee spends some time talking about how they would like to get better about time management. They always seem to take twice as long as they intend to on every task. They mention how much respect they have for their coworker Wendy, who always gets things done right in line with her estimates about how long it will take. 

Step 1: Take notes during the meeting. Specifically, take notes on three things: 

  1. Action items that either of you agree to take as a result of the conversation. In this example, you might say that you'll both look for training opportunities over the course of the week. In that case, both of you have an action item to fulfill before next week's one-on-one.
  2. Feedback that you gave during the meeting. Here, you might give positive feedback that the employee is being frank about areas of improvement, that they are taking professional development seriously, etc. 
  3. Any unsolved problems. At this point, the employee's time management is an unsolved problem. The goal, of course, is to note it now so that you can successfully close the problem in the future. 
Step 2: Transfer those notes in the 5 minutes immediately after the meeting. 
  1. Start with your prompts for future one-on-ones with this employee. Obviously, you'll need to follow up in next week's meeting, since you both agreed to look for training this week. Also think about meetings further down the road. Make a note 4 weeks out and 8 weeks out. Has the employee taken any training? Have their skills improved? Are they satisfied with their progress (i.e. is the problem now closed)? 
  2. Transfer your action items to your appropriate to-do pile. For instance, perhaps you've marked out 10-11 am every Friday as your time to brainstorm employee development ideas. You would put this example into that timeslot's task list. Maybe you don't have anything quite so structured. Even so, figure out when you are going to work on it and transfer that action item. Don't rely on your memory, and don't let it get lost in the obscurity of past one-on-one notes.
  3. Consider other employee's future one-on-one prompts. In this example, it would be a slam dunk to touch base with Wendy. Assuming the initial employee is fine with it, you could even delegate some training to Wendy—have her come up with a 30-minute overview of her time management techniques to share with the employee.

Step 3: take 5 minutes before each meeting reviewing what you've planned for that meeting. 

  • The week following our example, you'll see your note to follow up on time management. Spend a minute thinking about how you'll present the training you found. Spend a minute thinking about how you will ask what they employee is worked on. (It is especially important to take this little bit of time if you suspect that the employee hasn't done anything.)
  • This step is even more valuable in the 4-week and 8-week portion of our example. You'll see that note from 4 weeks ago and say "Oh yea. How do I need to follow that up?" If you know they've worked on it, maybe your follow up is to give some positive feedback and ask how it is going. If you don't know what they've done, it's an exploratory question about what they've done. If you know they haven't worked on it, maybe some light corrective feedback about staying on top of their own development.

This all sounds basic enough that it may seem like you don't need to have some official plan to do it before and after each one-on-one. Keep in mind, though, we are using a single example here. If you are doing one-on-ones correctly, you have a minimum of 5 things to talk about, and that's just your half of the meeting. Multiply that by your number of employees...well, it gets very easy to lose track of things. 

If you are doing weekly one-on-ones, you are already head and shoulders above most bosses. This extra bit of work is going to send you even further to the front of the pack. Your employees may not comment on the change. They may not even consciously notice. But your one-on-ones will feel more natural and be more productive. You will be perceived as a manager who is always on the ball and never lets anything slip through the cracks.

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