12 November 2013

How to have an effective one-on-one meeting

For the uninitiated, a one-on-one occurs, most commonly, when a consultant meets with their direct manager to have a 'closed door' discussion about the progress being made against agreed targets.

The most common foundation for these discussions is the KPI Report (or Activity Report). This report details what key activities have been completed in the most recent reporting period (typically a week) and what activities are scheduled for the current or next period. A discussion of current vacant jobs being worked on (the sales pipeline) is also normally a part of this discussion.

These one-on-ones have the opportunity to be highly effective and important in improving performance. In my experience, this outcome is frequently not achieved.

Why? Because almost always, the leader/manager does not know or clearly understand the ideal outcomes that are required to be accomplished in the one-on-one and then, how to actually accomplish these outcomes.

One-on-ones accomplish their purpose when the following occurs:

1. Accountability: The consultant is held to account for the things they have committed to (eg activities, results, behaviours).

This can only be done effectively if there are unambiguous expectations (in writing) of the activities, results and behaviours and evidence as to the accomplishment (or lack thereof) of the commitments. The evidence is most effectively provided by a system-generated report. Self-generated reports from consultants are notoriously unreliable, as they are usually completed in arrears by people with a large amount of self-interest at stake.

2. Feedback/Motivation: As part of this accountability, the consultant is given feedback about what they are being held accountable for (eg 'you are doing exactly what is required, keep going', 'these financial results are unacceptable' etc).

This feedback needs to be accurate and delivered in a way that is unambiguous. eg. 'Your performance in the area of X is unacceptable' was what I was taught to say as a new leader so the consultant was under no illusion as to their performance in an underperforming area.

This feedback also needs to be heavily weighted in the positive, even if the person's performance is lacking in results. The positive side should come out in the leader's expressed belief that the consultant has what it takes to succeed. If the leader doesn't have this belief, then they should stop wasting everyone's time and exit the consultant from the business.

3. Focus/clarity: The final part of the one-on-one is ensuring that the consultant has a clear and specific focus for the period ahead (eg arrange 5 client or prospect visits by 5pm on Wednesday).

The most common mistake in this part of the one-on-one is to burden the consultant with too much to think about or to do because as a result, the risk is that the consultant becomes overwhelmed, panicked and doesn't do any of what was agreed. This will de-motivate a consultant faster than just about anything else.

To ensure that the one-on-one has the maximum chance of accomplishing these outcomes, the preparation process of both the leader and consultant is critical.

This preparation should ideally include:

1.    An agenda
2.    Any reports or documents needed as reference points
3.    A list of specific questions to ask
4.    Anticipating and preparing for the reaction of the consultant to any difficult or negative areas of the conversation
5.    Identifying the most important outcome from the meeting

A final point; one that has stuck in my head many years after being given to me by a mentor who helped me improve the effectiveness of my one-on-ones: 'Ross, just because there's been a lot of talking in the meeting it doesn't necessarily mean there's been any actual communication. Always check with the other person what they have understood from the conversation. And, most importantly, ask them to conform what they are now committed to doing, and by when'.

Very wise words, indeed.

Related articles:
The leadership difference: why effective leadership pays and how

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