One-on-One Meetings: One of the Most Effective Leadership Tools by Urs Koenig

by Urs Koenig, Phd, MBA, Principal, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

One on Ones for Better LeadershipDuring his tenure as CIO of Swissair (the former Swiss Airline) my dad applied for the top job at the Swiss Disaster Relief Agency. During the interview, he was asked to define leadership. He responded with a one liner (and was expected to present a thesis and as a result didn’t get the job…): “Being a leader means getting things done through your people.”

While I like his definition for its brevity, the question remains: how do you get stuff done through your people? You engage them, you inspire them, you listen to them, you set goals for them and you hold them accountable.
And what is one of the most effective and efficient ways to engage, inspire, listen, set goals and hold your people accountable?

You guessed it: Conducting regular and meaningful one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.
As with so many of the things we coach our clients on, conducting regular, productive and meaningful one-on-ones is a very simple concept but not always easy to pull off.

Why have yet another meeting and what if I don’t have time?

If you are like 90 % of the managers out there, most of your interactions with your people occur in an ad hoc manner — during team meetings (even if many of the people present don’t need to be part of the conversation), in hurried emails and voicemails, in passing in the hallway, or when a big problem desperately needs attention.

While all of these often interrupted, incomplete and hurried interactions are one-on-ones, they are seldom the most effective ones. Often there is no logic to the timing of these conversations. In fact, they are usually random, incomplete, and often too late to head off a problem or solve it before it grows large.

Regular one-on-one meetings will get you ahead of this curve. Not only will your people prepare for the time they have your undivided attention, they will discuss issues they won’t bring up in a group meeting or in impromptu discussions: their dissatisfaction with part of their current role, interpersonal challenges or other problems that could keep them from succeeding at work.

One on OnesIf your direct report is falling short, the one-on-one setting enables you to communicate in no uncertain terms what changes you need to see happening. Following the principal of praising in public and criticizing in private, you can be firmer and sterner during a one-on-one than during a team meeting. Think of the perfect one-on-one meeting as hybrid of an information gathering, planning, coaching and accountability meeting.

Like any meaningful meeting, not having it will cost you an expensive multiple of the time you would have spent in the meeting. Having it will save you time and headaches in the long run. There is one more important, not often talked about benefit to regular, meaningful on-on-ones. By sitting down with your direct reports and demonstrating true interest and concern not only for their productivity but also for their input, opinions and development, you build a more committed and engaged team which leads to all sorts of well documented soft benefits (e.g. increased job satisfaction) and hard benefits (e.g. lower turn-over, lower recruiting and training costs).

But how do I best do them?

Schedule 30 minute one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports at least every other week, better every week. Make it a regular, re-occurring meeting. Don’t use travel as an excuse not to have it; conduct a phone meeting instead.

Keep a file for each of your direct reports where you gather all the none-time sensitive questions and issues you need to discuss with them. So rather than interrupting your folks constantly whenever you think of something, drop it in the file for discussion during the one-on-one. Take notes of issues raised in the one-on-one and agreed upon courses of action.

Here is my suggestion for a standing agenda for your one on one meeting:

1. Update on action items/commitments from last time
2. What is going well?
3. What are the obstacles and how can I (the manager) help?
4. Action items going forward

Once a quarter, I recommend you go ‘bigger’ and cover the following:

1. Where are we going (the organization)?
2. Where are you going?
3. What are you and your part of the biz doing well? What are you proud of?
4. What are your suggestions for improvements for the future (for the organization, for your part of the biz, for yourself)?
5. How can I help?
6. What suggestions for improvement do you have for me?

Have the one-on-one meeting primarily driven by your direct report. Make this a coaching conversation by asking lots of questions and listening well. Provide guidance if it’s needed but do not fall into the trap of filling the time with your own talk. If you are taking up more than 30 % of air time, you are talking too much.

Effective Managers Say the Same Thing Twice (or More) by Urs Koenig, MBA, PhD, Principal, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

by Urs Koenig, MBA, PhD, Principal, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

“If you want something done you need to say it 150 times, seven different ways.”

I must have said this so many times (maybe 150 times) that some of my clients have quoted me back.

I am proud to announce that empirical research (quoted in the 2011 May issue of the Harvard Business Review) is now backing my statement:

”A team lead by Professor Tsedal Neeley (from Harvard) and Professor Paul Leonardi (from Northwestern University) shadowed 13 managers in six companies for more than 250 hours, recording every communication the managers sent and received. The research discovered that one of every seven communication by the mangers was completely redundant with a previous communication using a different technology. They also saw that the managers who were deliberately redundant moved their projects forward faster and more smoothly.”

When the researchers asked the managers if they were surprised about their redundant communication the reaction was this: “Seriously, you think this is interesting? This is how it works. Of course I follow up with yet another message.”

Two key take-aways from this research for you:

  • If you want something done, plan deliberately to communicate the same message several times using different techniques such as instant communication (face to face meetings, calls, Instant messaging) or delayed communication (emails, voice mails).
  • The most powerful way to move the needle on a project or a task is to start with an instant communication (preferable a face-to-face meeting, second best a call) and then follow up with a delayed message (such as an email). The instant communication ensures motivation and buy-in. But the follow up via email is to remind people of their commitments so that it does not fall off the radar screen.
  • Do not use email first (delayed message) and then follow up with a face to face (instant).
For more leadership tips and resources, visit

Confront the Brutal Facts of Your Reality, by Urs Koenig, PhD, MBA, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

by Urs Koenig, Phd, MBA, Principle, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

I  have been a pretty successful athlete for most of my life. Almost two and a half years ago, I suffered from a partial tear of my left patella tendon. Ever since, my physical well being has been severely compromised. Things have been going from bad to worse and these days I am dealing with several joint troubles and I am happy if I can walk more or less pain free, let alone compete in 12,24, 36, or 72 hour races.

It goes without saying that this has been very challenging for me. I used to manage my energy level and well-being by working out at least once (often twice) daily. I met many of my best friends through my athletic endeavors. A lot of my-self worth and identity was wrapped up in my athletic success. I was known as ‘that crazy sports guy’ (and yes, I did not mind that I admit).

For the first year and a half or so after my initial injury, I would try and set my-self goals on when I would get better. I remember, for example, in the late summer of 2009 mapping out the fall with therapy and treatments and planning to get back on the bike by December 1st. It was not meant to be. Despite of all my efforts, I actually got worse that fall. I would do the same again in May of 2010 and plan for a re-entry into the athletic world by November of 2010. Again, while at least not going backwards, I did not get better.

I am learning a lot of lessons from this ongoing experience (and will probably write some more about it later). One of them is having what Jim Collins calls the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ coming alive for me.

Let me explain.

The Stockdale Paradox: Great companies (and people) retain faith that they will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be.

Or for me personally: Retaining faith that eventually I will be able to be physically active again, while confronting the brutal fact that there is no way of knowing or planning when this will be the case again. Maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe in five plus years…

The Stockdale paradox is named after Vice Admiral Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military official in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times during his eight years of imprisonment.

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale USNHe lived without POW rights, a set release date, nor any certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He did everything he could to support other inmates while fighting his captors. At one point, he deliberately beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor so that he could not be put on video tape as an example of a “well treated prisoner.” He invented a communication system of taps to help comrades dealing with the isolation. During an imposed silence, the prisoners mopping the floor swept the yard used the code to swish-swash out ‘we love you’ to Stockdale on his third anniversary of being shot down.

Asked by the author Jim Collins on how he dealt with the seemingly hopeless situation, he replied: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but that I would prevail in the end.”

Asked about who did not make it out he says:

“Oh, that is easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘we are going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they would die of a broken heart.”

Stockdale goes on saying: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can not afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As you ponder the Stockdale paradox, ask yourself for your business:

How disciplined are you and your staff at relentlessly confronting the most brutal facts of your current business reality?

If you are doubtful, consider the following questions:

  • Name three things you have been avoiding in your business. What can you do TODAY to bring these issues out into the open?
  • Which part of your current reality which are out of your control are you refusing to accept? Where are you holding on to the past?
  • What ‘red flag mechanisms’ (e.g. regular review of your financials) can you put in place to make sure you are confronting reality?

For more information about Vice Admiral Stockdale and his story, visit here.