One-on-Ones: A Critical Part of the Executive’s Toolkit

By John Dillard, an EO Charlotte member and president and partner of Big Sky Associates, Inc.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying One-on-Ones (or OOOs as I am wont to call them) in the past few weeks, in both my role as advisor to clients and in thinking about my own management and leadership style. I found two sources of information that I can’t resist sharing because they are concise, persuasive and actionable. I’m hoping that if you’re a leader and you’re reading this post, you can put these two sources to work right away, as I am convinced that OOOs are a very important part of developing and deploying a strategy or significant change effort.

The first source is Manager Tools, a podcast run by Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne. I ran across these guys while poking around for new and interesting content to stick into my beyondpod feed, and was hooked on their approach right away. I’m not alone; according to Mark and Mike, the Manager Tools podcast is downloaded more than 80,000 times weekly. Not too shabby. Mark and Mike put OOOs at the center of the universe of their very well structured, clear and actionable advice for managers. They get down to brass tacks on the concept of OOOs, how to do them, what goes wrong and almost every possible twist and turn you can imagine — just on this one technique.  I’ll let you go check out their materials in detail, but some of their key basics include:

  • OOO are regularly scheduled and never missed
  • The primary focus is on the team member, not the manager
  • Notes and followup are critical
  • The format should be “10/10/10” — 10 mins for Them, 10 mins for You, and 10 mins to talk about the future.

The second source, which I found rather serendipitously, is the blog of Ben Horowitz. Ben is co-founder and partner (along with Marc Andreessen) of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.  I ran across a plug for Ben via Verne Harnish, whom I consider one of the smartest guys on the planet when it comes to growing and running businesses.

Ben writes about OOOs in an excellent and provocative post, A Good Place to Work, and again in a followup, One on One. For the most part, Ben reinforces what is articulated by Manager Tools, but I think he does an excellent and compelling job of explaining why the OOO is for the team member and NOT for the manager. Ben writes:

Generally, people who think one-on-one meetings are a bad idea have been victims of poorly designed one-on-one meetings. The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.

I’ve reflected on my own practices when it comes to meetings — when I have had OOOs and when I haven’t — and what I’ve learned from advising executives on rolling out strategy and change initiatives in the past 15  years. A big difference between those who succeed and those who fail are simply those who set aside structured and focused time for people to express their understanding — or lack thereof — of what the organization is trying to do and how it will get there.  The ad-hoc/management by “walking around” just doesn’t cut it. In ad-hoc discussions, you’re usually just troubleshooting issues or working what’s right in front of you,and therefore you’re NOT working on the trends and the obstacles. I know this firsthand, because I’m guilty as sin, and I’m working to fix it every day.

I’d encourage you to have a look at the resources above on OOOs, and think hard about whether you are hearing what you need to hear from your team, and whether making OOOs a part of your communications infrastructure makes good sense.

Categories: Best Practices FINANCES


One Response to “ One-on-Ones: A Critical Part of the Executive’s Toolkit ”

  1. Jason Evanish on


    Those are both solid approaches you share. I’d add one more from legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove. In his book High Output Management (a great read for any manager across many topics) he devotes a major section to one on ones and advises the following:

    1) Length: Ideally 1 hour
    – Shorter can lead to important topics avoided
    2) Topics: The team member sets the agenda, formally sending what they want to discuss to their manager
    – The manager brings questions and asks followups to what the team member brings
    3) Responsibility: Managers should take notes and track follow ups.
    – It sends a strong signal you value what they said to write it down
    4) Frequency: Based on Task Relevant Maturity
    – The less comfortable and inexperienced they are, the more often you should meet.
    – This means changing frequency as they take on new roles and responsibilities.

    You can read more about the approach in detail at


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