Great One-on-One Meetings

 Most one-on-one meetings get bogged down by check-ins and updates on tasks and projects. By shifting your mindset from taskmaster to personal growth facilitator, you’ll give your employees the accountability and mentoring they’re craving.

 Timing & Location

The problems people leaders face are universal but every culture is unique. Refound’s human-centered discovery process has two primary functions:

  • Meet for 30 minutes each week. Create a recurring calendar event.
  • Choose a private space. An office or conference room is ideal, but anyplace where others can’t listen in.
  • Meet whether things are good or bad. Consistency is key to establish trust for the tough conversation and gives space for employees to offer feedback as well.

 Questions to Ask

  • Keep your focus on longer term themes rather than short term tasks. Who they are and how you can help them grow is more important than today’s mini-crisis.
  • Try to avoid generic and superficial questions like “How are you doing?” or “How can I help?” Instead, ask questions that turn your one-on-one into high-value terrain:

“What’s something you heard a customer say this week that concerns you?”

“Which of our organization values are we most struggling to embody right now?”

“What’s one conversation with a teammate you’ve been avoiding this week?”

“What is the task you do during the day where you think ‘there must be a better way’?”

Topics to Cover

You’ll get traction in your one-on-ones when you give performance feedback that inspires personal growth. Here are five common themes to focus on:

  • Time management. Is there a pattern of lateness, or showing up flustered or disengaged? Name the pattern and use it as the beginning of a deeper conversation.
  • Keeping agreements. Do they say “Yes” even when overwhelmed and then have to backtrack or miss deadlines?
  • Naming challenges. Do they pretend to have skills that they don’t? Guide them to see how that undermines other’s confidence in them and how asking for help builds trust.
  • Embracing mistakes. Do they play the victim or blame the system when something goes wrong? Invite them to take 100% ownership for their contribution.
  • Taking creative risks. Do they keep their head down in meetings with execs? Do work that is good-enough but not great? Do they always have to have a better idea? Give them examples of how their style pushes others away, and role-play a new way to show up!

Additional Tips

Locate the Conversation. Is this week’s meeting a conversation where you need to push them a bit out of their comfort zone? Or have they been stretching lately and need some extra acknowledgement for taking a big step?

Be Transparent With Your Authority. It’s very confusing for employees when they feel their boss needs to be their friend, and it clouds your judgment as a professional. Honor their career and your responsibility by staying real about the power imbalance and the limits that puts on personal relationships (socializing outside of work, being friends on Facebook, etc.)

Share Your Struggles, Own Your Contribution. If you held onto a piece of feedback too long, apologize and let them know you’ll try and be more timely next time. If you see in hindsight that your expectations weren’t clear, or you were too harsh or too soft with them, let them know you know. They’ll appreciate it!

Remember, the most effective one-on-one conversation is one that builds over time. It’s where your employee has the consistent experience that you are invested in their personal growth and professional development. It’s easier than you think and you don’t have to be anybody’s therapist! Just keep work at the center of the conversation, hold people accountable for looking at their contributions, and ask questions that invite people to look inward rather than blame the system.

Stay curious and have fun!

Accountability — The Ultimate “A Player” Magnet

Accountability. It requires a balance that many managers fail to achieve. Finding the balance between being too tough and too soft is something nobody is born with; it takes work.

Learning how to do accountability well is a skill. It draws on your powers of observation. It requires your curiosity to pick up on the bread crumbs most managers miss. It tests your emotional intelligence, because the best accountability challenges people to own their strengths more than correct their weaknesses. It calls for the best version of you, the one who cares far more about people than about money, profit, or deadlines. And, more than occasionally, for the sake of the health of the team and the “A players” on it, it requires you to be the bad guy.

It appears to be a paradox but it isn’t. Like a parent who loves their child enough to say “no” and set boundaries, managers who care about people do accountability more and not less. Not because the people on your team are children but because we all need other people to help us see the things we can’t see about ourselves.

what would it look like to make it your mission to be “on it” with each person on your team? To give them the attention, the care, the love, that we all need to move through a stuck place. And it’s that kind of place, a place where accountability is not a word but is the DNA of the organization that ‘A’ players want to be at.

What REALLY creates a great place to work are the little things: the ways people communicate (or don’t); The way people kick the can (or don’t); The ways people show up on time and keep their agreements (or don’t). Leaders love to talk about wanting ‘A’ players, but they usually don’t think about or understand what ‘A’ players want.

‘A’ players don’t need a fancy mission statement. ‘A’ players to be where: Everyone is pulling their weight, holding themselves responsible, and the managers are holding everyone responsible for doing that.

So, how do you do it? Here’s a framework to get there. The Accountability Dial. It has one purpose: to give a set of benchmarks so you don’t go to fast (too tough) or too slow (to soft). A map to locate where you and your team member is in the process.

There are five steps to the process:

  1. The Mention: Short and immediate feedback where you say what you see and check in early on to make sure everything’s alright.
    “Hey I noticed [a concrete observation about their work]… is everything okay?”
  2. The Invitation: An informal chat, usually in private, during which you help someone build more awareness around a particular issue.
    “I’ve mentioned [concrete behaviors] to you a few times now… what’s the pattern here?”
  3. The Conversation: The “we need to talk” meeting, where you place some urgency around the issue and the importance of dealing with it.
    “[Concrete observations/behaviors] are impacting the team… let’s discuss how to resolve this.”
  4. The Boundary: At some point, you will need to pull rank and outline the consequences of not following through.
    “If [concrete observations] don’t change, we may have to consider [possible consequences].”
  5. The Limit: If the situation requires it, the employee may get one last chance to improve.
    ‘This is your final warning. Let me lay this out for you… ”

The dial is not a linear process — it can be turned up and down depending on the situation. For serious issues, you may jump immediately to The Conversation, or even The Limit.

But for many things, a few focused Mentions will do the job. That’s why it’s critical to build real-time feedback into your management style. However, I’m not suggesting you criticize — the ideal Mention is short, light, and comes from a place of genuine concern for the person.

Resisting the urge to solve the problem will feel unnatural. But it’s important that you get used to it.

It’s What You Do with It That Counts

The accountability dial is a useful way to start a dialogue and it’s what happens during the actual dialogue that separates the average managers from the great leaders. The four ideas that follow are among the hardest techniques to master — but they can have a massive impact on your team over time.

1. Ask Open Questions

Asking open questions that require more than just a yes/no response is an essential leadership technique. Whether it’s during a one-on-one, a weekly update, or real-time feedback, the more questions you can ask, the more accountable your team will become. Some examples of good open questions are:

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What’s working?
  • What’s not working?
  • What help do you need?
  • What resources do you have available?
  • What’s becoming clearer to you?

Even requests are more powerful when they’re made as open questions. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • “Please try and arrive on time.” (a request)
  • “What will you do to make sure you arrive on time?” (an open question)

Notice how the second version goes further in helping someone really think through the issue at hand.

2. Weed Out Excuses

Holding someone accountable can be uncomfortable for both sides. After asking a difficult question, it’s tempting to accept the first answer you get to ease the tension. However, you must weed out excuses when you spot them.

So what’s the difference between an “excuse” and a “reason”? An excuse is a statement of cause that assumes no responsibility. Imagine giving this feedback to a teammate arriving late to the office:

“Hey John, it’s 10:30 a.m. and you missed the standup — is everything okay?”

John might give one of two responses:

  1. “Sorry, the weather was awful and I got stuck in traffic.”
  2. “Sorry, I didn’t take the weather into account, and I should have sent a message on Slack when I realized I was running late.”

Notice that in the second response, he assumes far more responsibility than in the first. He was aware of his own role in the outcome.

When people realize there is more they could have — and should have — done to get a better outcome, it can be uncomfortable and they can start to sweat. But as a manager, you can’t shy away from it. Every failure is a learning opportunity.

3. Don’t Solve — Empathize

Resisting the urge to solve the problem will feel unnatural. But it’s important that you get used to it. Not all problems are your problems.

One of the reasons why so many managers jump to providing an answer is because it can feel really good to solve other people’s problems, especially when they seem easy to solve. But if you’re always playing the hero, you steal the glory from your team.

When your team comes to you with a problem, it’s a powerful approach to say, “That sounds tough — are you okay?’ rather than jumping immediately to the solution. Perhaps the most useful question a leader can ask is: “What will you do about it?”

4. Disagree and Commit

Jeff Bezos coined the expression “disagree and commit” to formalize a manager’s responsibilities to allow teammates to make their own decisions — and be held accountable for them.

Bezos isn’t the only CEO who thinks this way. In his 2018 TED Talk, How Netflix Changed Entertainment, CEO Reed Hastings said:

“I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter… There are some times I can go a whole quarter without making any decisions.”

Every leader knows just how hard it is to allow your team to take decisions that you might not agree with — or that you suspect may fail.

You should even be careful in making suggestions, in the world of accountability. As a CEO, I learned the frustrating fact that what I meant as a suggestion often sounded like a decision to my team. This always came back to haunt me when I held them accountable later and they said, “But I was just doing what you suggested.”

5. Outline the Consequences

Holding people accountable and asking tough questions can expose performance issues in an individual. We are all accountable for our own performance. But what happens if, despite regular feedback and conversations, someone’s performance doesn’t improve?

Setting boundaries requires you to define the consequences of overstepping them. It’s helpful to distinguish between two types of consequences: punitive and protective. A punitive consequence is one whose objective is to punish certain behaviours, whereas a protective consequence is one that protects your needs as a business and as a team.

To illustrate, let’s look at the example of someone whose continued lateness to meetings is leaving the team frustrated and inefficient. Which of the following consequences is protective and which is punitive?

  • “If you keep arriving late for meetings, we won’t be inviting you on the company trip to Barcelona next month.”
  • “If you keep arriving late for meetings, we won’t be able to afford you the flexibility of working remotely.”

In the first example, following through on the consequence won’t resolve the real issues for the team — those of reliability and punctuality. In the second example, removing the flexibility of work-hours will help protect the team’s needs.

The term “consequences” can be scary because it’s often associated with firing someone. In reality, there is a wide spectrum of possible consequences, for example:

  • Reducing flexibility of work hours
  • Switching around roles and responsibility
  • A formal warning
  • Extra training
  • Terminating employment

Where Do You Sit?

As the boss, it’s your job to hold your team accountable — even when it feels uncomfortable. It takes regular feedback, coaching, and probing questions to bring out your team’s inner ownership.

Where would you put yourself on the accountability dial? Are you giving real-time feedback and asking enough open questions? Are you empowering and empathizing with your team to help them solve their own problems? I invite you to connect the dots.

4 Ways to Create a Learning Culture on Your Team

Technology is disrupting every industry and area of life, especially how we work. The digital revolution has placed a premium on intellectual curiosity and learnability, the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable. What you know is less relevant than what you may learn.

“The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture,” says Josh Bersin, principle and found of Bersin by Deloitte in Oakland, California, citing findings from a 2010 Bersin & Associates research report, High-Impact Learning Culture: The 40 Best Practices for Creating and Empowered Enterprise.

Like most things, creating a learning culture is easier said than done. Fortunately, it can be taught.

True learning cultures, defined by Corporate Executive Board (CEB) as “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization,” are still the exception rather than the norm. According to CEB research. And only 20 percent of employees show effective learning behaviors.

On the plus side, workers today have much more control over their own development. That’s largely due to the ubiquity of online learning courses, webinars and social networks. Given a choice, people generally prefer to learn online at their own pace.

Learning is taking place, but are employees learning what they need to? Does the organization support their efforts with a learning culture?

Here are four science-based recommendations to help create a learning culture on your team or in your organization.

Reward continuous learning. A formal reward system entices the changes you desire, and even then there is no guarantee unless the rewards are effective. It is more than simply praising and promoting efforts to learn; it’s about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up is encouraged, even if it means creating discord. This is particularly important to foster innovation.

Giving meaningful and constructive feedback. The focus on “strengths” and feel-good approaches to management tends to minimize the value of negative feedback. It is hard to improve on anything when you are unaware of your limitations. Positive reinforcement is motivating, but we all have blind spots. Negative feedback provided in a constructive and delicate way—it is a true art—can also help team members to improve.

Lead by example. What you, as a leader, actually do is a critical driver of employee learning. As illustrated by the leadership value chain model, leaders’ behaviors—particularly what they routinely do—have a strong influence on the behavior and performance of their teams. Nurturing your team’s curiosity and learning, then means practicing what you preach. Start by displaying some learning and unlocking your own curiosity. Learn a new skill or enhance an existing one. Read a book and share what you learned.

Hire curious people. It’s far easier to prevent and predict than to fix and change. When selection works, there’s less need for training and development. Hiring people that are naturally curious you won’t have to worry so much about their willingness to learn. But how do you identify an individual’s propensity to learn and be curious? There is well-established science to predicting a person’s probability of displaying such traits (for example, openness to new experience, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness). The screening and hiring process can include questions and other methods to uncover these desirable traits.

Reinforcing positive learning behaviors, giving constructive and critical feedback, showcasing your own curiosity, and hiring people with high learnability are all likely to create a stronger learning culture within your team and organization.

Great Coaches Ask, Listen, and Empathize

Historically, leaders achieved their position by virtue of experience on the job and in-depth knowledge. They were expected to have answers and to readily provide them when employees were unsure about what to do or how to do it. The leader was the person who knew the most, and that was the basis of their authority.

Leaders today still have to understand their business thoroughly, but it’s unrealistic and ill-advised to expect them to have all the answers. Organizations are simply too complex for leaders to govern on that basis. One way for leaders to adjust to this shift is to adopt a new role: that of coach. By using coaching methods and techniques in the right situations, leaders can still be effective without knowing all the answers and without telling employees what to do.

Coaching is about connecting with people, inspiring them to do their best, and helping them to grow. It’s also about challenging people to come up with the answers they require on their own. Coaching is far from an exact science, and all leaders have to develop their own style, but we can break down the process into practices that any manager will need to explore and understand. Here are the three most important:

Ask

Coaching begins by creating space to be filled by the employee, and typically you start this process by asking an open-ended question. After some initial small talk with my clients and students, I usually signal the beginning of our coaching conversation by asking, “So, where would you like to start?” The key is to establish receptivity to whatever the other person needs to discuss, and to avoid presumptions that unnecessarily limit the conversation. As a manager you may well want to set some limits to the conversation (“I’m not prepared to talk about the budget today.”) or at least ensure that the agenda reflects your needs (“I’d like to discuss last week’s meeting, in addition to what’s on your list.”), but it’s important to do only as much of this as necessary and to leave room for your employee to raise concerns and issues that are important to them. It’s all too easy for leaders to inadvertantly send signals that prevent employees from raising issues, so make it clear that their agenda matters.

In his book Helping, former MIT professor Edgar Schein identifies different modes of inquiry that we employ when we’re offering help, and they map particularly well to coaching conversations. The initial process of information gathering I described above is what Schein calls “pure inquiry.” The next step is “diagnostic inquiry,” which consists of focusing the other person’s attention on specific aspects of their story, such as feelings and reactions, underlying causes or motives, or actions taken or contemplated. (“You seem frustrated with Chris. How’s that relationship going?” or “It sounds like there’s been some tension on your team. What do you think is happening?” or “That’s an ambitious goal for that project. How are you planning to get there?”)

The next step in the process is what Schein somewhat confusingly calls “confrontational inquiry”. He doesn’t mean that we literally confront the person, but, rather, that we challenge aspects of their story by introducing new ideas and hypotheses, substituting our understanding of the situation for the other person’s. (“You’ve been talking about Chris’s shortcomings. How might you be contributing to the problem?” or “I understand that your team’s been under a lot of stress. How has turnover affected their ability to collaborate?” or “That’s an exciting plan, but it has a lot of moving parts. What happens if you’re behind schedule?”)

In coaching conversations it’s crucial to spend as much time as needed in the initial stages and resist the urge to jump ahead, where the process shifts from asking open-ended questions to using your authority as a leader to spotlight certain issues. The more time you can spend in pure inquiry, the more likely the conversation will challenge your employee to come up with their own creative solutions, surfacing the unique knowledge that they’ve gained from their proximity to the problem.

Listen

It’s important to understand the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a cognitive process that happens internally — we absorb sound, interpret it, and understand it. But listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.

Listening in a coaching context requires significant eye contact, not to the point of awkwardness, but more than you typically devote in a casual conversation. This ensures that you capture as much data about the other person as possible — facial expressions, gestures, tics — and conveys a strong sense of interest and engagement.

Effective listening also requires our focused attention. Coaching is fundamentally incompatible with multitasking, because while you may be able to hear what another person is saying while working on something else, it’s impossible to listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard. It’s critical to eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, close your laptop, and find a dedicated space where you won’t be interrupted.

Coaching conversations can take place over the phone, of course, and in that medium it’s even more important to refrain from multitasking so that in the absence of visual data, you can pick up on subtle cues in someone’s speech.

In my experience taking brief, sporadic notes in a coaching conversation helps me to stay focused and lessens the burden of maintaining information in my working memory (which holds just five to seven items for most people.) But note-taking itself can become a distraction, causing you to worry more about accurately capturing the other person’s comments than about truly listening. Coaching conversations aren’t depositions, so don’t play stenographer. If you feel the need to take notes, try writing one word or phrase at a time, just enough to jog your memory later.

Empathize

Empathy is the ability not only to comprehend another person’s point of view, but also to vicariously experience their emotions. Without empathy other people remain alien and opaque to us. When present it establishes the interpersonal connection that makes coaching possible.

A key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston whose work focuses on the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Empathy, Brown notes, is “the antidote to shame.” When employees need your help they are likely experiencing some form of shame, even if it’s just mild embarrassment — and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.

But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, explains some of the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: We compare our issues to theirs (“My problem’s bigger.”), try to be overly positive (“Look on the bright side.”), or leap to problem-solving while ignoring what they’re feeling in the moment.

Finally, be aware that expressing empathy need not prevent you from holding people to high standards. You may fear that empathizing is equivalent to excusing poor performance but this is a false dichotomy. Empathizing with the difficulties your employees face is an important step in the process of helping them build resilience and learn from setbacks. After you’ve acknowledged an employee’s struggles and feelings, they’re more likely to respond to your efforts to motivate improved performance.

When you coach as a leader you don’t need to be the expert. You don’t need to be the smartest or most experienced person in the room. And you don’t need to have all the solutions. But you do need to be able to connect with people, to inspire them to do their best, and to help them search inside and discover their own answers.