The Most Practical Leadership Practice

Jason Arnold

September 17, 2019

Leadership is both an art and a science. Art, because it takes repeated practice in order to master the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to effectively influence others toward meaningful objectives. Science, because any high-quality leadership process can’t be built by trial and error; but rather needs to be theorized, tested, evaluated, revised, and tested again through the ongoing analysis of the behaviors demonstrated and caused by a leader’s influence on others. To become a great leader you need to practice by repeatedly preparing for and applying proven leadership skills.

“We Talkin’ Bout Practice!?”

As the once infamous modern philosopher and professional basketball player, Allen Iverson once quipped during a media conference, “Are we talkin’ about practice?” Practice isn’t a sexy term when it comes to leadership. Even professional athletes can struggle with practice in their given profession. It doesn’t evoke images of the charismatic speaker, inspiring their people to do great things. But, imagine a coach, an athlete or a teacher who shows up to a game or class without any preparation or practice leading up to the performance that is about to take place. Yes, Allen Iverson, practice matters!

Core Leadership Practices

Preparing yourself and others in the journey toward a common purpose starts by understanding the values, dispositions, and motivations of the people you’re leading. Other leadership practices, like creating mission and vision statements as well as values and operating norms, all help get people headed in a common direction. Finally, effective goal setting practices like SMART Goals or OKRs lay the foundation for effective performance practices that help leaders consistently assess and respond to the ongoing, moment-to-moment needs, of your people during the pursuit of those performance goals. All of these practices are foundational in making leaders more effective over time.

The Most Practical Leadership Practice

There is one practice that brings all other practices together into one harmonious symphony of leadership—the practice of regular one-to-one (1:1) meetings with the people you are attempting to influence. Quality, one-to-one conversations are the single most practical leadership practice as an individual, manager, coach, mentor, or whatever leadership role you have in life. The benefits of implementing the practice of one-to-one meetings in your organization are a viable business investment that pays off in both financial and human capital.

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Why Regular One-to-One Meetings Are Critical

1. One-to-one meetings with the people you seek to influence will increase your ability to be more intentional about important conversations regarding meaningful goals and objectives. Any meaningful relationship, personal or professional, needs dedicated, one-to-one time to communicate and discuss hopes, dreams, and objectives or the issues that may be getting in the way of collectively achieving them.

2. One-to-one meetings help you more accurately assess the needs of the people pursuing goals. How is their ability to achieve the goal? Do they need any additional training or direction? How is their energy toward pursuing the goal? Is anything impacting their motivation toward pursuing the objective? Feelings matter at work. Don’t avoid talking about them just because it’s awkward or difficult to process. To elevate performance, you and your people need to dig deep in a safe and trust-centered space.

3. One-to-ones help you formulate more intentional responses to your team’s needs. Rather than just react to the moment-to-moment needs or emotions of your people, knowing how to respond to their needs in the phase they are experiencing it in can help increase the quality of conversations, build trust, solve problems, and optimally motivate them to keep pursuing their objectives with a healthy passion for results.

Quality One-to-Ones

Don’t get caught in the one-to-one meeting trap. Many leaders with good intentions can quickly get lost in the routine of business, and one-to-one meetings can often be reduced to another task or duty to perform. Just because you’re having one-to-one meetings with the people you’re influencing, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be productive or that you’re effectively developing others through these meetings. Having one-to-one meetings shouldn’t be about complying with organizational policy, but rather about truly developing and serving the people you lead. Here are a few suggestions to help you increase the quality of your one-to-one conversations.

1. Schedule your one-to-one meetings: Make sure they are scheduled regularly. If they aren’t on the calendar, the day-to-day business will overcome your intentions to meet. Strive for once a week if possible. Some organizations conduct one-to-one meetings once a month, but in today’s fast-paced knowledge-based economy, too many critical needs will arise for an individual, and so will missed opportunities to respond to those needs effectively. if you’re only having one-to-one meetings once a month. Schedule at least 20 to 30 minutes, maybe more, depending on the needs of the moment. One-to-ones don’t have to drain your time as a leader, or be extra work for individual contributors. In fact, when done effectively they can decrease the amount of time having to put out fires caused by a lack of clear and regular communication.

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2. Prepare for one-to-one meetings: Both individuals and leaders should set aside time before the meeting to prepare for the discussion. By taking at least 10-15 minutes to prepare for a one-to-one meeting, both the leader and the individual will be better equipped to have quality, meaningful conversations about the objectives they are pursuing. Simply showing up to a meeting isn’t productive. Capture thoughts and ideas for discussion. Use goal-setting, collaboration, or performance software platforms to assess individual needs in order to initiate important conversations that should be discussed, before, during, and after the one-to-one meeting.

3. Have an Agenda: Allow individuals to create and manage the agenda. As a leader, you need to put your people’s needs first. If you have amendments or additions to the agenda, seek permission to discuss them after they’ve had a chance to discuss their needs and challenges. If you need to schedule a separate meeting to discuss other important topics that are directly related to their current needs, then follow up with them in a separate meeting to discuss your needs as a leader, or add some additional notes at the end of their meeting. Try not to mix them into the one-to-one meeting; it could erode trust and take valuable time away from empowering them to grow and develop through the conversations.

4. Focus on the Big Picture: Quality one-to-one meetings are focused on conversations around goals and important objectives. Don’t get lost in the details of tasks and results. They are important, but remember the people pursuing those goals and results are human beings, with psychological needs, that if eroded, or not addressed, could significantly sabotage your quest for meaningful results. Assess how they are feeling, both in their skills and motivations, toward the pursuit of their goals.

5. Remember We Are Human: Business often overshadows the deeper reality of our humanity when we only focus on results. Results are important, but they are only produced by our human capacity to pursue them. Invest in each other personally. Your people are human and have human needs. And so do you as a leader. Take time to ask them how they are doing personally and how they are feeling about their overall career progress. While you don’t want to get lost in personal conversations, or play the role of psychologist, checking in with your people on a human level not only helps you lead them more effectively, but helps build trust and higher intentions to perform, stay with, and endorse you as a leader and the organization you both serve.

Taking time to invest in your people, through effective and productive one-to-one meetings is a critical leadership practice at every level of an organization. Don’t neglect or minimize the importance of having quality one-to-one conversations. Looking for help in starting a one-to-one best practice, or improve the one you already have established in your organization? Let us inspire your one-to-one best practice and help you achieve extraordinary results.

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