“But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.”

1 Corinthians 15:46

Are you investing enough time in one-on-one meetings with your direct reports? Do they find your time together meaningful? You need to be absolutely certain they do. The number one reason people leave organizations is that they feel neglected and unappreciated by their immediate supervisor. The only way to keep people from feeling neglected is to do everything in your power to spend deeply meaningful time with them, one-on-one, consistently.

Do you know how to do this? Next to the time you spend with your family, one-on-one meetings with your employees are your ripest opportunity to leave your mark on this world as a servant leader. The secret to impactful one-on-one meetings is to design them to be as natural as possible. You need people to feel comfortable when they meet with you. When people are comfortable, they relax. They let down their guard. They’re more likely to open up and allow their spirits to shine through in their words…and also in what they don’t say. When this happens, then you’re on your way to connecting at a deeper, more meaningful level.

Here are seven things you can do to lay a foundation of comfort during your one-to-one meetings with the people you lead:

  1. Honor human biorhythms.

“I’m an afternoon person.”

Have you ever heard anyone say this? I haven’t. There are morning people and there are night owls. We all have a tendency to slump in the afternoons. It’s universal. It takes a great deal of discipline to build your energy level up to the point that you can operate effectively between the hours of 2pm and 4pm. So, afternoons aren’t the best time to schedule your one-on-one meetings; at least in the beginning. When people are tired, they are uncomfortable. And when they are tired yet feeling pressure to be smart and focused, they are doubly uncomfortable. Remove this discomfort. Meet with your people when both of you are fresh and focused. Give yourselves that leg up. You will be amazed at the richness of your conversations when they are fueled by your sharpest minds and most optimistic energies.

Are you concerned about using your “prime real estate” for one-on-one meetings? Consider, what else could you be doing that’s more important?

Hint: Nothing! There is absolutely nothing you can do at work that’s more important to your employees’ professional development and your success as a leader than meeting with each of your direct reports, one-on-one, during your prime hours of mental acuity.

  1. Customize your meeting format.

You are at your desk. They are on the other side of your desk. You’re staring at one another. Does this picture sound conducive to authentic and vulnerable human connection? I don’t think so, either. You don’t have to conduct your one-on-one meetings this way. There’s plenty of scientific research that says people actually think better and are more likely to let down their guards when they are doing something active while talking. Sharing a meal or a couple of cups of coffee is active. So is going for a walk together. The two of you aren’t chained to your workstations. You can venture beyond them!

If your meeting is virtual, you can still take steps to weave in shared activity. Skip the Zoom, GoToMeeting, or Skype, and pick up your good old-fashioned cell phone. While you talk, agree to do anything but sit, in order to get your blood and energy flowing. Have coffee “together” or talk a walk around the neighborhoods of your respective buildings. Liberate people from their desks. Remove that rigidity and discomfort from your meetings. Naturalize your conversations.

  1. Allow people to prepare.

No one likes to be surprised by a last-minute meeting request from their boss. First, because it means that they themselves were a last minute thought. And second, it doesn’t give them time to prepare. Set individual schedules for each of your one-on-one meetings. Stick to them. I’ve found that two weeks is the optimal time in between meetings. That gives people enough time to make progress toward goals, yet is close enough follow-up that the goals don’t get forgotten or deprioritized. Predictability diminishes discomfort.

  1. Focus on The Vital Few.

You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, sometimes called Pareto’s Law. It states that a small percentage of activities, say 20 percent, drives most of the results, say 80 percent. Joseph Juran called those most valuable activities “The Vital Few.” Ask yourself, do you spend most of the time in your one-on-one meetings focusing on employees’ Vital Few activities, and what they need from you to knock their efforts in those areas out of the park?

Do your employees know what their Vital Few activities are? If not, this is where you start. Vital Few activities are different for every industry and slightly different for every company within that industry. Individual teams have a Vital Few, too. So do individual employees. It may take some time and effort to identify the Vital Few, but the analysis will pay off – for you, for the team, for the company, and definitely for each of your employees. Ask your people, what do they do for the team that makes the most difference? What needs to happen for them to get better at that portion of their work? Give people permission to reorganize how they spend their time.

You want and need people to retool their workflows to benefit the team, instead of laboring under what may be an antiquated list of job responsibilities. Let them know that you feel a 100% comfort level with their questioning the value-add of any of their tasks. Put them at ease around this piece. Your comfort level will become their comfort level. You will actually see people’s shoulders un-hunch, when they get to stop overly focusing on non value-add tasks. Meaningless work creates tension in people’s bodies. Relieve them of that tension.

  1. Ask questions designed to draw people out.

A great question leads a person into discovery. It gently knocks them off-center and helps them understand a situation differently than before. Doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it? It’s not, at first. Self-discovery is often the opposite of comfortable, on the surface. But underneath the surface, the trust you’re building with people through believing in their ability to become more self-aware instills a deep and abiding sense of comfort. It’s soul-deep comfort; precisely the kind that Jesus guided us all to nurture in one another:

The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. (Proverbs 20:5)

Great coaching is not about trying to figure things out for the other person. It’s all about coming in with no answers, asking the good questions, and then really listening to the insights people develop for themselves as they are pumped up by your belief in them. Give people the comfort of your belief and encouragement. It’s the simplest thing for you to give during one-on-one meetings, yet can create the most profound impact.

  1. Listen more than talk.

The better you get at listening, the more influence you’re going to have, and the more effective you’re going to be at coaching people one-on-one. To get better at listening, follow these three rules:

  • Never ask another question until the previous question gets answered.
  • When they are silent, you stay silent longer. Give people room and space to think.
  • Never provide an answer you know other people are capable of developing for themselves.
  1. Pray before every one-on-one meeting.

God wants you to be comfortable in your leadership role. He wants you to have deeply meaningful one-on-one meetings with His children. He wants you and your employees to feed one another spiritually during your time together. Ask God for comfort and confidence. Pray to become more perceptive of what the people you lead need most from you when you meet with them, one-on-one. He will give you answers. But you need to ask, and make yourself receptive to His teaching.

When you do this, and bring what you learn into your private conversations with the people you lead, you will connect more meaningfully and serve more effectively than you’d imagined possible. And I guarantee your people will appreciate your efforts and will greatly look forward to every one-on-one meeting with you.

With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand. (Psalms 78:72)


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MARK Deterding is an author, speaker, consultant, executive coach and the founder of Triune Leadership Services, LLC. His purpose is to work with leaders to help them develop core servant leadership capabilities that allow them to lead at a higher level and enable them to achieve their God-given potential. He has written two books, A Model of Servant Leadership, and Leading Jesus’ Way. With over three decades of experience directing companies and developing leaders, Mark created A Model of Servant Leadership parallel to the principles that Jesus himself illustrated. Working with organizations, leadership teams, and executives one-on-one, he helps bring focus, clarity, and action to make things work. He also conducts training programs to teach faith-based servant leadership principles. His greatest passion is seeing the impact servant leadership has on people’s lives and beyond. Prior to Triune Leadership Services he worked for 35 years in the printing industry holding senior leadership positions at Taylor Corporation, RR Donnelly, and Banta Corporation. He is an accomplished executive with a proven track record for developing purpose-driven; values based teams that drive culture improvement, enhanced employee passion, and improved business results. He is featured in Ken Blanchard’s book “Leading at a Higher Level”, and has been a featured speaker for the Ken Blanchard Companies Executive Forum in both 2007 and 2011. Mark lives in Alexandria, Minnesota with his wife Kim. They have two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and three grandchildren, so far. To find out more about Mark and his work, visit Triune Leadership Services via the Link adjacent his Photo above.
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