How CEOs can get outstanding results from their one-to-ones

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In my last post I described the basic communication skills that a CEO needs in order to conduct effective one-to-ones with their direct reports. On top of this, there are five steps you can take to make sure you get the best out of these sessions.

1. Make the one-to-ones a priority

Schedule at least one hour per month of quality, protected time with each direct report. Set the meetings up six months to a year in advance, and write them on your calendar in indelible ink. Don’t allow phone calls, interruptions or distractions to disrupt these meetings.

However, take care not to over-schedule. If the one-to-ones take place too frequently, they become totally operational. The further apart the one-to-one sessions are, the more they tend to stay at the strategic level.

2. Work their agenda, not yours

Ask each direct report to prepare a written agenda for their first one-to-one meeting with you. This agenda should focus at least 25% on strategy and long-term developmental issues (both for the company and for the direct report), and should contain at least one opportunity to explore in depth. Teach your managers or executives to regularly identify opportunities, not just “problems”.

3. Create an action plan

One-to-ones should lead to mutually agreed-upon action steps, with deadlines and expected outcomes. Write them down and review them at the next one-to-one.

4. Practise the Rule of Four

• Listen four times as much as you talk.

• Give four times as much positive feedback as critical or negative feedback.

• Spend four times as much time on diagnosis as solution.

• Spend four times as much time on business issues as on personal issues.

Interestingly, when you listen four times as much as you talk, your people will perceive it as just about even. The same applies to positive versus negative feedback. To get the most out of your one-to-ones, stay in diagnostic mode, ask a lot of questions, and be generous with your praise.

5. Become a master questioner

One of the biggest secrets to impactful one-to-ones with direct reports lies in asking the right questions. CEOs can also benefit immensely from developing their questioning skills.

To conduct great one-to-ones, you need to ask a lot of questions, especially when solving problems and working on developmental issues. In particular, ask plenty of open-ended, probing questions, such as: How? What? Who? Where? When? Questions of this type will help you to abide by the Rule of Four: listening four times more than you talk, and spending four times as much time on diagnosis as on coming up with solutions.

Try hard to avoid “why?” questions, as they tend to put people on the defensive. Instead of “Why did you do that?”, ask questions such as “What led you to that conclusion?” or “What were your assumptions prior to that decision?” These will encourage people to feel safe in opening up to you.

Above all, avoid sarcasm in one-to-one coaching conversations. Sarcasm is nothing more than thinly disguised hostility that demeans and puts down the other person. Sarcasm may seem funny to you, but it is not funny to the person on the receiving end.

In many cases the aim of a one-to-one coaching session is to change the behaviour of a direct report. I’ll set out my recommendations for this in my next post.

About Terry Irwin

About Terry Irwin


Terry Irwin is the founder and CEO of TCii Strategic and Management Consultants. Born and brought up in Wales, he studied Economics and Marketing at university, followed by an MBA.

Before setting up TCii, Terry spent over 20 years in the corporate world with GSK and Henkel, managing consumer goods and services businesses, living in 14 different countries and working in 30 in Europe, North America, Asia and the Russian Federation. He has also served as a UK Director of Carphone Warehouse and as a Non-Executive Director of Holt Lloyd.

Terry has consulted for a wide range of businesses, from multinationals to start-ups and growing organisations. He has a “hands on” approach and stays involved with client projects through to the achievement of agreed results.

His areas of expertise include:


·         FMCG/services/telecoms

·         Business and strategic planning and implementation

·         Business turnaround, outsourcing and cost reduction

·         Acquisitions, mergers and post-acquisition integration

·         International trade and distribution

·         Venture capital

·         Exit strategy

·         Organisational development

·         Succession planning

·         Board-level executive coaching

·         Sourcing key people – both executive and non-executive – for clients.





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