Engage & Motivate Employees Through Powerful 1:1s

A Playbook for Your Leadership Arsenal

With a heart for employees and a commitment to transforming the time you spend together, you’ll unleash pure awesomeness. You in?


“Wow, what a waste of thirty minutes,” I thought to myself as I left my manager’s office. This wasn’t the first time I left a meeting with my boss discouraged and disappointed. Our weekly scheduled time together had become meaningless—a battery of project status updates (hello, you could have just emailed me for that info) and conversation that could only be described as superficial, insignificant and, more often than not, one-way. 

After months of squandered time, I resolved to not waste another minute. As a marketing leader responsible for the company’s revenue growth, I had big problems to solve. Every week, there were new obstacles threatening forward progress. I needed a strategic partner; someone who would challenge my thought process and help me think critically about the world in front of me. I wanted my manager to be that partner. Going forward, I decided I would own this meeting. Through my self-appointed ownership, I would be responsible for getting what I needed out of our time together. 

And, it worked. After some trial and error, I successfully transformed our weekly one-on-ones into the most powerful thirty minutes of my week. Each time I walked into my manager’s office, I was determined to leave informed, with the clarity I needed to drive the company and its people forward. In the past, I would begrudgingly make my way to my manager’s office for our scheduled time together (complete with deep sighs and eyes in full roll). Not anymore. This time was now my time; the fuel I craved and needed each week. Fuel that absolutely accelerated my own growth. Yet I also discovered that the greatest benefactor just so happened to be the company itself. 

Experiencing powerful one-on-ones with my manager inspired me to also reengineer one-on-ones with my direct reports. My team deserved to feel the same way I now felt—empowered, supported, trusted and valued. 

Consistent one-on-ones, when done right, are a great medium for managers to build highly functioning, motivated teams and ultimately hearten a path for people to do truly great work. 

Bill Campbell, former coach of many successful Silicon Valley tech giant executives, said that great people flourish with support, respect and trust from their managers. In Bill’s It’s the People manifesto, he stated the following: “People are the foundation of any company’s success. The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. We have great people who want to do well, are capable of doing great things, and come to work fired up to do them. Great people flourish in an environment that liberates and amplifies that energy. Managers create this environment through support, respect, and trust.” 

In Trillion Dollar Coach, Eric Schmidt highlights the ins and outs of Bill Campbell’s leadership playbook, noting that as a coach, Bill stressed leaders must get two meetings right—one-on-ones and staff meetings. Effective one-on-ones result in high levels of employee engagement and motivation but require intentionality and thoughtful planning. 

Whether you’re a manager looking for guidance on how to engage and motivate employees through powerful interaction or an employee wanting to better engineer your weekly meetings with your manager, I encourage you to start by focusing on how you interact and the structure of your time together!

Here’s my go-to for productive and influential one-on-ones. As with most things in my life, I’m always learning and because of this, this playbook is ever-evolving. Also, please note this playbook is mostly written for managers. However, all of the content can be leveraged by employees (just as I did in the story above)!

The Set-Up

Change is hard and as a result challenges are inevitable with new processes. So it’s important to get buy-in and engage in purposeful conversation. Before you dive headfirst into a new format for your one-on-ones, take time to first discuss it with your employee or manager. It’s important to delineate your “why” and be clear about what you hope will come from your reimagined time together. Highlight your proposed new structure, ownership and intent to engage in meaningful exchange by asking for feedback and tweaking the new format together. Most importantly, commit to testing out the structure and letting it evolve as needed. The idea is to make the most of your time together, not set it in stone. 

Frequency, Invites & Reminders 

There’s some debate around the appropriate cadence for one-on-ones. Personally, I find considerable value in meeting with my direct reports every week, without fail. But however often you schedule them, a two-way pledge of dependability is critical, as the resulting consistency works wonders for building rapport, trust and alignment simply by allowing space to engage in meaningful conversations regularly. Get the schedule planned out, if it isn’t already, and then jump in. As a leader for nearly two decades, I’ve found that one-on-ones always feel a bit awkward at first but with consistency and time, they grow powerful, directly impacting your company’s (and employees’) success more and more. 

Send a recurring calendar invite for the same day and time each week (or every other week). I recommend managers reserve a full 30 minutes for each direct report. If the thought of allocating 30 minutes to each of your direct reports presents an internal conflict, I implore you to let that battle go. Or consider stepping out of the leadership arena. Your company’s greatest asset is its people, and as a leader, you are obligated to make them your number one priority. The best thing you can do is invest in your employees and that means spending time with them—consistently, intentionally and energetically. (If you’re a leader that wrestles with having too many direct reports, give me a call. I will happily explore with you the topic of organizational infrastructure that fuels happy, engaged and inspired employees.) 

The day before your scheduled time together, take a few minutes to remind your employee about the upcoming one-on-one. In the past, I’ve included messages like, “I’m really looking forward to our time together tomorrow! As a reminder, this is your time so please come with a list of your most important topics.” This gentle reminder emphasizes how much you value your time together while also reminding your employee to come prepared. And don’t forget to schedule a reminder for yourself. I typically block the 15 minutes before we begin to ensure I’ve reviewed notes from our last meeting and am in the right mindset to be fully present and available. 

A word of caution! Whether you’re the employee or the manager, you will sometimes be tempted to cancel your weekly scheduled time together. Work gets busy, fires ignite and your time becomes more and more scarce. I urge you to resist the temptation. Reschedule if a conflict is unavoidable, but value your limited time together and protect it fiercely. Only good things will come if you do.

The Five “R” Style

My journey to more intentional, powerful one-on-ones has led to the creation of The Five “R” approach, a simple way of architecting meaningful manager-employee time by structuring the meeting around five vital activities: Relate, Recognize, Resolve, Reveal and Recap.

Relate. Devote the first two to five minutes of your one-on-ones to connecting with your employee on a personal level. Every once in a while, be bold and vulnerable, sharing something personal about yourself as well. Taking a few minutes every week to get to know one another outside of work-specific topics superstructs a stronghold of trust—the requisite for real conversations that ultimately propel employees and companies forward. 

PRO Tip! When your employees do share, care enough to write it down! With so many things competing for your attention at work, taking notes will jog your memory for the next time the two of you are together. Here’s an example: “Last month, you shared with me that your daughter was struggling in school. How is she doing this week?” Interacting with employees on a personal level is a great way to show that you care about them as a person, beyond the work they can deliver. 

Recognize. Employees value recognition. In fact, a few kind words can be the motivation an employee needs to finish a project on time or go above and beyond the next time around. So dedicate a quick minute of your one-on-one to celebrate them. For example, “Last week in our meeting, you spoke up and shared your concerns on Project X. It couldn’t have been easy to challenge the go forward plan. I wanted to say thank you for doing that. It really set a great example for the team and helped us come up with a better way to move ahead.” 

PRO Tip! During the week, make it a point to notice your employees’ interactions with others. While in team meetings, intentionally look for employee behaviors that were helpful or stood out in a positive way. Write these moments down and reference them in your one-on-ones. Doing so will ensure your recognition is genuine and reinforces positive behavior.  

Resolve. This is one of my favorite words in the English dictionary. As a verb, it means to find a solution. As a noun, it stands for boldness, courage and intention. Bringing hard topics to a one-on-one will require your employee to plan ahead, be intentional and often summon courage. But doing so will set the stage for pivotal discussions that act as a lifeline to company culture, team work, delivery of excellence and even customer satisfaction. Prioritize the topics your employees bring, giving them the floor to do most of the talking. Listen intently and ask good questions. Thank them for being bold enough to have tough conversations. Your goal is not to solve their problems for them but help them think critically about their biggest challenges, building their skillset to arrive at their own solutions. 

PRO Tips! 

(1) Always have your own list of most important topics to tackle, but resist the urge to share these first.

(2) Avoid status updates. It is common for one-on-ones to take this form, but don’t let it become something that can be done just as easily via email or Slack. Specific projects consume our time, attention and conversations during most of the work week. Save one-on-ones for the bigger picture.

Reveal. If time allows, take the opportunity to share at least one piece of feedback with your employee. Feedback comes in two forms: 1) noting a person’s gifts, and 2) sharing what you’d wish for when working together. Whether you’re revealing an employee’s gift or something you’d wish for when working together, all feedback should be genuine, backed by data or supported by real examples. Most importantly, feedback is always best received when wrapped in care.

PRO Tips! 

(1) Never, and I mean never, make feedback a personal attack. For example, telling an employee that you are concerned about their passion is not constructive. A more constructive way to provide less positive feedback (especially as it relates to soft skills) is to ask good questions. For example, “Hey, I’ve noticed some hesitation in expressing your ideas on this project. What’s keeping you from using that powerhouse voice of yours? How can I help you unleash it?”

(2) Ensure your company culture embraces feedback as a gift. Spend time and energy helping employees understand the value of feedback and highlight the dos and don’ts of giving and receiving it. Tackle this topic consistently in quarterly staff meetings or prioritize for company lunch-and-learns.  

Recap. At the end of your one-on-one, thank your employee for their time and summarize the highlights of your conversation. Ask that your employee recap the conversation and any resulting action items in an email sent your way. A quick read of their takeaway will give you a chance to ensure the two of you are aligned. 


There’s great value in scheduling one-on-ones with all employees on your team, including those that do not report to you directly. If you really want to understand how your people are doing, also allocate time to employees reporting to your direct reports. Encourage them to send a calendar invite for two 30-minute one-on-ones each year. The learnings from these one-on-one sessions are invaluable and offer insights needed to coach your leaders. 

And when everyone in your company is utilizing these meetings and finding their own strategic partners to elevate their game, magic can really happen.

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