In today's business environment, one of the most important roles CEOs can embrace is that of coach, teacher and mentor. One of the best tools CEOs can use to coach is consistent, structured one-to-ones with their direct reports.

By one-to-ones we mean high-level conversations where you and your direct reports set aside quality time to address the long-term strategic issues facing the company and the developmental issues of your management team.

One-to-ones with direct reports allow you to:

  • achieve better alignment in respect of the vision, mission and goals of the company
  • gain a clearer picture of how your direct reports think and solve problems
  • provide quality time for coaching and mentoring – essential activities for building your management team
  • model the behaviour you want your direct reports to use with their people.

Equally important, one-to-ones provide much-needed recognition for direct reports. Giving your time and undivided attention sends the message that you consider them valuable players on the team.

Coaching skills for one-to-ones

Effective coaching via one-to-ones starts with some basic communication skills.

  • Empathy. Strive to see the world through the other person's eyes. In reality, you can never see the world exactly as someone else does. However, making the attempt will dramatically change the interaction in a positive manner.
  • Respect. Be slow to understand, so that you can get at the real issue and show the other person the respect they deserve.
  • Exploration. Avoid easy, quick answers and stay in diagnostic mode throughout the one-to-one. Ask plenty of open-ended questions.
  • Flexibility. Everyone has a natural style of communicating. Learn to go beyond your natural style and do what is needed in the situation.

It also helps to know your non-verbal style, including its strengths and limitations, so that you can become more flexible in your interpersonal interactions. Non-verbal communication plays a vital role in your ability to influence others.

Getting results from your one-to-ones

To conduct effective one-to-ones with your direct reports, we recommend the following steps.

  • Make the one-to-ones a priority. Schedule at least one hour per month of quality, protected time with each direct report. Set up the one-to-one meetings six months to a year in advance and write them on your calendar in indelible ink. During the meetings, do not allow any phone calls, interruptions or distractions.
  • At the same time, beware of over-scheduling. If you meet too frequently, the one-to-ones become totally operational. The further apart the one-to-one sessions, the more they tend to stay at the strategic level.
  • Work their agenda, not yours. Have the direct report prepare a written agenda for the one-to-one. The agenda should focus at least 25% on strategy and long-term developmental issues (both for the company and for themselves) and contain at least one opportunity to explore in depth. Teach your managers/executives to regularly identify opportunities, not just "problems".
  • 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.

To enhance your one-to-ones, we also suggest practising 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 personal.

Interestingly, when you listen four times as much as you talk, your people will perceive it as just about even. The same goes for 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.

Become a master questioner

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

Conducting great one-to-ones requires asking 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? These questions will help you listen four times more than you talk and diagnose four times as much as you come up with solutions.

We also suggests avoiding "why?" questions in your one-to-ones, as they tend to put people on the defensive. Instead of "Why did you do that?", consider questions like "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.

Coaching for behavioural change

Often, coaching involves having a conversation to change behaviour. The challenge for CEOs is to be professionally positive when the natural tendency is to be negative – especially when working with difficult employees.

To coach in a positive fashion during your one-to-ones, we recommend the following.

  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. Come to the one-to-one prepared with several different examples of the behaviour you want the employee to change. You're trying to change the behaviour in general, not a specific situation.
  • Make a specific request for change. Tell the person what you want them to do as a result of having the one-to-one conversation with you. Think it through beforehand, identify the best time to introduce the request into the conversation, and be very clear about what you want to accomplish.
  • Make the request short and to the point. For example, "I want that report on my desk by 10am every Monday," or "I want you to spend one full day each week out in the field coaching our salespeople."
  • Come to agreement on the new behaviour and put it in writing. Having a written agreement prevents any misunderstandings and provides an important accountability tool.

As a CEO, you can't avoid these kinds of conversations. However, keep in mind that coaching isn't only about confronting and changing behaviour. In fact, 70% to 80% should be about acknowledging and recognising performance. Use the Rule of Four and aim for four times as many recognition conversations as confrontation conversations.

Coach more and do less

Ultimately, your growth as a CEO and business leader will come from doing less, thinking more, and coaching others to step up to the plate and take on more. You have to run the business, but you don't have to get buried in all the operational details.

To maximise your performance as CEO, use the one-to-one process to get clarity with your direct reports, coach them to better performance, and provide the accountability and calibration they need to get the job done. In doing so, you free up your time and energy to become a better strategist, ambassador and inventor to create real increased market value for the company.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.