The Best Leaders Serve Their People One at a Time

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  • February 13, 2018

In many ways, servant leadership is all about helping people win—to accomplish their goals. Meeting with direct reports one-on-one is an excellent way for servant leaders to create and sustain good relationships and build trust in the workplace. Let’s take a look at how the process works.

Build Better Relationships and Performance

For servant leaders, the performance review system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance evaluation.

  1. Performance planning. The leadership part of servant leadership requires that direct reports are clear on what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. That is the focus of performance planning.

  2. Once that’s done, the next step is day-to-day coaching. That’s where leaders turn the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down and focus on the servant  part of servant leadership: praising people’s progress, redirecting efforts when they are off track, and generally cheering them on to goal accomplishment.

  3. The third step is performance evaluation, where direct reports meet with their manager at the end of a fiscal period to learn whether they’ve done a good job.

In most organizations, when I ask leaders if they spend more time on performance planning, day-to-day coaching, or performance evaluation, the overriding answer I hear is performance evaluation. That’s where managers sit around filling out forms while their direct reports wait to find out how well they’ve done. While servant leaders understand the importance of performance planning and evaluation, most of their energy is focused on day-to-day coaching—the servant part of servant leadership.

Peter Drucker often emphasized the idea that “nothing good happens by accident”—you have to put some structure into it. One of the ways we have utilized his advice and made day-to-day coaching really come alive is by implementing a one-on-one process that compels managers to talk to their people. 

The Power of One-on-Ones

Hearing the phrase “you need to talk to your people” can invoke a feeling of dread in any manager. But when managers have frequent one-on-one conversations with their direct reports, it improves not only leadership skills but also job satisfaction. Our company’s research shows that employees want to have more time with their leaders. One survey found gaps of 10 to 16 percent between how often people want to meet with their managers and how often they actually meet.

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Several years ago when my wife, Margie, was working with a fast food chain, she found out its turnover rate was much lower than average. She asked a manager what he did to keep the rate so low. The manager said he made sure to take at least ten minutes every week to talk to each employee. These conversations weren’t necessarily about job performance; they were simply an opportunity for the manager to check in with each person to see how things were going in their life.

After learning this, Margie talked to the staff and asked why they stayed. They all mentioned their manager and said they liked working for someone who cared about them. A few individuals said they knew they could go to another place and make a few more cents an hour, but they wanted to continue working for this manager. He made time for them, which in turn made them feel like a respected part of the team.

Margie was so enthusiastic about this concept that she shared it with our leadership team and went on to develop a process for one-on-one meetings. This process requires managers to meet with each of their direct reports for 15 to 30 minutes at least every two weeks. These meetings are not for discussing performance—they are meant to enhance the relationship between manager and employee.

The leader schedules the meeting but the employee sets the agenda. It’s a chance for the direct report to talk about their goals, share personal information, learn more about the company, or ask for help to solve a problem. These kinds of conversations allow managers and employees to get to know each other as human beings. When people are not just allowed but encouraged to talk with their managers about their everyday lives, relationships flourish because a new level of trust is created. And trusted working relationships improve performance on all sides.

Talk To Your People

As a leader, you might be thinking I don’t have time for more meetings. But I say you can’t afford to not  take time for your people.

If you can’t find a few extra hours to mentor and develop your direct reports, a leadership role may not be right for you. Time spent in team meetings is not the same. One-on-one meetings are a significant way for leaders to demonstrate they care. These interactions deepen relationships, build partnerships, and create loyalty.

When a servant leader takes the time to connect with a direct report, it lets that person know their work is important and they are a valued member of the team. One-on-one conversations are the foundation for strong, productive relationships that align people with each other and with the organization in a satisfying, meaningful way.

Few people have  influenced the day-to-day management of people and companies more than Ken Blanchard. A prominent, sought-after author, speaker, and business consultant, Dr. Blanchard is respected for his lifetime of groundbreaking research and thought leadership that has influenced the day-to-day management and leadership of people and companies throughout the world. His latest book, Servant Leadership in Actionreleased in March 2018.

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