Bruce held our partners spellbound for two and a half hours.
Graham Baragwanath, Managing Partner (fmr.), Deloitte Consulting Canada

What Is High-Structure, High-Substance Dialogue?



Since 1993, my firm RainmakerThinking, Inc. has conducted in-depth workplace research in a wide range of organizations in many different industries, including dozens of accounting firms — large, medium, and small. We’ve asked hundreds of thousands of leaders — including many thousands of accounting firm partners, directors, and senior associates — some version of this open-ended question: “Which employee situations are most challenging for you as a manager?” Despite the diversity of people and situations, the same basic challenges come up over and over again—-—- maybe it’s the superstar whom the manager is afraid of losing, the slacker whom the manager cannot figure out how to motivate, the two associates who can’t get along, or problems that flow from the multiple complexities of managing interdependent working relationships in a professional services firm.

Managing people in a professional services firm is harder nowadays than ever before, yet our research shows that that when things are going wrong in a management relationship, almost always, the common denominator is unstructured, low substance, hit-or-miss communication.


As a manager, do you want to sidestep one crisis after another? Do you want to get the most out of your people? Do you want to quickly master the seemingly most difficult management relationships?  Almost always, the key is to replace the unstructured, low substance, hit-or-miss communication with a high-structure, high-substance ongoing regular one-on-one dialogue with every person you manage. Every step of the way:

That’s it. Highly structured, highly substantive, one-on-one dialogue. Of course, there is much nuance in the details.


What is high structure?

High structure means regularly scheduled and conducted according to a clear well organized agenda. That doesn’t mean it should be a one-way conversation. Of course, you need to allow for give and take.

The first person you need to manage every day is yourself. You need to set aside the time every day to manage. I recommend a minimum of an hour a day, like taking a walk every day. Make that your sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, do not fight fires. Use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average.

The second person you need to manage every day is everybody else. In an ideal world, you would talk with every single direct-report every single day. You would take that management walk every day with every person. If you have more than four or five direct-reports, you will need to make choices every day. Maybe you can’t talk to every person every day.

During dedicated one-on-one time:

  • set aside an hour a day
  • concentrate on three or four people per day
  • follow a regular format with each person, customized for that person
  • always start with top priorities, open questions, and any work in progress
  • prepare in advance for one-on-ones and make sure your direct-reports prepare
  • consider holding meetings standing up, with a clipboard in hand (to keep them quick and focused)
  • don’t let anybody go more than two weeks without a meeting
  • don’t do all the talking;
  • if you manage people working other shifts, stay late or come in early
  • if you manage people in remote locations, conduct your one-on-ones via telephone with no less rigor and discipline than your in-person one-on-ones.


How many people can you possibly manage this way? How many one-on-one dialogues can you maintain? The answer is different for every manager. Be honest with yourself. If you are not able to maintain an ongoing one-on-one dialogue with an employee, you are not managing that person. That person is in a sink-or-swim situation. If you have eight people, you can talk to everybody one-on-one once or twice a week. If you have sixteen people, it’s going to be a whole lot harder.

If you have a chain of command, use it. Focus first and foremost on any managers you manage. Talk with them about how they are managing. Every day coach them on the management fundamentals – make sure they are having regular one-on-ones with their direct-reports. All the way down the chain of command. Managers need to be taught to practice the fundamentals at every level. Or else your chain of command is not going to work.

No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your management time.


What is high-substance?

High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average? What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms, every step of the way:

  • Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly.
  • Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
  • Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
  • Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee
  • Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid coaching style feedback.
  • Follow through with real consequences and rewards based on performance in relation to expectations.

Ask really good questions:

  • “What do you need from me?”
  • “What is your plan? What steps will you follow?”
  • “How long will this step take? How long will that step take? And the next?”

Listen carefully:

  • Evaluate how well the employee understands the requirements of the task at hand.
  • Pay close attention to the gaps in her approach.
  • Keep asking questions. Facilitate.
  • Adjust as needed.

Never forget you need to make sure every single employee knows every step of the way exactly what is expected of her – exactly what she is supposed to do and how.

One-on-ones are also where you answer employees’ questions as they come up. Get input from your employees throughout the process. Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while. Together you’ll need to regularly think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work-plan. Anticipate and prepare. Train and practice.

Together you will uncover on a regular basis what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure.

Every step of the way, stay on the lookout: Are there problems hiding around the corner or just below the surface? Small problems that can be solved now so they don’t turn into bigger problems soon? Resources we need to obtain or else figure out what to do instead? Key people in interdependent roles we need to be engaging?

What’s changing? What’s about to change? What might change soon? Don’t be embarrassed that things change. It wasn’t your idea. Uncertainty is the new certainty, right? When priorities change, expectations change. That is just further evidence that telling people what to do and how to do it is critical. After all, who is going to tell each employee:

  • Which priorities have shifted and changed today?
  • What are they supposed to focus on today?
  • What are the expectations today?

Like what you’re reading? Want to read more?
The 27 Challenges Managers Face