Conducting effective one-on-one meetings as a small business owner or manager is one of the most productive and powerful ways to connect with the people on your team. Meeting one-on-one gives you the opportunity to build rapport and show employees you value them both as individual contributors and human beings. Getting together without distractions or buffers and speaking face-to-face in real-time provides each party the chance to both listen and be heard. Done well, one-on-one meetings are an efficient and potent way to strengthen bonds with direct reports and get their valuable input.

In the modern workplace, there’s no shortage of tools or platforms that enable us to connect and collaborate; but despite having email, instant messaging, and Slack at our fingertips, these advances in technology still don’t quite measure up to face-to-face, one-on-one meetings. Video conferencing certainly comes close and can serve as a strong substitute in a pinch, but nothing beats having an in-person meeting when possible.

However, it’s not enough to simply meet for the sake of meeting; and, in fact, poorly run, disorganized, and rushed meetings can be a waste of time that employees often resent. Instead, it’s important to structure the meeting in such a way that it serves two critical purposes — as a check-in and a coaching session. The best one-on-ones are short, to the point, impactful, and something everyone looks forward to attending.

Here’s How Effective Small Business Leaders Get the Most Out of One-on-Ones with Employees:

Set a Schedule and Stick to It

Your one-on-one meetings should be scheduled at regular intervals: weekly, monthly, or quarterly. All-too-often, leaders set the intention of holding regular meetings only to cancel them and let them fall off the radar when they get busy. This is a common mistake that can inadvertently make employees feel as if they are low on your priority list.

Clear your calendar and eliminate distractions so you can be fully present and available during the meeting. The golden rule of effective one-on-ones: never, ever cancel this meeting unless there is a true emergency. Employees view this time as an expression of your genuine interest in their growth and success. Don’t take it for granted. 

Set an Agenda 

Let employees know what kinds of things you’re going to discuss in advance, providing a bulleted list of topics and what you hope to accomplish during the time allotted.

As a leader, consider the meeting an opportunity to ask questions and get feedback related to business objectives and strategies. If the employee has a chance to think, reflect, and prepare prior to the meeting, your conversation can be more productive and fruitful.

For the employee, the meeting should also be a chance for them to talk about their professional development and career plans, so let them know to plan for this before you come together.

As a rule, the agenda for your one-on-ones should be about gathering feedback, not providing it– this is not a performance review.

Set a Positive Tone

Keep in mind, the employee one-on-one should be a coaching session infused with positive energy, not a disciplinary meeting or complaint fest. Encourage them to share a recent win or something that’s going well. Acknowledge their hard work and contributions, making your comments as specific as possible to demonstrate that you notice and appreciate their efforts.

It’s not that you want to dismiss open, honest discussions about problems in the one-on-one, but the overall tone should be upbeat, reassuring, constructive, and solution-oriented. At the close of the meeting, be sure to thank the employee for their time and let them know you appreciate them.

Set Expectations for Next Time

Remember, employee one-on-ones are a valuable opportunity for you to step into your role as a leader and coach. Don’t think of it as another to-do to check off your list, but rather a chance for you to drive progress and inspire growth.

At the conclusion of your meeting, ask the employee the things for which they would like to be held accountable during your next meeting and how they would like to hold you accountable for your next meeting. The goal of setting future expectations is to establish a sense of continuity and forward-thinking mutual responsibility.

Overall, if you’re not regularly hosting one-on-ones with your employees, you may be missing out on a gold mine of information and possibility. Sometimes you’ll need an intensive closed-door session and other times you may want to mix it up by going for a walk, chatting over coffee, or grabbing lunch; but most importantly, be consistent, meet at regular intervals, and keep the meeting focused on the employee.

To get you on the right track, we’ve created an Effective 1-on-1s Quick Take Tool for Leaders that you can download here by entering your name and email. This tool can help you more confidently step into your role as a leader and coach and includes a list of specific questions you can ask during your meeting to encourage powerful and productive conversations.

To get help developing your small business leadership coaching skills, schedule a strategy session with Niki Ramirez, MBA, PHR, SHRM-CP, THRP, Founder & Managing Partner, HR Answers, LLC.