As a leader, you know that it's critical to spend quality time interacting with employees.

But many leaders concentrate only on formal gatherings--often called town hall or all-hands meetings--during which they present information, then allow time for questions or comments. While town halls can be valuable, their size and structure limit meaningful interaction. In a large group, it's difficult to be candid or allow for back-and-forth conversations.

That's why you also need to include small-group sessions in your communication mix.

These sessions are intimate (usually five to 12 participants) and seem to be loose and unscripted. But even though the vibe is casual, small-group forums need structure to work well. Here's how to build a successful experience:

  1. Set objectives. Think about why you're bringing people together. Is it simply to share perspectives or would you like to gather ideas and act on them? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can plan accordingly--and make sure employees know what to expect.
  2. Decide on one to three topics. While a completely open forum sounds appealing, it's actually easier for participants to create focus. That way, employees have a reference point. For example, you could spend a few minutes informally talking about an initiative like customer service. Then ask employees questions: "What is going well about this? What challenges do we face?" and get the discussion started. Later in the session, pose an open-ended question: "What else is on your mind?"
  3. Be selective about your guest list. For the most lively conversation, mix up participants to include different roles, functions and levels. If possible, avoid inviting managers and their direct reports--that inhibits candor.
  4. Allow enough time to let participants warm up, but not so much that the conversation gets stale. I've found that a 45-minute session is the ideal length of time.
  5. Be clear about how you'll facilitate. Start the session sharing essential ground rules like these: "I'd like to give everyone a chance to participate, so I may ask you to wrap up a comment or call on you to ask your viewpoint. Your candor is appreciated, but please be respectful of other people's viewpoints."

When time is up, thank participants for their contributions--and remind them of next steps. Then congratulate yourself having a meaningful, authentic encounter with team members.

Published on: Jul 27, 2015