Town Halls…You’re Doing Them Wrong

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Senior leaders love town hall meetings. In their minds, these meetings are a meaningful way to connect with company employees. A way to gather everyone under one roof and give them a common purpose.

And they’re right…but most of them are doing it wrong.

Many senior leaders don’t realize that how they organize the meeting has a direct effect on whether their employees leave feeling refreshed and motivated, or confused and disillusioned. Here are some of the most common mistakes senior leaders make when planning a town hall meeting, and how to avoid them.

1. You treat it like a presentation.

When is the last time you felt inspired by a 42-slide PowerPoint presentation? What do you mean, never? Well that’s just silly, because we all know every PowerPoint presentation we’ve ever seen had us hanging on the edge of our collective seats.

Okay, okay. I understand why senior leaders like to use town halls as an opportunity to update staff members on their organization’s strategic efforts. But trust me, you can do this in under 20 minutes, and you can do it without a slide deck that’s bloated with copy. Pick the three highest points, pick the three lowest points, then talk about them concisely for a few minutes each, giving credit where it’s due and outlining actions for improvement where needed. Don’t forget to invite questions or comments along the way. Done!

And if you have a particularly complex project that you’d like to highlight, ask the team that accomplished it to recap it. Having fellow staff members present at a town hall meeting often goes over very well with the audience.

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2. It’s the only time you share your strategic vision.

If you really want to confuse or frustrate your employees, use your town hall as an opportunity to unveil your four-year strategic plan. Then watch your subject matter experts fume as they think to themselves, “What are they thinking?! We can’t accomplish that in the next four years with all the other projects we have lined up. And we definitely can’t do it with that budget.”

The point is, you should be sharing your strategic plan with your directors, project managers, and subject matter experts well before the town hall meeting. They’re your team, not your army. If you involve them in the planning process, rather than giving them marching orders at a town hall meeting, your vision is much more likely to be supported, and thereby successful. If you want to review your progress, try do so in the manner described in item #1…short and sweet.

3. You adopt a beneficent posture, or you leave early.

Yes, senior leaders are busy. But everyone is busy. So don’t go on about how important it was to make time in your schedule to come to the town hall meeting. Just smile, be convivial, and be sincere when you ask people how their work is going.

Likewise, if you’re a senior leader — or worse, the leader — of an organization, pleeeeeeeeease don’t leave your own town hall early. Even if you have a meeting scheduled with the Warren Buffett, don’t do it. Your employees will notice, and they will feel as if you don’t care enough about them to stick around. This will not do you any favors in the future.

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4. You don’t allow enough (or any) time for questions.

A town hall meeting is meant to be just that…a meeting. It’s not meant as an opportunity for employees to gawk at seldom-seen senior leaders. Rather, it’s a chance for you to make yourself approachable and be candid about the issues facing your organization.

So give your staff members plenty of time to any kind of question they want. The harder the question you’re willing to field on the fly, the more respect your employees will have for you, even if they don’t particularly like the answer itself. Helpful tip: If you find your audience has a tendency to stay mum during the Q&A, give them an opportunity to ask questions ahead of time via an anonymous survey through JotForm or SurveyMonkey.

5. You don’t take the time to gather feedback.

Speaking of surveys, make sure you take the time to gather feedback about every town hall you assemble. What did employees like? What could they have done without? What would they like to see that’s never been done before?

You don’t know unless you ask. So ask your communications team or HR to create a short survey and gather employees’ thoughts.

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The overall message here is that by making town halls less top-down and more bottom-up in nature, employees will be much more likely to feel heard and leave satisfied, making them more trusting in leadership over the long run.

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