What Kenny Rogers Can Teach Us About Town Hall Meetings
— August 5th, 2021
As pandemic restrictions fade, many communicators are looking forward to reactivating some of those in-person channels.
Before we start booking that series of town hall meetings with employees (yes, even the virtual kind), let’s take a moment of mindfulness and admit that, for the most part, town hall meetings really suck.
Let’s concede that many town hall meetings are basically irrelevant, boring leadership theater with meaningless KPIs.
While we’re at it, let’s stipulate that they are part of the $37-billion organizations waste each year on useless meetings, during which 90% of employees daydream and about three-quarters of them work on other stuff.*
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But we knew all that way back in 2019 and 2009 and 1999. Yet these terrible time-sucking monuments to irrelevance persist in the employee communications toolbox.
Perhaps instead of perpetuating the misery, it would be helpful to think of town hall meetings a bit differently.
Rethinking town halls
Getting a bunch of employees and senior leaders in a room together is never a bad thing, if we’re doing it for the right reasons. In the diagram below, we see the four types of information leaders typically want to share.
Top right, we have the big deal strategy stuff, like mergers and product launches. These are often the impetus for a town hall or, heaven help us, a roadshow.
Our goal for strategic information is to help employees make sense of things and for that, we need a longer, more iterative communications approach – one that doesn’t ambush managers with a bunch of new and complex information.
Keep in mind that one of the top complaints employees have about town hall meetings is that the information is too complicated to follow.**
Changes to policies, procedures, and organization structures are also not ideal content for town halls because the goal for this information is to change behavior.
That bloated, boring town hall is not going to get the job done here: that’s where team meetings, tons of directional content, and leader reinforcement work best.
Next door we have our routine updates, where the information isn’t particularly new and it’s rarely strategic.
Sadly, this is the usual stuff we find in town hall meetings, which as a result of a common condition, might-as-well-itis. That’s where your town hall agenda goes from a lean, engaging dialogue to a turducken of finance, marketing, HR, facilities, product and other updates – usually involving illegible slides that take way longer to deliver than the VP promised when she shoehorned her way into your agenda.
Another top complaint employees have about town hall meetings is they’re just too long.2 Town halls are terrible platforms for driving individual and team activity that needs to be interpreted and assessed in context.
Email, video, team meetings, and informed front-line managers are way better tools for routine updates.
The sweet spot for town halls is top left, where the goal is building alignment and trust by updating (not introducing) the strategic direction of the organization.
They’re not the only way to do this, but they are a good part of the mix if you do support them with reinforcement by front-line managers, and maybe some additional content, such as videos or leader blogs.
It never hurts to remind your leaders that while they may say the same things over and over, for most of the listeners, it’s the first time they’re hearing about it.
Town halls that don’t suck
It’s hard to talk an excited C-suiter out of a town hall meeting, so if you’re not able to prevent them, put the focus on planning.
First, have clear goals and useful KPIs. Hint: getting the embedded video to work is not a KPI. Employees want four things from town hall meetings: they want a safe place to ask questions, they want to understand how change affects their area, they want clear direction on what to do after the meeting and they want to be inspired. Try aligning your KPIs with those goals.
Speaking of employees, make sure you use your town hall as the golden listening opportunity it truly is. Most Q&A sessions are a sad, awkward five minutes jammed in at the end.
Try flipping your agenda and doing the Q&A at the start of the meeting so there’s plenty of time.
Make sure your front-line managers know what’s coming in the town hall and, if needed, have the extra information and background they will need to answer questions from their teams, and to position the information in the context of the work the team does.
Don’t be afraid to push back against might-as-well-itis whenever it shows up. Keep your presenters to a minimum and make sure they’re putting relevant information into the discussion.
Of course, you’ll measure the heck out of them so you have evidence-based advice to offer afterwards. Here are nine metrics we like to use in town hall surveys.
- I can articulate our strategy
- I can connect my role to our strategy
- The information I heard today is relevant to my role
- I know where to get more info
- I trust the leadership team
- The leadership team is listening to employees
- I had an opportunity to contribute to this meeting
- My manager has the info I need to contribute to the strategy
- This was a respectful use of my time
Behavior drives messages (and the other way around)
Town hall meetings are not dead, but they need to be used properly. They’re terrific tools for building alignment and trust and listening to employees. They’re also a great way to connect leaders to employees and employees to strategy.
Even the best-planned town hall is a bit of a gamble. Maybe the trick is to take Kenny Rogers’ advice about gambling:
Know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold’em,
Know when to walk away… well you know the rest.