Rebellious Practices: Boost Transparency Through Town Hall Meetings
The workplaces we visit have a strong focus on building engagement through transparency. They feel that in order to be both engaging and successful, they need to involve every employee in running the business. And in order to do that, sharing of information is needed. Whether it's about the financial state of the organization, the progress towards reaching the organization's purpose, or the successes and challenges they face along the way. A powerful practice that we've come across in many successful organizations are so-called town hall meetings.
What is it?
Town hall meetings are regularly held meetings to which all employees are invited and in which various aspects of the business are openly discussed by the leadership. These meetings mostly touch upon some of the following topics: successes, challenges, organizational changes, progress towards purpose, financials, and updates about competitors.
Often the meetings take place in the organization's headquarters. But as you can imagine, and due to different reasons, not all employees might be able to join these meetings in person (Especially in workplaces with high degrees of freedom like the ones we like to visit). In order to solve this problem many companies leverage the power of technology; for example they online stream the town hall meetings, in order to give remote people the opportunity to join as well. Or they record the town hall meeting and subsequently distribute the footage among the entire workforce, so anyone can watch the recordings afterwards.
Why would you do it?
Town hall meetings are used for a number of reasons. Some use it to create alignment, increase transparency, or build trust, while others use it to stimulate involvement and inspire employees. Spotify's HR Director Katarina Berg mentioned to us: "We often use our town hall meetings to help everyone understand what's going on in the business. Things are changing quickly at Spotify, so it's important for us to give clarity on all the changes we make."*
Google's famous all hands meeting increases transparency and helps employees to understand why certain decisions are made. One of the employees told us: "Any employee can post a question to the board for the weekly Google Hangout meeting. If that question gets supported by other employees it will be addressed during the meeting". At Google, these town hall meetings are held every Friday.
This very simple instrument can be highly beneficial to your company as well. In the organizations we visit, the town hall meetings definitely play a big role in building trust, transparency, and engagement. Moreover, a recent study by McKinsey showed that communication and involvement of front-line employees (both of which can be facilitated through town hall meetings) radically increase the chances of an organizational transformation to be successful.
How does it work?
The town hall meetings are quite straightforward. Here are some useful lessons we learned from our visits.
- Pick the best time and place for the meeting to occur
- Find the right topics to address (involve employees in this process!)
- Determine the frequency
- Make sure everyone can join or watch it afterwards (whether it's in real life or online)
- Don't make it obligatory (you don't want it to become one of those dreadful meetings. And by the way, if people are not joining, you're probably not discussing any topics of real interest.)
- Share both good and bad news (don't turn it into a podium for propaganda)
- Experiment with all the above and keep improving it. Learn by doing!
At UKTV, a British multi-channel broadcaster, they've tremendously improved their town hall meetings over time. CEO Darren Childs felt that during the meetings the level of trust within the organization was not as high as it potentially could be. He therefore came up with an interesting feature; the question box. He decided to attach a big black box (marked with a white question mark) to a wall in the center of their open office. Throughout the week, employees could now drop their anonymous questions into the question box, as many as they want.
During the town hall meetings, which are held every Tuesday, Darren (or another member of the board) opens up the question box, reads the questions out loud and then answers them on the spot. Darren: “Adding the question box was an important move for us. It increased transparency and accountability for management. It not only sends out a clear signal to everyone that we promote transparency, it also helps people to ask questions that often remain unasked”.
As mentioned before, Spotify and Google have a similar practice in place. At Buurtzorg, a Dutch home-care organization, director and CEO Jos de Blok features a regular blog post on Buurtzorg’s intranet called Jos de Blog. It is Buurtzorg’s own version of the town hall meeting and helps them to create alignment, information sharing, and involvement. Zingerman’s, an American gourmet food business group, uses weekly open book management sessions to create involvement in running their business.
Another surprising example was developed by the American Joint Task Force, led by (retired) General Stanley McChrystal, in their fight against Al-Qaeda. Soon after his arrival in Iraq General McChrystal realized that the force was in desperate need of extreme transparency. In his eyes, this should provide every team with an unobstructed, constantly up-to-date view of the rest of the organization. They started organizing town hall meetings 6 times a week by means of a secured video connection. Eventually 7000 people attended the meeting almost daily for up to two hours. It helped the Joint Task Force and its allies to master the complex and rapidly changing environment in which they were operating in their fight against Al-Qaeda. Reportedly, these town hall meetings became one of the best leadership tools of General McChrystals’.
Try and fail, but don't fail to try
Whether you're a front-line employee, team leader, senior manager, or CEO, you too can increase alignment, transparency, and engagement within your team, department or organization. Start practicing with town hall meetings, no matter if it's big or small. Just start experimenting and fine-tune your practice along the way.
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In early 2018 I took on a new challenge. After two years in the popular management world I decided to take a leap into academic life. I started a part-time PhD program in Business at the VU University Amsterdam. Since then I have researched how large organizations (with thousands of employees) can scale and organize without the need for middle management. It’s time to share what we’ve learned.