Why it’s time for a town hall meeting

Shutterstock image (by hxdbzxy): closeup microphone in an auditorium of people.

(Image: hxdbzxy / Shutterstock)

You might recall the story of the farmer who decided to save on feed costs for his plow horse by mixing in a little sawdust with the oats. The horse didn’t seem to notice, so every day he increased the sawdust and cut the oats. One day he was heard to remark, “You know, I nearly had him on all sawdust when he up and died!”

Some managers think the way to avoid nagging questions and concerns from employees is to mix sawdust into the information feedbag regularly. Balmy predictions and platitudes are the sawdust of employee communications and often are provided via email in the dreaded “all-hands memo.”

However, many employees are at least as smart as horses! Some will taste the sawdust the first time you mix it in the feedbag, and all will notice eventually. On the other hand, if you want to be a good manager and demonstrate leadership, forget the memos and toss the sawdust. Instead, host a town hall meeting.

Everyone profits from a discussion of current company events in a frank and open forum, and such meetings give you the firsthand knowledge necessary to run an effective organization.

Heckling can be good, too. Someone once said, after I had explained a difficult decision, “So it’s mind over matter — you don’t mind and we don’t matter!” That great icebreaker provided a bit of comic relief that allowed us to move on to the serious business at hand.

You’ll get the best results from regularly scheduled town halls because as people become familiar with the format, the meetings will become more interactive. The following tips can help make the meetings as productive as possible:

  • Get out of the office. Choose a venue that offers privacy, sit around tables, and make sure the physical environment is comfortable.
  • Keep it small and feed ’em. Meet in groups of 50 or fewer people, with appropriate refreshments for the situation. Conduct multiple meetings if necessary.
  • Be prompt and efficient. Get there early, and start and finish on time (an hour is enough).
  • Be organized but flexible. Have an agenda but be prepared to stray. Seek out concerns at all levels before the meeting. If discussions at the town hall go too far afield, defer them until after the meeting.
  • Don’t read from notes. Be honest and open, move around the room while speaking (no hiding behind the lectern), offer good and bad news, insert humor, and if you don’t know, say so.
  • Follow up personally. Build employee confidence by ensuring that action items and unanswered questions are recorded. Respond directly to individuals, and report on more general actions to the group at the next regular meeting.
  • Be interactive. If employees are not used to speaking up, plant a few tough questions in the audience to get the ball rolling and/or address questions asked in similar gatherings.
  • End on a high note. Save awards for the end of the agenda so that you conclude on an upbeat note and have an opportunity to chat with awardees personally.

Most of all, don’t put sawdust in the feedbag. Be genuine and straightforward. If there are limits on what you can say, explain those limits.

Good managers deliver good and bad information in person whenever possible. When you stand in front of employees and provide the straight scoop, they feel empowered, respected and valued — vital signs of a great place to work!

About the Author

Tom Baybrook is managing partner of Marbrook Partners LLC.


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