As a company grows, communication becomes more complicated. Whirling around in a chair to communicate key points to your team one-on-one just doesn’t scale efficiently once you get beyond 10 or more team members. So you rely on company-wide all-hands meetings (among other forms of communication) to focus your entire team and rally them around company goals.
While the age old all-hands meeting has evolved over the years, it’s still an important platform for sharing company progress toward goals, celebrating successes, communicating plans and answering questions. That is, when the meeting is run efficiently. But we all know that’s hard to do. We thought we’d canvas employees, CEOs, and founders to get their advice on what works, and what doesn’t so you can learn from others’ mistakes and wins.
In this blog, we'll share their Dos and Don'ts, along with a free agenda template.
What NOT to do in an all-hands meeting
Before we dive into what to do, a quick note from the trenches: I’ve worked for a number of different companies and experienced a wide variety of all-hands meetings. Some were amazing and inspiring and others were quite the opposite (a couple actually brought me to tears).
Based on my experiences and the insights of others, I’ve compiled these five ‘requests from the trenches.’ They’re things your team members might be afraid to say to you in person, but wish you knew. After each one I’ve included a quick tip to help you avoid these communication fumbles.
1. Bore (or worse, confuse) team members with data dumps.
Sharing key metrics during an all-hands is amazing, but that doesn’t mean sharing all the metrics. Elaborate slides of random 3-D graphs (or even worse 3-D pie charts) or detailed spreadsheets with granular financial details raise more questions than they answer.
Quick tip to avoid being a data bore: Take the time to really understand what your business’ key metrics are that drive growth. Focus on distilling progress against those metrics down to 2-3 simple and clear data visualizations that are easy for team members to digest at the beginning of every all-hands meeting. Leave the rest of the data in your spreadsheet.
2. Waste time.
Having to sit through a disorganized meeting or endure 45-minute daily ‘all-hands’ is a massive waste of time, energy, and focus. Honestly, it makes me want to punch something (or someone). Some quick math will show how much money it costs for everyone to participate in an all-hands meeting. Make it worth not only their time, but also the company’s money!
Quick tip to avoid being a time waster: Agree on the agenda with strict timelines for each section prior to the meeting, including specific periods for Q&As. Have a timekeeper sit clearly in front of presenters counting them down so they know how long they have to get key points across.
3. Reprimand individual people in front of everyone.
Chiding (or yelling) at a specific team member in front of everyone incites both anger and fear, perhaps even resentment. This is especially dangerous when the person at fault is compared in a derogatory manner to someone else who is ‘succeeding.'
Quick tip to avoid being a public disciplinarian: The old adage reprimand in private, praise in public is always a good policy.
4. Ignore remote team members.
If most of the team is local (in office), it’s all too easy to forget about communicating with remote team members or individuals working from home. I remember one particular instance at another company when I didn’t have a clue what was going on if I wasn’t in the office. All important company updates and communication were in-person. Working blind is not only frustrating for remote team members, but also incredibly inefficient if work is duplicated or time is spent on the wrong project.
Quick tip to avoid being a remote denier:
Don’t only let them be involved via audio. Live video will make the whole session more engaging for remote team members. Record it for those in awkward timezones. Always, yes ALWAYS, repeat questions that are asked during Q&A sessions so that remote team members hear them and have the context for your answers.
5. Fail to listen or refuse input.
Unless you want to run your business as a dictator, this is one of the fastest ways to poison company culture and stifle growth. Each team member makes a unique contribution to your company (that’s why you hired them, right?). Together, as a focused team, you can grow faster (and smarter). Now this isn’t to say that every all-hands needs to be a Q&A or that everyone has to speak in every meeting. There are a variety of ways to listen and solicit input in an efficient way (we’ll discuss this more later).
Quick tip to avoid being a dictator: Don’t make your all-hands meeting the CEO show. As CEO, highlight the key company metrics, progress, key areas of focus and examples of initiatives that have helped in those areas of focus. Then hand over the meeting to team leads to give updates, or even their team members where relevant. Ensure there are Q&As, and make it possible to submit anonymous questions to make sure all concerns are addressed.
What to do in an all-hands meeting - advice from CEOs
Focused, efficient meetings - especially company-wide meetings - might be rare, but they’re not impossible to pull off. We asked several CEOs and founders (including our very own, Paul Joyce) to share how they run all-hands meetings and what key aspects make them efficient and focused. Here’s what they said.
1. Keep it concise.
Short meetings are the best meetings. Jot down your key points on a 3x5 card to help you stay on track or even run through your content beforehand to make sure it’s as concise as possible. Be especially mindful of getting distracted with side tangents.
“Keep it concise - it’s no fun for anyone when a short amount of content is dragged out. The message loses its clarity and people switch off.” - Paul Joyce, CEO and Founder of Geckoboard
The frequency of all-hands meetings will likely vary depending on the size of the company, but we’ve found that every two weeks works well for us. If that puts too much strain on your team, try monthly or quarterly meetings.
If you think about the key points you want the audience to walk away with, your focus should be on curating the story (agenda and content) to ensure you get people there as quickly as possible.
On a practical level, it’s also important to try to get all content on one computer or in one slide deck, if you’re using slides. This way, you avoid wasting time between speaker switchovers, and trust me, that’s frustrating for the audience. If you don’t have time to aggregate this as CEO, then nominate a point person on the team to take care of pulling all the content together. Remember to praise them at the end of the session for taking care of this!
2. Share honestly - be candid.
Sharing openly with your team helps build trust and simultaneously provides an opportunity to hear other perspectives. Perhaps one of your team members has an idea about how to solve a problem. It also encourages others to speak up and be candid - both with ideas and feedback.
“All-hands meetings should be more about what's communicated than the process. Always be candid.” - Kevin Dewalt, Founder of ScribbleIQ
“Honesty and openness work well for me. I think it’s vital for building genuine trust. If I'm stumped by something then saying that can solicit input from people who might think about the problem very differently. The fear here is that people might interpret that as weakness, particularly if they are unaware of how much uncertainty is really involved in running a startup. But different people have different leadership styles and I’m happy with that as a trade-off.” - Paul Joyce, CEO and Founder of Geckoboard
3. Celebrate small successes.
Recognizing the effort of your team and the milestones they’ve achieved is encouraging and motivating for everyone. No one wants to perpetually hear ‘hustle, hustle, hustle’ without any acknowledgment of their perseverance.
The community manager at Trello, Brian Cervino, shares how they use team updates to celebrate progress. “Town Hall meetings are not all business. The meetings are a rare opportunity when the entire team is together, which is especially novel in distributed companies. There are always interesting stories to share. Some examples include the Sales team walking us through what it takes to close a deal, the Marketing team sharing results from the latest campaign, and the Engineering team doing demos of upcoming features they’re working on. Ending on a high note gives us a moment to collectively celebrate the great people with whom we work.”
“Use [all-hands meetings] as an opportunity to celebrate small successes. Shining a spotlight on an individual or a team that quietly works away on unglamorous problems is a great way of making the rest of the company aware of unsung heroes and acknowledging their contribution.” - Paul Joyce, CEO and Founder of Geckoboard
4. Include everyone.
Since it’s increasingly more common to have a distributed team (whether remote or working from home), involving everyone in your company-wide meetings is critical. Getting the technology right (i.e. conference video, microphone, etc.) is one of the biggest factors for enabling each person to not just listen/watch, but also participate. Here’s a quick list of tools we recommend for engaging everyone in your all-hands meeting.
- Zoom: video conferencing tool that makes it easy for remote team members to participate and simple to record your meetings.
- Typeform or Google Forms: easily create a form to collect questions or anonymous feedback leading up to your meeting.
- Logitech Webcam: this makes it easy for remote team members to see local staff during the meeting. Pro Tip: turn off “auto focus” so it’s easier to see everyone in the room.
- Yeti USB microphone: If you have a number of people in the office for your all-hands meeting, using this microphone will help remote team members hear what’s being said in person.
- Homeplug (like this one): keep your wifi steady by using a homeplug to give your laptop a wired connection to the internet.
“When you have everyone remote, it changes a lot of things. When you just have a few people remote, they can easily feel like second class citizens without full access to information.” - Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer
Trello has adopted a remote-first policy to help bridge the gap between team members in office and those around the world. Community Manager Brian Cervino describes it this way, “For Town Halls, we access the meeting in a Zoom video chat. This has been a powerful way of creating a shared experience across the entire company.”
With a team spread around the globe, finding a time that works for everyone is a challenge. At Geckoboard, we always record our company-wide meetings so even if someone can't join in real-time, they can watch it later. Recently, Jason, one of our remote Customer Success Managers in Hawaii (lucky guy!) even recorded a video showing what he was working on and then we played it during our company-wide Show and Tell.
“We’re still learning about A/V - getting it right is hard but incredibly important particularly for remote folks.” - Paul Joyce, CEO and Founder of Geckoboard
5. Review goals - discuss progress by sharing key metrics.
One of the perks of having regular all-hands meetings is the opportunity to provide updates on where the company is, how you’re progressing toward your goals, what those goals are and what adjustments need to be made. Renew focus on your overall company goal. The better informed team members are about company status, obstacles, and goals, the better they’ll be able to contribute to the company’s growth and solve problems.
“Power is gained by sharing knowledge, not hoarding it.” - Dharmesh Shah, Founder and CTO of HubSpot
Give an overview of what each team is working on and how it impacts the overall company goal to motivate them to prioritize the right work. It’s always best to share key metrics in context. For example, “We achieved X revenue and Y growth rate month over month. While this is headed in the right direction, it’s below our goal of Z. This is likely because of…”
“Make sure your goals have a deadline and that someone(s) is assigned to get each one done. Measure your progress often.” - Jason Ehlinger, CEO of TaikaTranslations
“I think as a company if you can get those two things right — having a clear direction on what you are trying to do and bringing in great people who can execute on the stuff — then you can do pretty well.” – Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook
Company all-hands agenda template
To make planning for your next all-hands meeting quick and easy, we’ve put together an email template for you to send to your management team, so they can get to work on effective content and a draft agenda template for you to share with them. The goal of the free template is to make it quick and easy for you to run a more engaging and efficient all-hands meeting.
Running efficient all-hands meetings at your company
No one approach is perfect for everyone, but these tips will help you run more efficient, focused company-wide meetings that are more engaging for your team. Experiment and see what works for your team. Ask for feedback and cut what isn’t working.
With three offices across eight time zones, Distilled has to be creative with meetings and they continue experimenting new formats. “These days we take a more mixed approach to company communications including more written comms (weekly email and / or Slack updates, sharing of board docs, etc.) coupled with Q&As in each office, the occasional all-hands, pre-recorded videos etc.” - Will Critchlow, Founder and CEO of Distilled
The important part is making sure your team has a common focus towards the same goals, mission, and culture. Without clear communication, that focus won’t happen. The key part is finding the right format for that communication, one that works for your team.