Sunday, September 13, 2009

Town Hall Lessons Learned

This summer has provided all sorts of insights into the value of town halls. I have watched with interest to see how various members of Congress have handled themselves during these interactive discussions. I have even been to one on health care back in my hometown. No, I didn’t make any bold statements or create any ruckus (if I did it would not have been about health care but rather about my favorite topic -- the need for our leaders to learn some leadership fundamentals!).

As most of you know, politicians did not invent this forum. Like many of you, I have held a number of town halls, all-hands, and company meetings myself. In general, I find them to be great ways to enable the participation of others in the decision making process. I love the opportunity to give members of the team the chance to raise their issues – unfiltered – and provide their leaders with the sort of raw data that only the troops can provide. I also think it is valuable for team members to hear directly from their leaders and for those leaders to share -- unfiltered -- important information on key issues of the day.

My experiences in these town halls have been varied. Some have gone well while some have produced feedback that barely registered over the sound of the crickets in the room. Some have been live and in person while others have been virtual. At some I have done most of the talking while at others I have done very little. Here is a summary of some of my own lessons learned:

-- Timing is everything. If the purpose is to solicit input, don’t already have your mind made up. Let people know you are there to listen and that their opinions will help shape the final decision. And mean it!
-- Have some leading questions ready. Don’t ask, “What do you want to talk about?” Instead ask, “What do you think about….?” Be specific.
-- Get the word out early on what you want to discuss. Instead of “Town Hall at 10:00 in the break room” use “Town Hall at 10:00 in the break room to discuss new products and proposed office realignment.”
-- Start and end on time. Time is money!
-- Be comfortable holding these sessions virtually. As more of us work collaboratively, we need to be able to link the entire team together, even if geographically separated.
-- Alert your labor unions, if you have them. Many collective bargaining agreements require notification before meeting with union members.
-- Be prepared to immediately follow up. You will get all sorts of questions and opinions. Have a trusted agent write down issues and make sure you follow up. If your answers apply to the entire group, share them widely. Nothing will damage credibility like your failure to follow up and follow through.
-- Seek out two distinct voices in the audience – the strong (whose opinion will be heard) and the weak (whose opinion will not otherwise be heard). Do not let one group dominate the discussion.
-- Don’t try to accomplish too much in these forums. Pick one or two key topics. If you find your agenda is full, seek out other means to communicate your message and receive feedback.
-- Have more frequent town halls and continuously and consistently solicit input from your team. People will arrive frustrated if these sessions are their only opportunity to be heard.

These are just a few thoughts. I do think that forums like these are important participatory events for leaders at every level, in any organization. I think that when done regularly, people will become more comfortable in speaking out and more confident that they are truly being heard.

Like anything else the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. What really matters is that leaders act on what they hear. Town Halls cannot be “check the block” sessions after which leaders go ahead and do whatever they want. In other words, if you are sincere about listening, then be prepared to demonstrate that you have heard what people tell you. If not, these events are nothing more than a show. And that, my friends, is not healthy for anyone!

That’s Leader Business.

Photo shown is a town hall for Microsoft, courtesy of

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