Friday, November 30, 2012

The Town Hall

"Maintaining our culture and sensibilities means spending time with everyone who joins.  It means bringing the team together every week to talk about our projects, progress, and vision.  It means focus."  David Karp, CEO, Tumblr

Let's hear it for the Town Hall meeting.  In the increasingly flat corporate world, I think this is a critical communication tool; one that should be part of how we align our team and magnify our drumbeat.  It is a way for our teammates to hear directly from the boss -- without the filters that can often water down the message.

In the "good old days" of top-down, command and control, bureaucracy, we might have shied away from these sorts of things.  Information went from the leader, to her 5-7 direct reports, and so on down to the "troops."  Who knows what message they ultimately receive?  Undoubtedly, it will often lack the context and the focus that might have been intended by the time it reaches the "doers."  But, in the interest of not jumping the chain of command, that is how we communicated.  Still do, in many cases.

There is another way.  It's the Town Hall!  As the quote from the Tumblr CEO above suggests, it is important to let people hear from their boss, to feel the vision, and to understand the big picture.  This is the sort of communication paradigm that enables initiative -- employees who hear and embrace the direction of the company and the intent of their leader.  It fosters engagement, with teammates who can directly talk to their boss.  And, when people hear directly from their leader and are able to discuss issues in the open, it encourages dialogue and cultivates empowerment.

At my last assignment in Afghanistan, I held a weekly town hall.  I really thought it important for everyone to hear of our successes, know of our challenges, and be reminded of where we were headed overall.  It was also the forum in which we welcomed new team members and introduced them to the rest of the team.  Powerful stuff.  Growing up, we would have the same sort of sessions in troop units at the "battalion" level, with monthly "formations" to recognize excellence and to hear from the Commander.

However these are done, I'd recommend probably a few considerations:

-- Be consistent.  Don't start doing these and then stop.  Cynicism will take hold and the intentions, while good, will be lost in the rumbling.  Pick a day/time and frequency and stay with it.

-- Recognize excellence.  Consistent with the adage of, "praise in public and criticize in private," use these forums to amplify those actions that align with the organization's vision and values.  Highlight those who take initiative if that is important to you.  Showcase those who go the extra mile.

-- Don't shy from discussing challenges but...keep it generic.  Personal criticism is best done behind closed doors.  On the other hand, teammates need to know of issues and where they can help.  They need to be able to learn from setbacks.  Use these sessions as mini-After Action Reviews (AARs) and see how to turn losses into future victories by engaging the full team.

-- Make time for listening.  Open the floor to see what is on people's minds.  Don't miss the chance to hear what is important to others.  While there may not be time to solve everyone's problem, take a note and follow up!  Don't hesitate to pass the problem to the person's supervisor if that is where it should reside.  Show empathy while using, not bypassing, the chain of command as part of the solution.

-- Have an agenda.  Don't wing it.  Time is money.  Don't waste it by being unprepared.  Have a few key bullets to discuss.  Get in, get out, and stay on schedule.  30 minutes -- max.

-- Have fun.  Town Halls can certainly help break down barriers.  People can see and understand the sort of culture that their leader seeks when that person is out in front -- no shields, no inner circle.  Demonstrate a good balance of mission focus, pride in people, and genuine enjoyment in talking about both!

So, take a look at the town hall as a way to ensure full penetration of your message.  If information is power, then the town hall is a sure jolt to your leadership efforts.  That makes it...Leader Business

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