Back to Basics: Designing Townhall meetings

Townhall, All Hands–call them as you like, they exist in every organization in the world or at least I hope they do. Taught in every leadership and communication 101, these large scale meetings are considered basic hygiene. We have been doing them for years yet not everyone gets it right. One would assume that a standard formula exists, works and is utilized across. If you’re out there thinking you’ll organize the most unique all-hands meeting that has ever been run, get that idea out of your head. There is a standard formula, it works, and many still get it wrong–precisely because they don’t use it. In the pecking order of meetings, this is one I’ve seen taken for granted more than any other. Thus, in this post, we’re going back to the basics. Here’s the standard formula–take it and run with it. If the creative itch gets too strong, insert creativity within each section.

Before I jump into the agenda that works, I must touch upon the things that almost everyone gets right.

  • Almost everyone has got the duration down to perfection. Ranging between 60-120 minutes, leaders have figured what works best. My sweet spot is between 60-90 minutes but if the agenda is engaging, 120 is possible. Any longer, you’ll likely begin losing people.
  • Townhalls do a good job of providing visibility to the senior leader. Almost all of them today have the big boss opening with a few words. It works and shouldn’t be played around with much.
  • Depending on the size of the team, most have also mastered the art of organizing this at the right frequency. There’s no magic frequency as long as you schedule it. Organized monthly (a bit much), half-yearly (too few) or quarterly (perfect), there isn’t really a prescribed frequency.

However, it is the agenda and order that most people fumble with. From the many I have attended and observed, here’s the magic formula. No, I haven’t convinced everyone to subscribe but those who do, never look back. Enough said!

Part 1: Sense of meaning

All great Townhalls begin with a tear-jerking, feel good video on how the products/services the team is building is changing the world. The better ones add a few customer testimonials to bring a few more tears and there’s a good reason why. Gone are the days where employees were content with a job they enjoy and making money as a result of it. Now, there’s an increasing search of meaning and wanting a job that changes the world. While few videos at the start of a big meeting aren’t enough to solve for that, it is a good start and a missed opportunity if not utilized. It is easier for some jobs than others, but irrespective of what you do, I have no doubt you can come up with one of these videos. Use the first five minutes to instill a sense of meaning and pride in what the team does.

Part 2: The way ahead

Now there’s a chance that employees didn’t completely understand how what they do connects to the tear jerking video mentioned above. The following 15-20 minutes are a good time to connect the dots for them. The purpose of this section is two folds–(1) connect tasks everyone does to the end result and how they’re serving the world and (2) share the path ahead, i.e. the roadmap. This is when you start funneling customer impact down to the exact features/services that the team is working on. Take them along on the journey by sharing what’s in the year, quarter and month ahead. Use this space also to make any key announcements.

Part 3: Showcase

This is where you take acknowledgement one step further and begin building on recognition. Call on team/employees to showcase work they’ve done. One lucky bugger (or few) presents what they’ve done to everyone else. An additional boost of pride & recognition is exactly what the doctor prescribed. If you want to go a step further, announce a few awards, though not always strictly necessary. Get creative J

Part 4: Q&A/Closure

The part everyone is really waiting for. This is the space for leaders to listen, acknowledge, and be vulnerable. Spend 20-30 minutes in pulling the leadership team on stage and answering questions that come in. Throw in a few questions you don’t have the answer to, to showcase that a leader doesn’t always have all the answers; that you will find out and come back to them. Do just that–send a note a day or week later to everyone appreciating their candor and answering the question. This is how leaders demonstrate that they truly listen.

The bottom line is, like with any other meeting, if you are asking employees for their time, it is imperative that they derive value from it. So go ahead, use these four sections and let me know how they land. Also, what’s on your existing Townhall agenda that I’ve missed?


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