town hall meetings: 5 critical mistakes to avoid

Town Hall Meetings: 6 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Leadership Message

When done well, corporate town hall meetings are an inspiring way to get everyone on the same page, to communicate your MIT priorities, to hear what’s on the minds of the people closest to your customer, and to say thank you. We’re huge believers in great town hall meetings, motivational kickoffs, and bringing the team together for a creative ruckus.

And as keynote speakers, we are often truly honored to be included in these corporate events. It’s awesome to collaborate and hear the messaging and how the senior team is working to engage and connect with the team. It’s the best when we can all work together and align and integrate our ideas to have the greatest impact.

6 Critical Mistakes to Avoid in Your Town Hall Messaging

We’ve seen some amazing Winning Well communication from rock star leaders. And sadly, we’ve also experienced a few town hall meetings that, despite best intentions, turned into a colossal waste of time and expense.

What makes the difference?

No amount of theme-based snacks, creative SWAG, or even remarkable keynote speaking can make up for poor messaging from the senior leader. Be sure to avoid these six common, critical mistakes when forming your message in your town hall meetings.

1.Talking EBITDA* over What I Need From Ya

Of course, including a few slides on the state of the business is important. Your team wants that kind of transparency. But resist the urge to pontificate on all the details. Work to simplify the messaging and focus on the “so what?” What do you want them to do to move the needle? How can they make an impact on the bottom line? Be as specific as possible in terms of needed behaviors.

2. Winging It

“Oh I had some notes prepared, but you know what, I’m going to just throw these away and talk to you.” Every time we hear these words, we cringe.

We get what you’re trying to do here, and we love the sentiment. You’re looking to show up real and really connect. And yet, the CEOs who really pull this off well, aren’t actually winging it–they’re usually the ones with the MOST executive communication training and experience.

They know exactly what they want their audience to think, feel and do as a result of their message. They know what stories they might want to share and why. They may not know the exact words, but trust us, the folks that pull this off have a master plan.

3. Banning Interaction

It might seem paradoxical to hold a town hall meeting without a time for questions, but we’ve seen it happen. When you don’t engage with your people you look either insecure or arrogant. Insecure leaders don’t believe their own message. Arrogant leaders lack the confident humility to Channel Challengers.

4. Staging Q & A

Nearly as bad a mistake as no interaction is faked interaction.

Just like when preparing for skip-level meetings, we highly recommend you do your homework and consider the questions you’re most likely to be asked—and to consider your best answers so you’re not caught off guard.

What shouldn’t be rehearsed is the people asking the questions. If your direct reports are meeting with their teams to vet all the questions in advance, and telling folks what they can and cannot ask you, you’re completely defeating the purpose. We’ve seen this practice more than once. Bless their hearts, they’re just trying to prevent their teams from embarrassing themselves in front of you. But that’s not the point is it?

Take questions, be ready for the tough ones, and grow your influence by answering authentically.

5. Being Out of Touch

This a particularly cringe-worthy mistake. David has sat with entry-wage employees while a leader spoke to them about the difficulties of owning a sailboat in the Caribbean. Back in Karin’s corporate executive days, she sat with her team as her boss took the stage in a town hall that she had helped to arrange. She watched as her boss delivered the most out-of-touch message you can imagine:

Her team and many others in the audience had been in one of those “all hands on deck” seasons … as requested from senior leaders. No vacations. Lots of overtime. Crazy hours for all.

Then, from the microphone, they heard the leader say, “At the end of the day it’s all about work-life balance. Here are pictures of me and my kids over the last week. I’ve got to tell you, in the last decade, I’ve never missed a little league game.”

Karin’s phone blew up. It was May,  the heart of little league season. She had a team of people who really cared about their kids and their sports, all of whom had missed a little league game that week. #NotHelpful

6. Bringing the Diaper Drama

Don’t wrap hard truth in layers of spin, manipulation, and evasive double-speak. We’ve watched leaders who didn’t trust their people enough to be honest with them lose all credibility as they avoided saying what needed to be said. If you have to reorganize to stay competitive, if a new initiative is going to require changes, or if everyone needs to improve their customer service by a quantum level, it’s time to Ditch the Diaper Drama. Think through the consequences of the change, have a plan in place, be compassionate, and speak the truth.

Your Turn

When you avoid these six mistakes, you’re on your way to town hall meetings that inspire your people to achieve results with specific behaviors and build more connected relationships with every team member. What are your secrets to successful corporate town hall meetings?

*Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization

Posted in Winning Well.

Karin Hurt David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help leaders achieve breakthrough results without losing their soul. They are keynote leadership speakers, trainers, and the award-winning authors of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul. Karin is a top leadership consultant and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive, elected official, and president of Let's Grow Leaders, their leadership training and consulting firm.

20 Comments

  1. Incredible article guys! Still can’t believe that I’m going to get to work with you in a few months. 😊

    • Thanks so much, Jamie! We are so impressed with the work that you are doing to grow leaders. We’re delighted to be working with you in England in June.

  2. David. You continue to dive deeper into the Leadership space. I had to laugh at number Two, winging it. No I do not get up in front of my team on prepared, I have been guilty of being not prepared as I could be. I believe this fals into the category of winging it.

    Thank you so much for your insights. And, I look forward to hearing more from you.

    John

    • We’ve all been there John. That time it takes to be ready is such a vital investment. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  3. Being from New England where town halls are part of life — you are spot on! And that’s why they work – Interaction and it’s all about knowing what’s going on. If you get up and are out of touch there will be no subtle reminders. 6 is essential for the actual town hall in town politics – up front honesty. Great reminders to step up and bring it when we bring the team together. Thank you.

  4. David & Karin, Thanks for the great article and insights. I love that the Execs who are real and truly connect authentically are not casual and winging it but the ones prepared with a master plan…so true! Perhaps, much can be learned from the intentional preparation for the boardroom meeting that can be applied to the town hall meeting.

    • Dean, Yes! Totally agree with you… intentional preparation in our communication up, down and sideways can go such a long way in building trust and maximizing influence and outcomes.

  5. “No amount of theme-based snacks, creative SWAG, or even remarkable keynote speaking can make up for poor messaging from the senior leader.” – YES! The messaging from leaders – from the podium and in the hallway – is critical to employee engagement. Every interaction matters.

  6. David and Karen,
    Loving your blogs and have subscribed as well. I sent this link to my team as well for great food for thought. Thank you for you deep understanding of the challenges leaders face everyday!

  7. I’m a real fan of your work, David and Karin, because you constantly put forth “genuineness” first in everything you talk about. #3 really confirms that and more people need to hear it!! Keep talking about that, please 🙂

  8. I think that this post could drive another post that is student centric. As a Masters student within Student Development and Higher Education, I spend many hours a day in meetings with other higher education professionals, who fail to recognize some of these mistakes, specifically Mistake 5, being out of touch. When students host programs and lead events, they often call on higher ups to volunteer. We need to teach our staffs that before they can assume something about this student organization, they MUST learn more about what the group deals with, on a daily basis.

  9. Benjamin, Thanks so much! I really appreciate your perspective and experience. I totally agree with you. It’s easy to assume we get where the audience is coming from– much more difficult to really take the time to understand their world and ensure you’re doing the best you can to meet them where they are.

    We haven’t done too much writing about leadership in higher Ed , yet 😉 But would welcome a guest post 😉

  10. Karin & David, great article!

    Working with very large teams (many hundreds to many thousands), we find town halls to be a vital part of our communication plans. Working with large contact center operations in multiple geographies, it is next to impossible for everyone to attend in-person (we still have to answer customer calls), so we often capture video so those who cannot attend are also able to experience the town hall. Less than optimal, but we commonly get favorable feedback.

    Regarding #4, Staged Q&A, we have a different take. We agree that questions should not be suppressed. Ever. However, we do sometimes have trouble getting Q&A started (it seems no one wants to be first). So we do identify a few folks and ask them to get us started by asking some anticipated questions in case no one else does. Feedback on this practice?

  11. Bryant, Thanks so much for expanding the conversation! I totally understand the need for video and the challenges of remote teams across muiltiple geographies. Not sure if you know this but I lead our strategic partnership channel (contact center outsourcing) for Verizon for 3 years, and we are currently working with several BPOs on live-virtual leadership development training over video to care for their dispersed teams.

    It would be fun to compare notes some time about your best practices for engagement in BPOs.

    I think your best practice or getting the questions rolling is a terrific one, and I use that as well. What I disagree with is when ALL the questions are planted because the manager is afraid their employees will say something dumb to the exec.

    You might enjoy this post as well. http://letsgrowleaders.com/2018/02/13/ceremonies-and-celebration-roi/

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