All Hands Meetings

Getting everyone in one room together is a tradition that starts when a company is small, and often it continues in the same format well past the point that it’s an efficient use of everyone’s time. For a tiny startup, you can go around the room and have everyone talk about what they’re up to, and coordinate who’s doing what. It has a kind of charming informality, and since there aren’t too many people there, it’s not going to take too long.

As a company gets bigger, that format starts to break down, usually at around 10-15 people. It’s no longer interesting to hear what every last person is doing, and it takes a long time. If someone starts talking in detail about a specific project, chances are more than half the people in the meeting don’t need to or want to know about it.

Essentially, the goal has shifted from coordinating and problem solving to reporting news, celebrating success, sharing vision, and staying connected.  So, what happens in the meeting should change too.

Here are guidelines I’ve found successful for a group of 15-50 that accomplishes those goals:

  • Someone is in Charge: There is one person whose job it is to round up items for the agenda, start on time, keep things flowing, and end on time (or early). One of the moderator’s most important jobs is to politely ask people to wrap up who are rambling, and ask people to take something up again outside the meeting when it only affects a small group, or requires discussion. The CEO is generally not the best person to lead this meeting; an office manager or COO often works well. A 20-30 minute timeframe works well.
  • Report News & Celebrate Success: Have representatives from each group give a brief overview of what noteworthy things they’ve accomplished (or failed at), and what work is in progress. Groups should know who’s speaking ahead of time, and speakers should prepare some talking points ahead of time so that they can be concise, yet share interesting stories.  Keep reports to 2-3 minutes unless something earth-shatteringly important is happening.
  • Share Vision: If a significant decision has been made about the company’s direction, this is a great place to share it. I find it’s nice if the vision can sometimes come from someone other than the CEO, which shows there is more than one leader doing the thinking.
  • Stay Connected: This is a great time to ask questions of your staff that lets them share something personal, and get responses from the whole group. I like asking positive questions sometimes, and negative questions sometimes, and going around the whole room Most people answer, although it’s OK to pass too. My favorites are: What are you most proud of doing here? What are you most concerned by? Who on the team would you like to acknowledge for doing something great, and why? What are we forgetting that’s important? You’ll learn a ton if you write down the answers. As the leader, be prepared to give an honest, heartfelt answer. People will gauge what is and isn’t OK to say based on what most senior person in the room says.
  • Use Time Wisely: If you host an all-hands meeting for 30 people, someone who tells a 5-minute story is spending 2.5 hours of collective work time. Some stories are really worth it – they inspire, teach, or communicate important information. The bigger the group, the more prepared the speakers should be.
  • Share Airtime: There is a tendency to make the all-hands meeting the CEO’s megaphone. Resist the urge to let one person deliver all the news, or have the CEO tell 15-minute stories about the customer they just visited or the deal they just brokered.
  • Take Coordination Offline: Do not use the all hands meeting to decide what gets done and assign it to people. Find another mechanism to handle projects & workflow.

I’ve found that following these guidelines really helps makes all hands meetings productive, inspiring, enjoyable, and real.

If you’ve got a great suggestion for all hands meetings for companies in the 15-50 range that I didn’t cover, I’d love to hear it!

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at StartupHappiness.com. She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.

One thought on “All Hands Meetings”

  1. I used to give 2 1/2 minutes/person/team in my team’s all-hands meetings. It forced people to summarise what they had to present, while impressing their peers. I had a stopwatch and repurposed a smoke detector to go off when the stopwatch hit 0.

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