Town Hall Meetings that Drive Culture and Change

The Town Hall meeting is both a nostalgic and a contemporary activity. This is because some things don’t change, despite change itself. Human need for connectivity and celebration is one of these staples of life. My family just came back from watching the new movie Interstellar. In the movie Matt Damon’s character Dr. Mann loses his marbles after way too much time alone. He references how all humans have a basic need to connect and how he was starved of this for some time. Then he snaps. Too long without people it seems made him a little crazy.

Move analogies aside, the simple need to connect in order to process life is intrinsic to who we are. In particular when a company is undergoing a significant shift, or change, or when it’s struggling and needs the company to pull through, the time for human connection is all the more critical. It’s like the way people gather with warm food and hugs in the church basement after a wake. They need to bond and comfort each other. It’s like the way we celebrate birthdays with friends and family gathered round and gifts and songs. What’s the fun of enjoying a life event without people? So why would communication and rallying together be any different, or more complex for that matter, at work? We need to take off our stiff white collared shirts for a minute and cozy up on a couch somewhere with a cup of cocoa. Gotta nurture your people sometimes or they won’t feel part of the work family.

This is why I like the notion of calling a town hall a town hall at work. I’ve seen different names for such gatherings. Corporate meetings, report outs, state of the plants, all hands, and more. But my favorite corporate gathering was one I used to host with a leader every two months. We called it a Town Hall Meeting. The cool thing about our Town Hall is that we pulled it off quite successfully with only a fifth or so of our team together live, and the rest were virtual across over a couple dozen states. WebEx meeting was the method by which the others joined. But we were able to create a simple routine that engaged celebration, business and discussion virtually. It was critical at the time as we were in a state of constant flux as the R&D segment of a big company and without constant communication our people felt in the dark. Change management would not succeed without these regular meetings.

The action of coming together regularly (quarterly at a minimum – hopefully more often) is a simple way to invite your team to join the vision casting and journey of change. As such, the most critical piece of the people planning process is to etch out a blueprint for success/change that invites people to write it, deploy it, celebrate it and finally lead it. Take out your people and you take out the guts of change management and guarantee failure. A consistent Town Hall meeting is one way to ensure the people are not forgotten in the midst of the business changes.

A good Town Hall has some simple but effective elements. The first is a standard template or ritual to go through. If the meeting can be a dependable event with a bit of tradition, it’s at least one constant in the midst of change. People like some tradition when it comes to gathering together. The second element is celebration. Celebrate new hires. Celebrate work anniversaries. Celebrate break through ideas and team accomplishments. Start off with the celebration and don’t be loose with rewards and monetary recognition. Then the third is the business report out. Be honest about what is going on in the business. Be thorough in report outs about financials and state of business. The fourth element is an invitation to collaborate and build together. Here’s where the soul of engagement occurs. Change fails if top dog leaders shout the plan and cascade down. Change succeeds when team input is solicited and feedback is received and applied even if a correction in course if required. Plus in the discussion process (the actual heart and soul of the classic town hall), some existing team members may step up to embrace leadership and change championship and in so doing become catalysts of the change and leaders themselves. Some may just need encouragement to stay the course – and these meetings are part of the persuasion process. And some may fall to the bottom as a small group that may not wish to join the vision. That’s okay. Better to know than pretend these folks don’t exist. Point being Town Hall meetings can be a perfect setting to gauge where your people are at and work on engagement.

Creating a thoughtful and communication rich change management map necessarily must be a glue to adhere the whole organizational through any major change. Healthy Town Halls are kind of back to the basics. But, they work.

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