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Are town halls “worth the paper they are printed on?”

BY mikeklein Amerika-Haus Köln - Town Hall Meeting Peter Ammon

One quote famously misattributed to Hollywood titan Samuel Goldwyn was “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Now, town halls are the main official form of corporate verbal communication. They are where senior executives speak to large crowds of employees, and are such a stable fixture in the internal communication world that they might be a contractual requirement of sorts. But are they worth the effort to organize, much less the total hours of attendance that they mandate from those in attendance?

I admit that I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I have organized and participated in these events for a double-digit number of years. It has struck me that these events seem to suck more value out of an organization than they add to it.

Here’s why:

  • High execution risk:

    A mistake in the execution of an event - a dead microphone, out-of-sequence PowerPoint slides or inappropriate snacks – may prove far more memorable than the actual content that is shared, or even than the presence of the leader(s) themselves.

  • Low audience relevance:

    Unlike those face-to-face events that are aligned with major organizational change activity, traditional town halls tend to be timed to align with quarterly or annual financial results. I have seen many organizations take the view that all employees should be motivated by and interested in the overall financial numbers, and use the town halls to force-feed the numbers to the assembled throng.  But the discussion of the previous quarter’s numbers that the financial markets require often offer little of relevance to employees, who tend to be more interested in what to do in the next quarter and beyond.

  • Limited and stifled dialogue:

    Although I have never been to a town hall that doesn’t have a Q&A section, I don’t remember when many questions were asked.  Indeed, as the communications “bod,” I found myself doing the asking, to the point where the CEO would see me in the elevator afterward and thank me for the question.  As much as I enjoyed the fifteen seconds of fame such encounters offered, it underscored the reality that town halls are lousy environments for stimulating leadership-employee discussion. Something more disempowering happens afterward.  Most town halls end with little left to discuss, and generate little post-event conversation about organizational momentum and direction.  The CEO or leader presents a view, it lands undiscussed, and employees are left to accept it as given or treat it as marginally relevant.

  • The royal box tick:

    In some cases, the CEO sees his quarterly performance at the town hall as his ticking of the “communication box,” and isn’t seen until the following results town hall.

What to do about it?

Although there are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve town halls, most notably from Alison Davis in the US (who is one of the strongest experts and advocates for all-employee communication), I would go farther. I personally would like to see the town hall disappear as a regular communication tool, and instead be reserved for extraordinary announcements and events.

Instead, I would like to see leaders have smaller meetings with well-chosen groups of influencers and/or randomly selected members of staff, with no direct managers present.  This makeup would drive two things: channeling real feedback to leaders from real employees and stimulating those employees talk about their experience with their peers and colleagues.

The tricky thing about town halls is that they are but one of the many tasks of the internal communicator that has little to do with strategy or outcomes, but exists to meet stakeholder expectations.  When communicators can effectively make the case that town halls don’t actually help the cause in their current form, there will be some leeway to change the script or even to take them off the schedule.  Otherwise, they will persist, even if they aren’t “worth the paper they are printed on.”


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7 thoughts on “Are town halls “worth the paper they are printed on?””

  1. Our ‘townhalls’ have evolved into very interactive sessions where attendees can ask questions and vote anonymously via an app (Slido) while the session is taking place. I can tell you, the transparency is motivating as everyone is on the same page and part of the discussion. The line up and type of content being shared is relevant and focused on the employee being engaged and having a great takeaway. These are complemented with informal team sessions for deeper involvement in topical priorities. We still call them townhalls but they are employee engagement events. Influencers and people from all levels and locations are invited to share innovative moments and learning experiences so it is an interesting meeting.

  2. That’s an interesting development, particularly give the company and its DNA. Some practitioners are getting license to make these events more dynamic and less past-focused, but the question I am left with: “Is this worth 90-120 minutes of EVERYONE’S time?”

  3. You are right about the “is it worth the time”. If you imagine a town hall with 300 people which lasts for 90 minutes and an average cost of employment of $50 per employee per hour, your town hall is costing $22,500 in salaries. Better be worth it.
    @Mike: let’s catch up sometime about a new methodology I have developed to help leaders look at town halls in a different way — to avoid the sadly very common behavior you identify.

  4. Provocative as always, Mike. I’d also shout out to Linda Dulye – http://dulye.com/case-studies — who advocates for the town hall as the beginning of a communication effort focused on fostering 2-way communication, dialogue and discussion to which we aspire. In my own practice, the town hall that uses the 4Ps — Purpose, Picture, Plan and Part — does a better job of relating the content to the employee audience than the usual palaver. Why are we here? Let’s use some visual metaphors to engage and interest. What is the plan for success, and what part do employees need to play? The lack of questions in the big room might not be an issue, as commenter Tina’s example illustrates. I agree, however, that the big meetings are of limited value — which suggests their purpose needs refinement.

  5. Interesting viewpoint, but I would say that the value of town hall depends on the organization, the format and content of the town hall, and the company’s existing culture. Certainly, if it’s a huge time suck (collectively) and doesn’t add value, that’s a problem. Last organization I worked for did use them primarily for extraordinary events and they usually came off well, had few surprises apart from whatever the big announcement contained, and didn’t involve much of a dialogue. At my current organization, we recently moved to quarterly town halls with a focus on sharing financials and updating on our collective progress against milestones. The sessions tend to be quite interactive and, as you can anonymously share questions ahead of time, are nearly always interesting. Attendance isn’t taken and isn’t mandatory. There’s more than one right way to do town halls, and there’s probably a multitude of wrong ways, too.

  6. Thanks for the great replies, which have all added balance to an admittedly one-sided view. But for the most part, these seem exceptions that prove the rule, in that each case mentioned reflects a total redesign of the town hall concept to make it more value-additive than the prevailing model. Stephen Welch’s question remains valid: at 1.5 hours times X employees times $50 or more per hour per employee, do these interventions add more value than they consume?

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