4 ways to engage employees in your town hall

Whether they’re skeptical, naturally timid, or just feeling unprepared to enter the discussion, your staffers should play a key role in your exchange. Here’s how to get them involved.

I have evaluated dozens of CEO/executive town halls. As idealists, when we plan these events we envision a turn-of-the-century town hall during which passionate employees engage in vigorous debate with organizational leaders.

Maybe you are a realist and simply seek to support your CEO through an engaging event where employees were heard and seen with minimal risk. The latter seems to be typical according to most evaluations.

Most forums have too much content and a lengthy presentation with too much detail. In addition to substance, our leaders tend to be too positive and rarely negative, and employees don’t think they are getting the truth. This sort of comment is heard: “That is not the real strategy; the real strategy happens behind closed doors.”

The good news is that employees tell me they really do want to know and understand strategy and what is impacting the business. They just don’t believe that happens in leader forums.

Senior executives tell me they want to know the best way to share their direction and strategy for the organization. Employees tell me they want the truth. They want unscripted answers and to participate in a discussion about the competing demands placed on the business.

Getting the ball rolling

As the communicators who design and produce these events, we respond with some predictable tactics to engage employees. The result is to seek a happy medium—a town hall with a clear and compelling presentation with business updates and explanations of strategy. We do that in many ways.

We use multiple distribution channels to increase access. Today, most organizations webcast the CEO presentation and follow-up questions at their annual or quarterly meetings. These broadcasts are recorded and shared on the intranet for those who could not attend.

We use a master of ceremonies to chair and orchestrate the event. We focus the CEO or CFO on business acumen and clarity of delivery. We coach and fine tune key messages. We include panel discussions and interview formats to guide the conversation.

We ask the audience to participate in a variety of ways, for example to initiate Twitter discussions where questions can be read during the event; facilitate discussions on the intranet in advance of the event; place microphones in the room to encourage employee questions, comments and suggestions.

The objective of these tactics is to increase communication reach, and a more engaging presentation and a dialogue between employees and leaders. That dialogue can be hard to attain. Very few people are willing to risk the social and political capital to ask the big boss a tough question. Our task is to reduce the perceived risk and lower the sense of separation and barriers between our employees and our leaders. Here are four ways to get employees involved while improving the credibility of your leaders.

1. Survey employees for questions and interest before the forum.

With the survey done in advance, executives will have a good sense of what is on employees’ minds and link that back to the relevant business updates. The survey also allows for anonymous questions, which eliminates the social and political barriers to participating.

2. Ask people in advance to participate.

Organic and spontaneous participation would be nice, but it is also not realistic. Well in advance of the event, identify employees who will ask questions on behalf of a group of employees. They might represent a business unit or function. These folks can be assigned different methods of asking their questions so you have a mix of questions submitted, spontaneous questions in the room, and online participation.

3. Use interviews, emails, Web forums, or video questions—whatever is most comfortable for employees.

Many people don’t like to be the focus of attention in a room full of peers. To support their engagement, provide a context where they are comfortable. Interview some employees in their workspace. Provide an email option for submitting questions. Send out an intern with a video camera, and edit together a group of questions. The process here is heavy on the communicator’s finding ways to support employees’ comfort and confidence in the security of the process.

4. Provide content in advance.

Most people—especially engineers, lawyers, or physicians—prefer to be prepared for what lies ahead. When the forum presents new information, employees will not be ready to ask questions. Though some content may be new, some should be shared in advance and promoted as an opportunity to ask questions and share feedback. Many people need to feel prepared before they will engage.

The communicator’s role is one of enabler and facilitator, supporting the role of leaders to lead and employees to engage in the business of the organization.

Ryan Williams is a partner at Tekara Organizational Effectiveness. Follow him on Twitter @willy26.

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