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Written By
Xiao Ling

Keeping town hall real: 6 strategies leaders gained from our executive coach

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Navigating the high stakes of town hall meetings can feel like walking through a minefield for CEOs and CHROs, especially in today’s challenging economic climate. From delivering tough news to defending unpopular choices, they face an uphill battle. And when it comes to the unpredictable Q&A portion, it’s like being thrown into a lion’s den.

As an experienced executive coach, I’ve had the privilege of working with company leaders on preparing for these challenging affairs. Here are some tips that have helped them deliver their messages authentically and effectively.

Collaborate with employees on the agenda 

One common struggle when it comes to town hall meetings is the difficulty of deciding and refining the agenda. Unlike regular team meetings, the large size of the audience and the diversity of their responsibilities make it challenging to determine the most relevant, important, and urgent topics to address. The fear of losing the crowd’s interest and attention lingers like a shadow throughout the meeting, placing additional pressure on leaders.

Fortunately, the answers are often within the audience itself. By tapping into the collective wisdom of your employees, you can unlock valuable insights into what truly matters to your company and its people. For a start, you could gather their concerns and questions ahead of time through questionnaires or small meetings, thereby setting clear objectives for the session. 

Sharing this feedback at the beginning of the meeting is crucial, as it lets your employees know that their opinions truly matter, and fosters a greater willingness to participate in the future. 

Punctuate presentations with moments for connection  

Pre-meeting collaboration is indeed a vital step, but it alone cannot guarantee the success of your meetings. Once you open the doors to your guests, what comes next is equally crucial—the way you engage with them. And no, we’re not merely suggesting running anonymous polls during the town hall meeting.

Take Adam, a start-up founder, for example. Recently, he hosted a town hall meeting to address the company’s progress, challenges, and plans for the future. Alas, he felt like he was “talking to pieces of wood” the whole time. 

“I don’t understand. I incorporated their input before the meeting and structured the agenda the way people wanted, but there was nothing but awkward silence when I tried to engage with them.”

Sounds familiar? Adam is not alone in this situation. Granted, reaching out to a large group isn’t simple, but here are some baby steps to begin.

Addressing individuals by their names can have a significant impact. In large companies, employees often feel like tiny cogs in a giant machine, where their individual identities may get lost. However, by using people’s names when communicating with them, leaders can foster a sense of personal connection and make employees feel recognised.

Remember to take pauses and check in with your audience. A client of mine once shared, “I felt like our company founder was talking at us rather than talking with us.” When there are multiple topics and issues to cover, leaders may feel the pressure to deliver information rapidly. However, taking a moment to catch your breath, make eye contact with the audience, and ask quick check-in questions (such as “How have we been doing so far?”) can go a long way.

Use technology. With smartphones in hand, people are able to express their opinions in a large group without speaking publicly. To make participation in a large crowd feel safe, leaders can explore the use of anonymous text polling. Unlike polls with predetermined options, this method enables individuals to share their thoughts in an open-ended manner. Not only can leaders foster an atmosphere of openness during town hall meetings, but they can also gather valuable qualitative data.

Meet challenging questions with empathic responses 

Even with reminders to employees to communicate respectfully, some leaders may hesitate to enable unfiltered responses, fearing it may open a proverbial can of worms. It is widely acknowledged that the Q&A segment is the least predictable part of any meeting, and it is the moment where feelings of anxiety peak for the company leader in the hot seat.

Adam was no exception:

“I feel nervous about how people may raise difficult questions, especially after I have to announce potential changes in the company’s benefit package for the upcoming year.”

His concern is valid. In these challenging economic times, it is not uncommon for leaders to be confronted with emotionally charged questions like the following:

  • “What can we anticipate in terms of our future compensation and opportunities for professional development?”
  • “How long will the current hiring freeze be in place, and how will it impact our team?”
  • “Considering the company’s financial difficulties, how will it affect the salaries and bonuses of higher-level executives?”
  • “What were the factors behind the recent round of layoffs?”
  • “Should we anticipate further layoffs in the near future?”

There’s no doubt that these questions are challenging, but it is essential to acknowledge that they stem from fear, anxiety, and worry. What better way to alleviate these emotions than through the power of empathy and authenticity?

For instance, when employees inquire about how their benefits package will be affected by the company’s financial difficulties, consider using empathetic statements that address the following.

Emotions“I can see this news may worry some of you. If I were in your position, I would feel concerned too.”
Concerns“It’s only natural that you are concerned about your future healthcare needs and work-life balance.”
Impact“I recognise that this decision unfortunately affects your financial planning and budgeting.”
Assistance“We are committed to supporting you through this transition and are more than happy to help you schedule an appointment with our financial advisor. They can guide you on managing this change and minimising its impact.”

Show accountability for questions you can’t answer

“But what if I don’t have answers to their questions?” Adam asked. 

When leaders ask this question, they are assuming that they must have all the answers. However, in reality, they can’t possibly know it all. It is perfectly acceptable for leaders to admit this and express the willingness to find out. Vulnerability can wield more power than one might imagine.

Nevertheless, putting this into practice is easier said than done. Acknowledging the absence of an answer can be challenging, especially if you’re accustomed to a position of strength, expertise, and authority, like Adam.

“I just don’t know if I can do it. I’ve always been the one who has the answers. I don’t want to come across as uncertain.”

With these reservations in mind, I’d like to share examples of how leaders can respond authentically without compromising their credibility.

  • “I understand that you would like more clarity. The uncertainty can be unsettling.”
  • “Unfortunately, I don’t have a complete answer at the moment, and I don’t want to give you a vague or evasive one.”
  • “I will need to investigate this further and follow up with you.”

Break the silence with specific prompts

Just as many people fear public speaking, asking questions in front of a large audience can be daunting. The Q&A section can easily transform into an uncomfortable silence, with everyone holding their breath, waiting for someone to break the ice.

In such situations, leaders can foster a culture of curiosity and openness by “modelling”. They can get the ball rolling with thought-provoking probes such as:

  • “Building on our discussion today, what additional actions do you think we should implement to achieve our goals?”
  • “Are there any challenges or issues within your department that you believe require more attention? I would appreciate your perspective.”
  • “I recognise that I may have blind spots in my position. Are there any areas where you think I could benefit from your insights or help me uncover potential blind spots?”

If you still hear crickets, don’t be quick to despair. Sometimes, employees hesitate to speak up due to nervousness about unmuting themselves in front of a large audience. Plus, nobody wants to be the one responsible for prolonging the session and delaying lunchtime for everyone.

However, it’s important to recognise that little comments in the chat section also hold value and can still be considered as “wins” because they contribute to the conversation. And for those shy individuals who have burning questions but prefer to keep a low profile, encourage them to reach out directly to the relevant parties. 

Evaluate the session with a survey

Aside from following up on unanswered questions, I highly recommend conducting a survey after the town hall meeting. A thoughtfully designed survey should not only focus on the meeting’s content but also its process and structure. Here are some examples of questions to include:

  • Were there any important issues that were not adequately addressed during this town hall meeting?
  • What aspect of the meeting was the most helpful to you? And conversely, what was the least helpful?
  • Is there any specific information or topic you would like to see covered in more detail in future meetings?
  • Do you have any suggestions for improving the format of the meeting, such as timing, duration, or location?
  • How would you prefer the structure of the next meeting to be different from this one?
  • What would encourage you to participate more actively throughout the meeting?

By soliciting feedback, you empower employees with a genuine sense of investment and ownership, allowing them to actively shape the future of town hall meetings. 

A new approach to town hall meetings

Hosting a town hall meeting amidst a tough economic climate can feel like stepping into a ring of fire. The anticipation of difficult and sensitive questions can feel uneasy, keep in mind that town hall meetings are an opportunity to engage with the employees honestly and openly. It’s more about being receptive, empathetic, and transparent than being perfect. 

I often tell my clients that real change occurs outside our coaching sessions when they convert insight into action. Similarly, a quarterly town hall meeting won’t work miracles. The true impact lies in what happens after the meeting, when the real work begins.

A word from Intellect

An executive coach serves as an invaluable sounding board for leaders, especially if they can’t confide in people within the organisation about traditionally hierarchical processes. As a neutral party, they bring impartiality to the table, along with a wealth of best practices from working with clients in similar situations. 

If you’re interested in exploring executive coaching and how Intellect can benefit both you and your organisation, we invite you to learn more about it here.

Like what you see? Read other articles by the author:

How to conduct layoffs the “right” way: A coach’s advice to a guilt-ridden CEO
How to overcome perfectionism: 3 tips from Intellect’s clinical psychologist
Resenteeism to resolution: Managing passive-aggressive behaviours at work in 5 steps

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