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Founder’s guide to a successful all-hands meeting
BY Justin Kan

In the earliest days of a startup, company communication may be an informal mix of ad hoc discussions, brainstorming sessions, and the periodic over-the-shoulder announcement. Eventually, the time comes when that three-to-five-person team becomes team of 30-50, and then a 300-person company. What worked for you early on stops working.

This kind of growth can lead to a shifting of projects, roles, and priorities. When a handful of new people each week or month are entering roles that previously didn’t exist, it takes intention and consistency to prevent confusion and silos. By taking a proactive approach to communications, you can promote collaboration and alignment toward achieving shared goals as your company evolves.

One critical component of that: the all-hands meeting.

Why all-hands meetings matter

An all-hands meeting, simply put, is a meeting attended by the whole company. The purpose may be to bring the company together to celebrate successes, align on priorities, or maintain transparency as work devolves to smaller groups. It’s a time to remind team members the larger purpose the company is striving toward and how everyone is contributing to that collective effort.

Other meetings may get pushed and rescheduled, but the company all-hands is the throughline that provides routine and structure. It’s likely the only opportunity for the entire company to meet and discuss projects and will set the tone for the team and management meetings that follow. For these reasons, all-hands meetings are a staple of a company’s internal communications.

When to start holding all-hands meetings

There’s no magic number of employees to dictate when you should begin holding all-hands meetings, although it’s never too early to proactively improve your company communications. Some indicators that it may be time to start holding an all-hands meeting include:

  • In an all-remote world, you need to keep the team connected.

  • You’ve started building middle management, creating a layer beneath your direct reports.

  • You’ve started adding remote employees and want to ensure they feel just as a part of the day-to-day company mission as others.

As your company grows, the all-hands meetings will help to build trust and approachability for the executive team. The sooner you start on this, the sooner you’ll be able to establish the kind of culture you want in your company.

How to define and design your all-hands

Running an all-hands meeting is part art and part science. The art includes presenting to your employees in a way that inspires and motivates. The science includes designing a structure that makes the meeting worth holding.

However you go about it, hosting an effective all-hands meeting requires an investment and effort from team members. A poorly run all-hands meeting can be worse than no meeting at all. Thus, it matters that the people contributing to all-hands meetings appreciate the impact these efforts can have on the company morale and employee motivation. 

In addition to ensuring your team understands the importance of a well-conceived and executed meeting, it helps to establish a clear sense of purpose.

The experience of your all-hands

Before you think about what team members should derive from your all-hands, consider how you want team members to feel during the meeting. During the meeting, your employees should feel:

1. Engaged

Avoid presenting material that would have been more effectively received via email. Inevitably, there will be—and should be—announcements during an all-hands. But keep the announcements focused on the high-level and defer the details to a follow-up email lest people get bored (and they get bored quickly). Strive for action and/or conversation during your all-hands. Incorporate ways for the audience to engage or contribute by holding a Q&A, calling on the audience to answer questions or provide feedback, or doing a real-time survey.

2. Excited

Celebrate successes and milestones, such as achievements and anniversaries. As social beings, we’re wired to come together and share our experiences. Acknowledging these events while everyone is gathered will further the social bond and alignment of your teammates, much like the psychology behind walking meetings.

3. Motivated

Share progress, areas for improvement, or opportunities. When sharing progress or updates on a project, ask whoever is closest to the project to share this information. By no means should this be a meeting where only the CEO speaks. Each executive should present what their teams are working on when relevant.

4. Respected

Establish a culture of consideration and empathy for the challenges and difficulties various teams and individuals will inevitably experience. Maintain open communication with team leaders with regard to what they plan to present at the all-hands, make sure they practice, and ensure that these meetings don’t lose focus. Insist that leaders submit their contributions to the meeting ahead of time so that any controversial or difficult topics can be dealt with appropriately and framed in a way that points to a plan of action.

The results of your all-hands

Next, define exactly how attending this meeting will make your employees better at their jobs. Consider what you want team members to take away from the meeting. Employees should leave feeling:

1. Invigorated

In the vortex of a busy workweek, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how the many narrowly-focused tasks help to achieve the company’s goals. Ensure that your meeting finds ways to remind the individuals of the value they’re adding to the overall effort. It should help tie initiatives back to the larger picture.

2. Empowered

Use this as a time to announce new resources and team members, whether it is a mentorship program within the company or perhaps an employee with a unique skill that will open up new opportunities for the business. This can bring excitement and facilitate other organically developed ideas. Highlight and encourage involvement in upcoming initiatives developed by employees.

3. Educated

Define the measures you want to track as a company, and then report that company-wide on a recurring basis, regardless of whether the numbers are good or bad. Even if it feels repetitive, that’s okay. New hires need to learn these and the more everyone hears the metrics the more they’ll understand them.

4. Informed

Use the gathering as a time to communicate any changes or address questions. Be sure to provide context into the reason for them.

5. Aligned

The all-hands meeting is not the place to tackle the details of a cross-functional project. Low-level action items and deadlines should be agreed upon elsewhere. Instead, functional leaders should provide brief overviews on new projects and initiatives. Or even better, highlight a cross-functional project.

What to include in your all-hands

Consistency matters. Create a framework so that preparing for each upcoming meeting becomes part of a routine, while still resulting in a high-caliber meeting. A few things that can help as part of your framework:

1. Culture

Celebrate people and accomplishments, such as work anniversaries. Spend a healthy amount of time here. If you decide to schedule an hour-long all-hands, carve out a few minutes each time.

2. Small talk

Surprisingly, the most important part of your all-hands may be the small talk that occurs at the beginning, as well as the spontaneous banter throughout. Small talk at the start of a meeting helps establish rapport with attendees and will make everything that follows better received. Though meetings need to adhere to a schedule, allow the first few minutes to soften the crowd. This doesn’t mean you should stand in front of the group and talk about nothing; it just means that a brief, humorous (and respectful) anecdote—while seeming like a distraction or waste of time—may actually set a more productive tone for the rest of the discussion by giving people permission to lower their guard while piquing their interest.

3. New hires

Announce and introduce new hires. No matter how big your company gets, it helps everyone to put faces to the names of the people they’re working with.

4. Questions and answers

You’ve just dumped a lot of information onto your employees. Now give them a chance to ask and answer questions. Allocate 25% for this portion of the meeting. If your meeting is an hour long, set aside at least 15 minutes. Do not skip this.

It’s critical that you designate time at the end of your meeting to give employees time to voice themselves. Allowing everyone to freely ask questions will give your team members a sense of empowerment.

Plan a question ahead of time. Start your Q&A with one planned question to encourage others to open up. Redirect: Have the person best-suited to address a question respond to it. Just because you’re an exec doesn’t mean you should know all the details of everything. Try to avoid "managing" the Q&As by asking people to submit ahead of time. Be okay with the hard questions, and give your employees the transparency they deserve.

It’s OK to not know the answers, so long as you follow through on resolving the question. If you have an all-hands Slack channel, you can follow up there. If you share the slide deck and recording with everyone over email, then address the question within that email.

How to present your all-hands

The practical logistics of running an all-hands meeting will vary from company to company, and largely be based on factors like size of the staff and maturity. Below are the items to consider when planning your meeting:

  1. Cadence

Base the frequency of your meetings on factors like momentum and bandwidth. Holding an all-hands each week may require too much time while holding one every month may not provide enough alignment and transparency.

2. Timing

Find a day, time, and duration that makes sense with the logistics of your employees. A good rule of thumb is aiming to hold your meetings when attendance is likely to be high, people are easily kept engaged, and preferably not wishing they were somewhere else.

3. Presenters

While it’s good to have a leader such as the CEO leading these meetings, it helps to also pass the mic throughout each meeting and have new voices address the group and share their insights. This is an opportunity for employees to get to know all the executives. For example, the engineers may not interact much with the head of sales, but this time can be used to establish more familiarity.

4. Mechanics

Having things run smoothly during these meetings is important to the engagement of your team members. Technical difficulties will certainly occur, but take some time to prepare the necessary equipment and logistics, e.g. Zoom, microphones, projectors, clickers, and a camera.

Other communication practices to consider

While the all-hands meeting acts like the central nervous system for all other internal communications, other formats can be valuable as well. Below are some additional practices:

1. Skip-level round tables

Such meetings can help leaders to get a feel for everyone’s engagement, provide a forum for open communication, and promote candid feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

2. Office hours

Consider holding office hours once a month for anyone in the company who would like to come and chat about any topic.

3. “Ask me anything” Slack channel

As mentioned above, this serves as a way for team members to have a convenient way to ask questions to the executive team at any time, and for everyone else to have access to those discussions.

These suggestions are just some of the ways to develop an internal communications capacity. However you go about it, remember that alignment, transparency, and collaboration are always a work in progress.

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