All-Hands Team Meetings

The all-hands team meeting is unique to startups.  I think it’s one of the great reasons to work at (or start) a company.  As an employee you get to interact with the CEO and management team in a way not possible at larger companies.  As CEO, you get to work with folks who actually do work as opposed to just manage others.  All around, it’s really fund and refreshing.  Anyway, I recently saw a Youtube clip of an all-hands meeting and wanted to share it along with a list of tips on how to run a good all-hands meeting. 

Now this all-hands meeting is not your typical startup…it’s actually Barack Obama speaking to his Chicago headquarters staff.  That said, if you’re a startup CEO, you’ll see a lot in common with what you do in this video.  Bear in mind that the HQ staff is probably a couple hundred people none of whom worked for the campaign 17 months ago.  The clip is a bit long (about 15 minutes), but worth watching.  So here are a few things to pay attention to (in roughly chronological order, as opposed to importance):

  1. Entry.  There are different types of all-hands meetings, but this one was clearly used to deliver a message.  Part of setting that up is to bring the team together (note a key lieutenant was coordinating and actually "introduced" Obama).  It’s an interesting bit of stage management, but you’ll notice that Obama enters the meeting after everyone is assembled.  It definitely sets the tone of, "pay attention to this message."
  2. Continuity.  I like how he starts by talking about the last all-hands meeting (which happened to be about 9 months previous which should be familiar to any CEO who’s just gone through a crunch period).   If every meeting has a different message and there is no continuity, it makes it harder for the team to follow (and believe).
  3. Honesty. You hired smart people and if you try to spin something, they’re going to see right through it.  When recounting the message from the last all-hands meeting (I would love to see that video clip), Obama recounts that he said, "I wasn’t sure if I would be the best candidate…"  At another point, he says, "it would have been nice to have a couple weeks off, but…"  That kind of candor will motivate your team much more than a hyperbole or hope. 
  4. Humor.  Don’t do comedy if that’s not your thing, but people always enjoy an inside joke.  A good example is when he joked about the "fist bump" getting so much play in the press because that was one of the few chances they had to "celebrate."
  5. Thanks for job well done.  Obama spent a lot of the meeting delivering heartfelt thanks to the team.  He said, "you have created the best political organization we’ve seen in the last 30-40 years" and continued, "it’s not because of the candidate, it’s because of you."  It’s easy to revert to the "I," particularly after achieving some success, but this is a good example of how to deliver a meaningful thank you.
  6. There is no plan B.  Sometimes the message you want to deliver is, "look, we’ve done a lot of work and we have a backup plan," but other times (like when you don’t) you need to tell it straight.  Obama talks about the "enormous sense of obligation" they (the team) now have.  He says,"if I had lost Iowa…" there would have been a plan B (as in Hillary or Edwards or some other candidate), but continues "because we won, we now have no choice.  We have to win."  That was a great Cortes moment!  I could imagine saying something similar after raising an A-round…
  7. Call to arms.  A salary gets people to show up, but real greatness requires inspiration and that can only be achieved by calling your team to achieve the greater good.  When telling the team they will have to work harder, longer than ever before he says, "I know that’s a heavy weight.  But also, what an awesome opportunity.  You are 5 months from…changing the world!"
  8. Finish up.  Notice how he doesn’t linger around.  Doing so would dilute the power of the message.  Better to leave the chit chat for another time. 

All-hands team meets are important…take time to prepare and make them
effective.  I’d be curious to hear comments from readers on what
works/doesn’t work for you.