How the Best Companies in the World Run All-Hands Meetings

By: Ray Gillenwater (originally appeared at

all-hands meeting

Taking time to get the entire company into a live session is an expensive and risky proposition. It says quite a bit about leadership’s attitude. Namely, we value people in this organization enough to invest in:

  1. Keeping everyone informed of major company updates.
  2. Ensuring everyone is emotionally connected to the company’s goals.
  3. Listening to the team’s (preferably unfiltered) feedback and questions.

Take Facebook for example. With 17,000 employees and an average salary of let’s say $125K, a one-hour all-hands meeting may have an actual cost of over $2M.

This is precisely how we can glean the emphasis that Facebook, Google, and other world-class companies place on keeping knowledge workers informed and engaged. This practice can be viewed in stark contrast with less-transparent companies stuck in their 20th-century ways.

Companies that wouldn’t think that the $2M is worth it, will often communicate with top-down messages only. This is mismanaging the crucial task of ensuring that all employees have the context they need to stay connected, focused and fired up.

The companies that understand how knowledge works require frequent and open communication that flows bottom-up as well as top-down. These are the companies which have some similarities in how they run all-hands meetings.

As the CEO of SpeakUp Live, a tool that facilitates all-hands Q&A, I’m in a unique position to notice and extrapolate these similarities. Namely:

1. The CEO really cares.
I’ve encountered companies that attempt to improve transparency and bottom-up communication with a CEO that doesn’t truly see it as a priority, but rather as a way to “appear” to care. In most cases, this inauthentic effort does more harm than good. After all, if you speak up and are ignored, it feels like wasted energy, it is belittling and breeds discontent in the workplace.

On the contrary, I’ve encountered companies with CEOs that really want their teams to know what’s going on, what’s important, and what everyone should care about. The energy and the alignment that results from this effort is too important to ignore.

For organizations that rely on the collective intelligence of their teams, there is simply no replacement for spending time and money organizing the team’s best insight. True, tough questions will come up, but as an internal-communications lead from one of my favorite tech companies explained to me: The questions are there whether you choose to address them or not.

2. They’re well executed.
Teams that are dedicated to running these all-hand meetings treat them like the important production they are. The company will include stadium-sized conference rooms and the best remote connectivity software for distributed team members. Excruciating care will be paid to the content being presented. Proper preparation and near-flawless execution will be expected. These events are well-planned in advance–not a last-minute afterthought.

3. Their frequency is predictable.
Some companies barely dip their toe in with an annual event. Others do it quarterly. The best places to work with the least hierarchical cultures seem to share a common trait–their CEO makes it a point to address everyone weekly or bi-weekly. There is a clear correlation between the emphasis that CEOs place on their people and the frequency of all-hands meetings.

4. They’re not contrived.
Another correlation: companies that have their meetings infrequently seem to be “faking it.” Calculable is the awkward tone, feigned openness, and unnecessary level of formality. These sessions feel like a half-hearted corporate initiative that’s been suggested by a consultant. These feelings are in direct contrast to a noticeable authentic desire to demonstrate to the team that employees are important enough to communicate directly with.

Running an all-hands meeting, and opening things up to Q&A (especially if that includes anonymous Q&A), requires a high degree of vulnerability. It can become quite uncomfortable. Many CEOs are so intimidated by the Q&A that they avoid it, script it, or squash it.

CEO’s may closely filter only the questions they want anyone informed about or that they personally feel competent to address. Even though taking the safe route may feel better, it’s usually a mistake to be risk-averse when it comes to something as important as openly listening to the team.

5. Anyone can speak up.
Truly, anyone in your meeting should be able to direct a question. This doesn’t mean opening up Q&A at the end and allowing or requiring people to raise their hands.

It should also be intuitively obvious to the CEO that this is not the time nor place to require someone to overcome their fear of public speaking. Some people fear speaking more than death, and an open Q&A is too high of a barrier for them. Fielding questions in this manner wouldn’t be the way to go.

The CEOs should want to hear questions from anyone within the organization not only from the most extroverted and risk-tolerant employees. They should respect the effort it may take for the more reserved and soft-spoken among us.

A tool that captures and curates questions makes the most sense. Allow questions (anonymous or not) to come in during the week leading up to the meeting, enable voting so the team can decide which are most important, and address the top-voted questions in order of popularity.

All-hands meetings are expensive, time-consuming and disruptive to business. They’re also indispensable if the aim is to keep the team well-informed, focused on the right priorities, and highly engaged.

The executive team gets a direct line of insight into every level of the organization. This ensures that pesky hierarchy doesn’t get in the way of unadulterated team feedback.

As a CEO, if you truly want to understand what’s happening with your products and customers, the right people to ask are the ones that interface with both daily. These people are often at the bottom of the organization chart, but as demonstrated by the best companies in the world, they will perform at a higher level after being included in a well run all-hands meeting.

Kudos to the companies that realize that people are the most important part of business and invest their time and resources accordingly.