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Effective All-Hands meetings: Early vs. Growth-stage Startups

Generally speaking, meetings are most productive when they're small, short and every participant is actively contributing.

All-hands meetings are the exception that proves the rule; they tend to involve all the company's employees, typically last longer than 30 minutes and only a small number of people actively contribute while the rest is mostly focused on listening. Yet they're one the most important "alignment builders" tools in the arsenal of a founder or an executive.

In this post, we'll see with practical examples how to operate effective meetings at both early (>50 people) and growth-stage startups (50-500 employees).

Assembling a proper all-hands meeting

A proper all-Hands meeting does three things.

(1) It celebrates people and accomplishments, (2) it drives alignment around mission, strategy, and priorities, and (3) provides a convenient place for everyone to ask and answer questions.

All-hands meeting in early-stage startups

Early-stage startups are about two things: building and selling. Time spent talking about the work to be done, rather than actually doing it, is time wasted. But when everyone is so focused on their own work it's easy to lose sight of the top priorities and why they do matter.

All-hands meetings in early-stage startups are a great way for the founders, not just to celebrate wins (new customers, new milestones, new achievements, etc) but also to review what's being done, clarify the main company direction, and the next top priorities on the list.

Your first all-hands meeting

It's time to organize your first all-hands when your team stops fitting a single room (either physically or virtually). That can realistically happen after the first few employees join the original founding team.

David Karp (Tumblr founder and CEO) said about All-Hands meetings:

One of my biggest regrets is waiting until we were about 20 people to start holding regular weekly All Teams. Getting up there in front of so many people I adored was overwhelming, and my first attempt was hardly inspiring. I realized I could have had three years of practice, and a chance to work my way up to the big team if I’d started earlier.

Google founders run their TGIF (town-all) meetings even when the company had 20/30 employees. Here's a video of one of their TGIF back in 1999.

Timing

For early-stage companies, all-hands should be run weekly. This should be the default cadence until the company gets to at least several hundred people.

When blocking everybody's time for a full hour starts to result in a considerable productivity drain, then it might be time to adjust to a fortnightly cadence.

Keep in mind that typically in growth-stage companies, there isn't just a single All-Hands company meeting. Each department, team, or business unit runs its own All-Hands, at a cadence that’s different from that of the company All-Hands.

It is important to make sure that the rhythm of the company-wide meetings is in simpatico with the department's own communication schedule and rituals.

Operations

In early-stage companies, all-hands meetings don't really require many operations, or advanced prep as everything can be discussed impromptu by the team members.

For instance, this is how Stripe operated their all-hands meeting when the company had roughly 30 employees.

Once a week, on every Tuesday, the company meets for an all-hands. Each team explains what happened in the last week and what they're planning for the next. Again, this is all about transparency and communication. At the end of the meeting, we address FUD, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Anyone can raise objections and discuss their concerns. The idea behind this is that it prevents problems from staying hidden in one small part of the company, and makes sure everyone's thinking about how to solve the problems we have.

But as your business grows, communication and alignment become harder and harder. The effort necessary to get everyone on the same page at 100 employees is significantly more than when you were just 5 people in the same room.

Communication complexity increases as the team grows

And that's when you need to start putting more work into All-Hands preparation. From the slides and panelists (speakers, turns, and topics) to the conference set up (backup options, equipment test, live chat support on Slack, etc), and the logistics (update calendars, Slack reminders before the event, etc). All these details actually matter if you're looking to give a great meeting experience to everyone.

All-Hands Structure

A good all-hands follows a three-act narrative.

Let's see them in order:

Act-1: Celebrate people and accomplishments (10 to 15% of the time)

Part 1/3 of your all-hands meeting

New hires

Introduce new hires to the team. Show a photo of them, their name, their role, and what they will do in the company. Give instruction on how everyone can learn more about them or get ahold of them for work.

If your company is still under ~50 people, you can even ask them to introduce themselves and share a little bit of background, why they joined the company and what they're looking for.

This approach will inevitably stop scaling as the company grows over 50 people. This is where a people directory tool can help you out so that people can check out in full autonomy their new colleague's profiles.

Kudos and anniversaries

All-hands provide the right stage to highlight individual accomplishment and celebrate employees' anniversaries. Make this fun and engaging and not always work-related.

Accomplishment and progress

Highlight the company and the team's achievements in the last weeks, months, or quarters. All-hands meetings are the right place to tell the greatest accomplishment and celebrate the teams that made it happen. Whether you just launched a new product, crossed an important revenue milestone, or closed an important customer.

Act-2: Drive alignment around initiatives and priorities (60 to 70% of the time)

Part 2/3 of your all-hands meeting

Of all your All-Hands, this part is the most important one. It's where you empower your people making them aligned and inspired toward the same broad goal.

This act can be divided into 3 sub-sections:

  1. “Why”\
  2. Mission-to-Metrics\
  3. Initiatives

"Why"

Narratives (not facts) are what move people. Great leaders know that while facts help people understand and comprehend reality, it’s in narratives that make enthusiasm, excitement, and passion “happen”. Ultimately, we are the stories that we tell.

When communicating important new messages, rather than presenting new facts try thinking of it as broaching a new narrative. Think of what you’re trying to accomplish in a broader and more holistic way, surrounding the facts (the actual company goals and milestones) with a convincing and appealing narrative.

A good narrative can not only help you make facts more compelling and inspiring, but it can actually make them easier to understand. The more your narrative (as opposed to the facts) resonates with its intended audience, the more likely you are to have an impact and actually make an impression in people’s heads.

Spend less time on this (tools, directions, instructions)

rock climbing tools

And more on this (end-goal, broader context, masterplan)

rock climber

Mission to Metrics

Myths, rituals, and narratives are very powerful tools, but they can't be manufactured or faked. Employees can easily sniff when the narrative is too abstract, vague and it is lacking in core elements that make it credible.

Ask carefully what priorities are you truly embodying? What is the overarching strategy to get there? And what are the ground metrics that you, as a team, need to move?

mission to metrics

One of the best examples of “Mission to Metrics” alignment comes from Ali Rowghani in this YC blog post:

Seeing a SpaceX employee assembling a large part, he stopped to ask him, “What is your job at SpaceX?” He answered, “The mission of SpaceX is to colonize Mars. In order to colonize Mars, we need to build reusable rockets because it will otherwise be unaffordable for humans to travel to Mars and back. My job is to help design the steering system that enables our rockets to land back on earth. You’ll know if I’ve succeeded if our rockets land on our platform in the Atlantic after launch.”

The employee could have simply said he was building a steering system for landing rockets. Instead, he recited the company’s entire “Mission-to-Metrics” framework. That is alignment.

The biggest difference between a company with everyone rowing in the same direction and disorganized chaos is mission-to-metrics execution. In the former, the team knows the mission and is executing it.

Initiatives

Narratives, strategy, tactics, and metrics are all words if nobody actually goes and executes them. What is the talk that is walked?

This is the part where you zoom in on the major initiatives and let your managers and occasionally even the team's individual contributor speak. They are your rockstars. Give them the space they deserve.

Skip status-checky stuff. Don’t waste time communicating financials or dry progress updates of each department. These can be far better communicated in videos updates, internal posts, emails (not Slack), and in a transparent company they should always be available for those who need them.

Instead, focus on the key points that explain how the company's initiatives are tied to the broader goal/context and what's the impact that they're having. Focus on the important variances.

Act-3: Provide a forum to ask and answer questions (15 to 30% of the time)

Good all-hands meetings are “two-way” and treat questions and answers as one of the core activities. You’ve just dumped a lot of information onto your people. Now it's time to give them a chance to ask and answer questions. It’s critical that you designate a time at the end of your meeting to give everyone time to voice themselves.

Allocate up to 30% for this part of the meeting. If your All-Hands meeting is an hour-long, you should set aside 15 to 20 minutes for this activity alone.

To break the initial ice, start with your own question encourage others to open up and come up with their own.

A good practice is to gather questions ahead of time in Slack channel, Zoom or Google meet to chat, but be okay with hard, impromptu ones, and give your people the transparency they deserve.

Post-all-hands meetings activities

Your work as an operator doesn't just end when the meeting finishes. Here are some of the most important tasks that every operator should do post-meeting:

1. Make meeting recordings available on-demand

Not everyone will be able to attend your company all-hands meetings. It's important you record the most important company meetings and make them available on-demand, in case people want to watch, rewatch or follow up with questions.

This won't just be helpful to current employees but also to future ones as they inhale company history and decisions in minutes.

Make aggressive use of tools like Pulse (create a free workspace here) to make all your internal meetings automatically transcribed, instantly available, and available on-demand to your team.

All-Hands meetings recordings on Pulse

2. Keep the conversation going asynchronously

Communication shouldn’t be constrained by a meeting’s time block. Your team should be able to keep the conversation going after the all-hands meetings by sharing comments and follow-up questions.

Tools like Pulse helps you facilitate bi-directional communication with comments at the end of every one of your video recordings or post updates.

3. Follow up on unanswered questions

It’s OK to not know all the answers during your live Q&A, as long as you follow through after the meeting ends.

Make sure after the all-hands meeting you follow up on those unanswered questions and close the loop. This gives an expectation of continuity.

4. Close the feedback loop

How do you ensure your all-hands meetings are constantly improving over time? You need a systematic way to measure what’s happening. That’s where you close the feedback loop. While it may sound obvious in retrospect, not many businesses are measuring how they’re communicating and how well their approach is working.

To understand what’s working and what’s not working, you need to get both:

  • Qualitative feedback: employees surveys, 1-1s interviews, feedback memos to precisely understand where things could be improved and how.
  • Quantitative feedback: measure how people interact with your content; how many of them actually watch your video meetings recordings, how relevant the information is, how often do they check it, etc
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