How To Run Effective Company Meetings At Your Startup

At one of my early ventures, the Chairman of the Board orchestrated the companywide meetings. He was a disciple of famed motivational speaker Tony Robbins and he accordingly ran our “all-hands” company meetings like revival sessions.

I remember one meeting that was particularly ineffectual. We were running out of cash, our primary competitor was overtaking us and our latest products were stalled by significant regulatory hurdles. Despite our sobering circumstances, we entered this particular meeting to Tina Turner shouting, “Simply The Best” at us over and over and over. I was not alone in wondering, “If we really are ‘simply the best,’ why do we need to be told so by an aging diva?”

The meeting went downhill from this rousing opening, ending with our Chairman telling us, “You need to create our own reality,” quickly followed by an encore of Tina’s rousing chant. I trudged out of the meeting thinking I was, “simply the screwed,” if I hung around much longer. Shortly thereafter I left the company and its over-the-top, out-of-touch company meetings.

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Company Meetings That Matter

Some entrepreneurs mistakenly believe that the primary purpose of company meetings (defined here as, “gatherings which include all of the venture’s employees”) is to raise the rafters and inspire their team with a motivational sermon. Enhancing morale is certainly one aspect of company meetings. However, there are several other benefits entrepreneurs and their employees can derive from such all-hands gatherings, including:

  • Communication – share new initiatives, company victories and upcoming challenges
  • Consolidation – unite the team around a common sense of purpose and formally onboard new team members
  • Confirmation – highlight employee accomplishments which reinforce the company’s values and culture
  • Motivation – excite employees and describe how the company will win, without ignoring reality or attempting to delude them 

Balancing Urgency And Importance

Company meetings are seldom urgent. Yet, holding them at a consistent cadence is highly important. As your adVenture matures, it will become increasingly difficult to organize effective company meetings.

When your company is small, you can announce an impromptu meeting by simply walking around or by sending everyone a short email. During the early stages of your company’s life, most members of your team will be apprised of the company’s significant initiatives, resulting in efficient company meetings with little time spent bringing everyone up to a common level of understanding.

However, as your adVenture grows, more planning is required and messaging becomes increasingly focused on raising the employees’ understanding to a lowest common denominator level. As the diversity and size of your team expands, it becomes continually more difficult to craft a message that is applicable to everyone, not too detailed, and yet not too general. With each new employee, however, the need to establish and communicate common goals, reinforce the company’s Creed and Core Values, and recognize individual’s accomplishments becomes ever more critical.

The dynamic between meeting frequency and each meeting’s importance requires you to continually gauge how often you should hold company meetings as well as the degree of confidential data you should share with your team. The larger your company becomes, the more thoughtful preparation is required to ensure that the meetings are productive. Thus, the tendency for many entrepreneurs is to forestall company meetings. Avoid this mistake by publishing a calendar of companywide meetings. Communicating the dates in advance will facilitate everyone’s attendance and encourage you to invest the necessary time required to maximize each meeting’s effectiveness.

As shown in the chart below, at some point your organization will be large enough that company meetings can be held less frequently, without a detrimental impact on your culture. As this transition happens, other, more formal, methods of communication (e.g., newsletters, departmental meetings, webinars, etc.) can be utilized more efficiently than in-person meetings.

As long as your startup has fewer than 250 - 300 employees, company meetings will remain a highly effective communication medium. Below are tactics you can deploy to maximize the effectiveness of your startup’s companywide gatherings.

Agendas With Substance– A long rah-rah fest devoid of substantive discussions is boring and ultimately de-motivational. Do not feel compelled to make every company meeting a feel-good session, especially when there is not a lot to feel good about. One way to ensure that your team is completely engaged in your adVenture’s pursuit of success is to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Negative news should be accompanied by a description of the strategy the company will deploy to overcome whatever adversity it is facing.

Recurring Visuals – Select a graphical way to represent your adVenture’s progress. Nonprofits often use a thermometer, or similar image, to track the amount of money raised. A visual that is updated at each company meeting is a great way to quickly communicate the company’s status. At Expertcity, (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix), we wove a virtual mat in which each stitch represented 1,000 customers. Our goal was to reach 1 million customers, represented by the completion of the mat. Reviewing the virtual mat at every meeting was a quick and effective way to update everyone on our progress toward this important goal.

Videos – Encourage cross-disciplinary teams to create brief, entertaining videos. Such videos might document a recent tradeshow, the opening of an international office or the launch of a new product. The key is to give your employees a creative outlet that generates entertaining and informative content. We showed such videos at Expertcity's company meetings and they were always well received. An example of one of our Holiday videos can be seen HERE.

Middle Managers Center Stage – Focus on a specific department at each company meeting and give the designated department an opportunity to explain their current goals and challenges to the rest of the company. Such opportunities allow the presenting department to solicit input regarding any procedural or process-oriented issues that would enhance the company’s overall performance. Do not allow the departmental leaders to give these presentations. Give the limelight to someone who normally would not have a chance to publicly speak, such as a Director or Manager.

New Hires – Everyone hired since the prior company meeting should be introduced and acknowledged. This serves three purposes: (i) makes new hires feel welcomed, (ii) facilitates associating a face with each new name, and (iii) communicates your adVenture’s forward progress and growth to all the employees. An expanding organization is an exciting place to be.

Awards – As noted in Bang A Gong, use company meetings to publicly thank employees for exemplary contributions. Such awards should be unexpected, significant (but not necessarily expensive), personalized and unconditional.

Feed Each Other – As described in the Long Spoons parable, encourage your employees to place the company’s wellbeing above their own at all times. You can reinforce this behavior by publicly rewarding selfless actions. For instance, if the accounting department works late helping the marketing team get ready for an upcoming tradeshow, acknowledge the accountants’ efforts with a thoughtful gift.

At Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, acquired by Intuitive Surgical), the entire company helped pack and ship robots at the end of each quarter, in order to ensure the company met its revenue goals (we had to physically ship the robots to properly recognize the associated revenue). We turned these “loading dock parties,” which involved extensive physical labor, into celebrations, which brought all the members of the company together.

Campfires – Augment your companywide meetings by pulling together a cross-section of your organization, between 15-20 people at a time, and figuratively sit around a campfire, listening to their feedback. One way to structure these meetings is to ask the group what the term “Open Waters” means to them. Suggest that the company has been doing well by staying in the protection of the harbor, but now it is time to depart from its comfort zone and enter Open Waters.

Open Waters, or a similarly open-ended metaphor, will give your employees a forum to express their concerns and help avoid finger-pointing that often accompanies a more traditional “tell me what we are doing wrong” conversation. If feasible, attempt to include all of your employees in such discussions over time by periodically hosting multiple campfire meetings.

To maximize the impact of such informal meetings, communicate feedback at company meetings regarding the specific initiatives which were prompted by employees’ Open Water responses. Not only will you gain valuable insights that might otherwise not be uncovered in a larger group setting, but your timely reaction to the issues raised at such intimate meetings will demonstrate that even as your organization grows, the employees’ voices are still heard. Consider reviewing Listen – Do You Want To Know a Secret? for further discussion of how you can make such interactions more impactful.

Proud Mary Keep On Burning

Most startups are marathons, rather than sprints. Thus, the fire-and-brimstone, revivalist approach to company meetings can quickly become counterproductive and emotionally exhausting. Ditch the hallelujahs and hold effective company meetings that exhort your employees to achieve great things by nurturing their desire for honest, informative and entertaining communication. Sorry Tina, I respect your early 1990’s musical comeback, but you make a lousy corporate cheerleader.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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