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August 02, 2012

All Hands Meetings: Good, Bad and the Ugly

Whether at a startup or a Fortune 500 company, culture and communication with colleagues can have an incredible impact on morale and the bottom line. Amass enough naysayers, and the negative inertia can drag down the optimists. Similarly, a well-timed rallying cry can spur troops to close out the quarter on an up note, and help others be willing to work extra hours for a shared goal.

One of those opportunities for shared discussions is the company-wide all hands meeting, led by management, typically starring the CEO. In my dozen-plus years in the Valley, from the tiniest of startups, to my current role at Google, as you can imagine, I've seen a variety of ways a company's culture was approached, and how these all hands meetings could take on a life of their own. A recent story by All Things Digital's Kara Swisher regarding rumored changes at Yahoo! following Marissa Mayer's joining the company as CEO has had me thinking about some of the crazy things I've seen since the end of the '90s in such meetings, both good and bad.

The first company I worked, Internet Valley, didn't ever grow to the point where All Hands meetings made sense. We had 3-4 employees, and our boss simply had to scoot his chair back and speak to the two of us worker bees to have a discussion.

After that dalliance came and went, at my second company, 3Cube, I was one of about a dozen people, mostly engineers, we had All Hands discussions to announce good news on product, business development or in fund raising. I remember when we raised $1 million in seed funding back in 1999, at a valuation of $10 million, and spoke of plans to get the next round at $10 million with a $100 million valuation, if our goals were met. Our CEO, and the rest of us, were excited. As drinks were poured, we joked that the million bucks, split about 10 ways, would be a fun run to the Mexican border, if nothing else. We also used the All Hands format to discuss new partners, and ready product rollouts.

I joined BlueArc in 2001, and initially, during our glowing phase when we came out of stealth and made our first customer shipments, our All Hands meetings rallied the company for a common good.

But almost immediately afterward, due to our own issues and economic uncertainty, those disappeared. In a year's time, the three All Hands meetings we had were to discuss two separate rounds of significant layoffs, with a CEO change in the middle for good measure - on April Fools' Day, no less. We knew that if an All Hands meeting popped up on our calendar for the upcoming Friday, there was a good chance you should back up all your email on Thursday. All Hands meetings were brutal and scary.

As those of us left behind muddled through, we gained a new Marketing VP in 2002, and we survivors recounted the situation. Unsurprisingly, he was appalled, and helped us restart semi-regular meetings, where we didn't fear for our jobs or the company's livelihood. For the most part, the meetings, held once a quarter or so, recapped the last three months of sales, and highlighted our pipeline. But even those meetings started to take on a Twilight Zone feeling, as it seemed our CEO would talk about how we had not met sales expectations for the quarter, but we would still get some bumbling engineer to ask how his stock options were doing - seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were going nowhere fast.

Those meetings were also memorable for the inevitable sales guy calling in to the conference line in the car with the top down, and not being muted. Nothing like the entire company waiting around while the CEO barked into the Polycom for whoever it was to "PLEASE MUTE YOUR PHONE."

After a few years of this nonsense, and a few Marketing VPs later, I previewed to the latest guy exactly how the quarter's All Hands meeting would go down, with specifics on the CEO's nuances, the sales guys' excuses, the engineers' begging for stock updates, and more. When he viewed his first All Hands meeting in person and watch it unfold in front of him, just as I had told, he swore to me it was all he could do to stop from laughing. How could it have been allowed to be so bad for so long? Such a great opportunity to communicate transparently and freely with the whole company wasted.

From that day forward, we took ownership of the All Hands meetings, working with the CEO and management, to make sure the content was planned in advance, that there was a variety of speakers, and value to everyone who joined - not just a droning on of excuses that had little bearing on employees' day to day. The results were clear, as employees felt better informed, understood product roadmap and big sales opportunities, and, when appropriate, what was needed to keep the company funded or solvent. It was a remarkable change from the three straight doomsday All Hands meetings and the cries for options to mute phones on the conference line.

Google's TGIF experience is well documented on the Web. It's open to the employees and closed to the outside world, to protect the discussions and keep people informed and engaged. That Yahoo! would now be getting the same kind of regular updates and visibility into management they deserve is something that should be exciting to their team, for those who have suffered after wave after wave of bad news, in the same way our 2001-2003 All Hands seemed to flow.

Meetings for meetings' sake don't make a lot of sense. Meeting as a company, in the spirit of updating, discussing and enriching employees does, and having seen well intended executives fall flat, and others do quite well, I know there's value to getting the All Hands meeting regular, open and engaging, even if your company is small.

Disclosures: Yes, I work at Google. No, I won't tell you more about details of TGIF. Yes, Yahoo! is an assumed competitor. No, this is not an endorsement of any rumors by ATD or any official commentary on Marissa or Yahoo!.