Hello and welcome to Modern CEO! I’m Stephanie Mehta, CEO and chief content officer of Mansueto Ventures. Each week, this newsletter explores inclusive approaches to leadership drawn from conversations with executives and entrepreneurs and from the pages of Inc. and Fast Company. Sign up to get it yourself every Monday morning.
A few weeks ago I spoke with Andi Owen, the CEO of MillerKnoll, the design company whose portfolio includes iconic brands such as Herman Miller, Design Within Reach, and Hay. Owen found herself in the spotlight a few months ago when a short clip from a company town hall was released, in which she tells employees to focus on hitting overall performance targets instead of fretting about individual bonuses.
In our conversation, Owen was candid about her missteps, and admits that she’ll be more careful about how she delivers messages, but she also urges CEOs to “be courageous. Don’t be afraid to deliver the messages you need to deliver.”
The white-hot (viral) spotlight
Owen says, after the clip went viral, a number of leaders reached out to her to share their own experiences. Indeed, company town halls have become public events now that participants can easily record and share contents. In the last year or so, details of employee meetings at The Washington Post, Google, and Clearlink have been released, showing CEOs discussing layoffs or remote work.
While the contents of town halls will surely continue to leak, executives shouldn’t back away from delivering important information, as Owen says. Nor should they lose sight of the fact that these meetings are for employees—not shareholders or regulators or other groups a company might seek to influence. As communications expert Peggy Klaus wrote in a piece about town halls bluntly titled CEOs: Read this before you open your mouth: “Employees take time away from their jobs to attend. Yet, incredibly, there is so much wasted opportunity.”
Step up the meeting prep
Klaus encourages CEOs to think about what employees really want to hear, what the company wants employees to do when the meeting is over, and to address the “elephants in the room,” i.e., the bad news that could be coming.
Klaus concludes: “A successful town hall state-of-the-union speech takes significant preparation and thought on your part, so remember what many leaders learn the hard way: you’re only as good as your last speech.”
After speaking with Owen and reading Klaus’s piece, I’m determined to put even more preparation into our company’s all-hands meetings. One way we’ve tried to make our town halls more engaging is to feature speakers from different parts of the organization, who often share behind-the-scenes stories on successful projects. Such commentary, sprinkled amid financial updates and other business, helps keep the meetings lively and often serves as a reminder of how much effort goes into producing high-quality work.
Town hall, not-so-confidential
Have you led or attended a particularly effective town hall? Please send examples of smart ways leaders communicate with groups of employees to email@example.com. I’ll share the best ideas in an upcoming newsletter.
Read and watch: Communication counts