Are you ready for next month’s All-Hands meeting? Let’s plan!

Written by: Karl Sakas

Holding a successful All-Hands meeting can drive your agency forward… while making your life easier as an agency owner. But if you organize and execute the meeting poorly, you risk making things worse.

Want better results? Here’s my advice to help you plan your agency’s next All-Hands meeting!

We’ll look at timing, location (including remote vs. in-person), agenda, prep, followups, and more.

When, where, and how often?

As I shared in Part 1, I recommend doing All-Hands meetings on a quarterly basis. Beyond that, though, you have plenty of options—let’s review!

How often should we do an All-Hands meeting?

I recommend a quarterly cadence for your All-Hands meetings. This matches your financial reporting, and there’s enough time between meetings that you’ll make progress on strategic initiatives.

Small agencies often do monthly All-Hands meetings, although that cadence tends not to scale as you grow. (Imagine gathering 10 people vs. 100 people, every single month.)

If you’re considering monthly, weigh your agency’s ROI on time. You’re interrupting 100% of your employees for 2+ hours—are you and your employees seeing consistent value from monthly meetings? If not, switch to quarterly.

When in the quarter should we meet?

Allow enough buffer to close-out your financials from the past quarter. For most agencies, this is about two weeks after quarter-end—but speak with your finance team to confirm what makes sense for your company.

If you’re on a calendar fiscal year (January to December), that means:

  • Q1 meeting: Mid-April
  • Q2 meeting: Mid-July
  • Q3 meeting: Mid-October
  • Q4 meeting: Mid-January

Be sure to pre-schedule your meetings for the year, to ensure that people don’t book vacation time when you need them at the All-Hands.

Should we ever do a special All-Hands meeting?

Got big news to share, whether good or bad? It’s probably time to call a special All-Hands meeting. Here are some examples of situations where that might apply:

  • You’ve sold the agency to another company.
  • You’re doing layoffs that impact that a significant number or percentage of your employees (10% or more, typically).
  • You’re moving to a new office location, or closing one of your current offices.
  • You’ve lost a big client, or a series of sizable clients in a short period of time (20% or more of your business, typically).

Need to share bad news in particular? Remember that “bad” is sometimes relative—it’s primarily in the eye of the beholder. See my Part 3 article, for tips on how to share bad news.

How long should an All-Hands meeting last?

No one loves long meetings. I recommend capping your All-Hands meeting length at two hours… but 90 minutes is better. Be sure you leave enough time for people to grab food, Q&A, etc. (More on agenda advice below.)

Where should we hold our All-Hands meeting? Is remote OK?

Remote-first agencies tend to meet via their usual video conferencing tools. In-person agencies typically hold their All-Hands in their largest space in the office, even if it means bringing in temporary chairs.

If you have teams split across 2+ primary offices, you’ll need to weigh where you’ll present from. I recommend doing annual meetings in-person, but you may not want to do that every quarter.

Should you hold the All-Hands meeting off-site? Maybe, if you need the space. But that tends to make the meeting more of a production—both to organize and to get everyone to and from the outside venue.

Who does what?

Speaking of people… let’s look at which people do what!

Which team members should attend?

All-Hands means… all hands. Plan to include 100% of your employees. If you don’t have everyone, you erode the value of the meeting.

What about exceptions for people who are away? Well…

  • This is why you reserve the quarterly meeting spot in advance, so that people don’t go on vacation or PTO during the All-Hands.
  • If someone’s in the hospital, of course, that’s beyond your control. Their manager should update them when they return to work. (The All-Hands might be a good time to get a team video wishing them well.)
  • If someone needs to answer the phone during the meeting, position them so they can step out occasionally if needed. But odds are the rest of your clients can wait two hours.

Set the expectation that the All-Hands is mandatory… and remind people heading into the meeting that you expect them to join.

What about including contractors?

So you’ll include 100% of your employees—but what about contractors? I recommend including contractors if they’re a key part of the team.

  • If a contractor regularly works on-site at your agency, or consistently does 10-15 hours a week of work, I recommend including them in the All-Hands meeting.
  • If a freelancer does occasional small projects a couple times a year… they probably don’t need to be at the All-Hands.

And pay them for their time—your agency is benefiting from their presence, both in terms of unity and in terms of them being on the same page with everyone else.

Now, let’s look at who’s organizing the All-Hands.

Who should organize an All-Hands meeting?

As the owner, you’re likely the lead on organizing the meeting—but you don’t have to do it alone. If you have business partners, they’ll be involved, too.

Recruit someone from operations to “own” the logistics. They might be your Executive Assistant, Operations Manager, or Director of Operations. There are lots of details; get a details person on that, so you can focus primarily on the big picture. (Their job likely also includes gathering data for you… and then bugging you ’til you finish the pieces that only you can do.)

Which people should present at an All-Hands meeting?

The agency’s CEO or Managing Partner is typically the primary presenter. Other members of the executive team may join for their specialty (e.g., the CFO or Finance Director on the numbers, the VP of Business Development on marketing and sales stats, the head of HR on recruiting, etc.).

Consider ways to make your All-Hands less of a one-way monologue. One option is to have non-managers present updates of initiatives they’ve been working on that impact the larger agency (perhaps with some coaching on what makes it impactful, rather than focusing on the nuts-and-bolts).

Should we do Q&A during the meeting?

Yes, I strongly believe you should do Q&A during your All-Hands meeting. Don’t miss this important opportunity to create a dialogue.

Although you should pre-answer the most likely questions, Q&A is an opportunity to clear-up misunderstandings. It’s also a chance to see where you were unclear, or where employees are perceiving implications that you hadn’t considered.

Not good at answering questions on the spot? Consider taking improv comedy training; I’ve found it’s helpful off-stage, too.

Q&A is especially tough if you’re sharing bad news—so check out my Part 3 article, on how to deliver bad news to your employees.

Should you hire an outside facilitator?

You might be tempted, but I don’t recommend hiring an outside facilitator. Why? Because as the owner, your employees need to hear key updates from you (and your executive team), not an outside intermediary.

An outside facilitator may be helpful if you’re leading a retreat, a brainstorming meeting, or a “workshopping” session. But you shouldn’t need them for your quarterly All-Hands updates.

What’s important about planning an agency All-Hands meeting?

Let’s dig deeper on logistics! Be sure to share this series of articles with your executive team and others who are helping you make the All-Hands meeting happen. They’ll likely think of other ways to help… and can help you head off unique-to-you problems.

How soon should we start planning the All-Hands?

Your lead time depends on the nature of what you’re sharing. For example:

  • Routine Updates: For routine updates, you’re fine to start 2-3 weeks in advance. If you need to coordinate updates across a large executive team, you might need more time—but your leaders shouldn’t be surprised, since this is part of their quarterly process.
  • Ongoing Bad News: I’d start planning sooner when you know it’s bad—start at least a month in advance. Why? Because you need to share solutions to how you’re going to solve the problem, and those take time to develop. But don’t let things go too long… the rumor mill is churning.
  • Sudden Bad News: You’ll have less time—you may need to present within a few days or less. In the case of an emergency All-Hands meeting, you’ll likely focus on one key area rather than present a broad update. I’m sorry; do the best you can. (More on sharing bad news in Part 3.)
  • Corporate Transitions: You’re announcing that you’ve sold the agency? This is part of a much bigger employee communications plan—start at least six months in advance.

Beyond the timeline for planning your All-Hands meetings, let’s look at what exactly you’re planning.

Where should we start in our planning?

Start by considering your goals—what do you want to achieve in the upcoming All-Hands meeting? Then work backwards from there.

For most agency leaders, the All-Hands is about communicating a message. Sometimes that message is “We’re doing well; here’s what’s next.” Other times, the message is, “We’re struggling in these areas; here’s our plan, and here’s where we need your help.”

A client was planning an All-Hands meeting earlier this year, to update his team on a strategic initiative that’s seen mixed results—nothing terrible, but some of the things they’ve tried just haven’t worked.

Here’s the three-step messaging exercise I recommended to organizing the planning process, after you’ve nailed down your overall goals:

  1. Consolidate your key message(s) into what you’d share if you had less than 5 minutes for the entire team-facing meeting.
  2. Once you have that list, consider the audience: Have you conveyed all of that in the longer meeting’s agenda?
  3. If not, or it’s unclear, or it’s buried—fix that in the main agenda. Then use the quick version as the intro to the meeting—and as the conclusion, if things haven’t changed during the meeting.

Let’s look at other planning, too.

What should we do before the All-Hands meeting?

Beforehand, you have a mix of messaging and logistics. For example:

  • Reserve the date on the calendar.
  • Based on your All-Hands meeting goals, create the initial agenda.
  • Get inputs from other team members.
  • Review key details, like who’s ordering refreshments and who’s the “day of” logistics lead.
  • Remind employees about the date, and what (if anything) they need to do to prepare.
  • Creates slides to support your verbal presentation.
  • Create (and print) relevant handouts or other “takeaway” docs.
  • Pre-brief your executive and management team on what to expect from the meeting, so they can reinforce your message to their subordinates.
  • Coordinate on followups from the meeting.

Speaking of handouts…

Should there be a handout or other leave-behind?

I recommend having handouts, to help you control the narrative. If you skip the handout, people will only retain what they remember or what they wrote down… and that may not be accurate. And it’s likely not the key takeaways you wanted to them to remember.

Handouts also help you organize your thoughts, since you [generally] don’t want to give people a 20-page handout each quarter.

Some companies avoid handouts, because they don’t want written records that employees could share with competitors. If that’s your biggest concern, you need to improve your hiring process… and fix the underlying morale problem.

Once you sort that out, don’t forget to prepare for after the All-Hands. Specifically…

What should we do after the All-Hands meeting?

Followups will depend on your meeting goals and agency size. For example:

  • Ask department heads to hold followup meetings with their team, to discuss department-level implications of what everyone heard at the All-Hands.
  • Ask employees for their reaction to what you shared at the All-Hands meeting.
  • Share any followup updates, on topics that required an agency-wide status update.
  • Ensure people “own” their actionables from the All-Hands meeting.
  • Review your internal morale survey results after the meeting, to see if scores went up or down (and to see if there are any relevant verbatims).
  • Do a debrief with your executive team (and your assistant or other meeting lead), to review lessons-learned for next time.
  • Breath a sigh of relief… and then work on the things you promised in the All-Hands meeting.

Let’s take a closer look at the agenda and other content planning, since that’s a core part of the meeting experience for your employees.

What about the agenda and other content?

You’ll need to customize the content to your agency’s culture, but here are points to get your started!

What should we cover during the All-Hands meeting?

When you present, remind your team about Mission, Vision, and Values (M/V/V). Most agencies tend to under-communicate about the M/V/V trio; if it feels like you’re over-communicating it, you’re probably doing it just the right amount.

At my recent all-hands team retreat, I prefaced with some key points to frame things—our positive impact on agency owners, agency employees, and agencies as a whole in 32 countries; client kudos we’ve received; and my personal kudos for each person at the retreat.

After the intro framing, we did dinner—and then the next day, I shared my goals for the day, then the business update.

When your team has context, they can better support you. Give them the context, instead of requiring them to fill in the gaps by trying to read your mind.

What should your All-Hands agenda look like?

The agenda should match your agenda’s culture and norms, but consider this basic agenda flow:

  1. Grab food from the breakfast or lunch buffet.
  2. Solicit kudos for employees demonstrating your culture.
  3. Recap on your Mission, Vision, and Values (M/V/V).
  4. Review updates on key metrics, including financials.
  5. Discuss progress on current and upcoming strategic initiatives, including where you need the team’s help.
  6. Do a Question & Answer (Q&A) session, keeping the floor open longer to allow shy employees to chime in.
  7. Review key actionables on next steps; remind employees that most of the content today is confidential within the company.
  8. Remind everyone about the next All-Hands date.
  9. Adjourn!
  10. Stick around afterwards for people who didn’t want to ask their question in front of their coworkers.

Speaking of refreshments…

Should we have food and drinks?

Yes, I recommend having food and drinks at your All-Hands. Why? Doing the meeting during a mealtime (typically lunch; sometimes breakfast) helps you reduce non-billable time. But when you hold a mandatory meeting during a mealtime, you’re morally obligated to provide food.

The food also makes the event more fun. Be sure to consider dietary restrictions, rather than just ordering your own favorite foods.

I’d avoid alcohol, because this isn’t a party. Besides, you shouldn’t be doing an evening All-Hands anyway, since employees won’t be happy that you unnecessarily kept them from their families.

Speaking of alcohol, let’s look at how to prevent common problems…

How to prevent common All-Hands problems

Want better results? Follow these tips to avoid common problems at your All-Hands meeting!

  1. Remember that the meeting is primarily for your employees—don’t make the meeting all about you as the owner.
  2. Take the time to reiterate basic topics (like Mission, Vision, and Values), since core topics bear repeating.
  3. Anticipate likely questions, so you are less likely to be surprised or put on-the-spot.
  4. Apart from asking the group for kudos about their coworkers, don’t put individual employees on the spot.
  5. Don’t skip Q&A; even if you don’t get many questions, skipping Q&A makes it look like you’re hiding something.
  6. Start preparing sooner when you have bad news to share, so you have time to share pending solutions.
  7. Prepare your executive team and department directors for the questions they’re likely to get afterwards, to ensure they’re on the same page with your message.
  8. Do a debrief with your leadership team—every time—on how you can make the All-Hands better next quarter.

Concerned you need to share bad news at your next All-Hands? I’m sorry that’s the case—but read on for help next week!

Further Reading: How to Share Bad News at Your All-Hands

Need to deliver bad news at the All-Hands meeting? See my Part 3 article, on how to navigate that difficult situation.

Question: Looking ahead, what will you change about your All-Hands meeting planning?

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