06/08/2012 10:31 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

About Leadership: Town Hall

If you have a few hundred people working for you, they want to know what is happening in the company, and, periodically, they want to hear it directly from the boss. For this, there is no substitute for a town hall meeting. Saying this I especially mean that sending out an email telling them what is happening is not a substitute. You can send emails to everyone from time to time, and they do communicate facts, but they don't give context, passion, optimism, or any other emotion. They just don't.

So from time to time -- and it does not have to be on any sort of a regular schedule -- the boss needs to invite everyone to some gathering place, stand up in front, and talk about what is going on. Then he or she has to take questions, pretty much as many questions as there are for as long as people are interested.

Now, having said that it should be done, must be done, how can you do it so that it is really effective? For me, there is only one key to this. You have to communicate what the company wants the employees to know, and at the same time be frank and open with them. In BP, at times of change (and most times are times of change, but special changes, for example a merger, a change in how the company is being organized, a new approach to spending, etc) senior leadership usually agree a set of key messages, making these available as slides to those who need to communicate them broadly across the company.

All well and good. But if you just stand up there and read those slides you have zero credibility with the troops. Any leader worth his position will take the messages on the slides, internalize them, contextualise them, and be able to put them across in his own words. He will know what are the things that are really important to his business or division, and what, if left out or not emphasised, will not be critical. Sometimes it is really useful to use the slides provided, and sometimes it is best if they never see the light of day.

I think that using such centrally provided slides probably follows the same rule as other use of slides (see my earlier column 'The Use and Abuse of Power Point') -- if they convey something more effectively than you can do with your own words, for example a chart or a map or some key numbers, then use them. If you are speaking in English before a group of employees whose first language is not English, use the slides. But otherwise, best to talk rather than show some low information Power Point presentation, especially one that you did not prepare yourself.

Critically, you need to put your own self into what you say. You need to know when a little cynicism is required, and when some passion behind a new policy is critical to show people that you are personally committed to it. If you always come across as gung ho about everything that comes from above, you will not have much credibility with the staff. But if you are too cynical, too much of 'we've heard this all before,' then you are doing your company and yourself a disservice. Probably you should be moving on to another employer.

This combination of passion and critical comment is a very carefully prepared mixture, and one that takes practice. It needs thought, and for many leaders, at least until sensibilities are finely honed, it suggests that there needs to be someone to bounce ideas off before holding the town hall. In my own experience, I always tried to have a first rate HR person, who was in touch with what was on the minds of the staff, and knew my strengths and weaknesses, with whom I could spend time discussing the town hall, and what messages I needed to get across, in advance of the day.

Questions, and their answers, are crucial of course. Employees are great at probing, if they think you are not really convinced of a point or not supportive of company position. They are also great at sitting with their mouths firmly shut if they think they will not get a straight answer, or, worse, if they fear reprisal for asking a difficult question. But the boss who can take questions, answer them in a manner that conveys openness and honesty, with occasional use of humour, without pandering to points that she fundamentally disagrees with, but always with conviction, will learn a lot from a town hall meeting.

Like everything else in this book, conducting a town hall meeting is a skill. It has to be practiced, and you have to be severely self-critical of your own performance. This may only happen two or three times a year in a substantial line job, maybe more often in times of crisis or great change, but everyone who has significant line accountability needs to become proficient at town hall meetings.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?