Two-way communication Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Don McKenzie has more than 600 employees in four offices and he spends a third of his time with customers. He’s learned the time you have in front of employees is valuable for clear and concise conversation.

“I think in today’s economic environment and today’s marketplace, having that level of very clear communication is critical,” says McKenzie, president and CEO of Direct Group, a direct marketing solutions provider.

You have to set a tone based on facts and the current marketplace. And you have to find an effective format to get your message to all employees.

McKenzie uses town-hall meetings to do just that. He tries to reach his employees quarterly, if not more, to keep a pulse on the organization and receive pertinent feedback.

The important aspects of a town-hall meeting are involving all employees in the conversation and making it just that, a conversation.

Smart Business spoke with McKenzie about how to use town-hall meetings for your benefit and the benefit of your employees.

Make yourself visible. It’s very important for CEOs today, and in the future, to be very visible, to be articulating the company’s mission, to articulate the company’s strategy, not only to their employee base but also to clients and vendors.

(You do that by) getting out of your office. I have a lot of town-hall meetings. Some of the town-hall sessions could have 10 or 15 employees, (or they) could have 20 to 25, but really no more than 20 to 25.

You want them to be more intimate. You want a good give-and-take dialogue so that way you’re articulating what’s going on in the business, both the opportunities and the challenges. You’re asking questions, and you’re asking for candid feedback, not just all good news but what are some of the challenges.

I think town-hall meetings are better to do in person than via video or telephone conference. The right way, I think, is to just be very visible, personally, and not only be a communicator but also be a very good listener and put that learning into practice.

Include everyone in the conversation. Everyone is invited. We do all employees, all shifts, all days, and we do it on their schedule. For example, we have town-hall meetings during the third shift. We make sure we’re meeting them on their shifts and not asking them to come in early or stay late.

We certainly want to have departments together. For example, there are certain questions and challenges that are relevant to customer service that might not be relevant to inventory. So we certainly want to have the town-hall meetings be tailored to the audience or the department or the division.

Then, we ask people to sign up for them. For example, if there’s 50 people in one department, then we’ll have a signup roster, and we’ll have several hours in a row of meetings so they can get to one or two or three or four depending upon their location.

Craft your message carefully. No. 1, executives should not underestimate the knowledge that employees have for their business.

No. 2, employees will see right through a sales pitch as opposed to a candid, clear, fact-based communication. In today’s world, you just need to be very candid, very clear, very concise, very fact-based.

... If you’re having cutbacks, you need to know that that’s on people’s minds every day. If you’re having salary cuts or if you’re having growth and you’re hiring, what does that mean?

It’s very important when you go into the town-hall meetings that you understand what’s on their mind, that you tailor your presentation to the audience of both what they would like to know about the business and what their concerns are, both corporately and individually. And make sure you address them, don’t dance around them.

The town-hall meetings are to do the best I can to update our team on what are the challenges we’re facing and the opportunities in both the economy and the industry.

Then ask for comments, feedback, advice, recommendations. These town-hall meetings can last an hour-plus. They’re meant to be a very two-way communication.

Outline expectations upfront. Every single meeting, I start the meeting off that this is a two-way conversation, that they can stop me at any time and ask a question. We can debate together. Someone might ask a question, have a complaint or a concern, and someone else might think the exact opposite. And so we certainly allow that conversation internally to be very open and very candid.

Set the tone at the beginning of every meeting that this is not a lecture presentation, this is a dialogue, this is a conversation we’re going to have together for the next half-hour, 45 minutes or hour depending on the schedules and subjects to be covered at that point.

Give employees time to be candid. It usually doesn’t happen the first meeting. People are usually trying to get a sense for the environment. ...

If they ask a question, and it might be a little different, how are they communicated with both during and after the meeting? It’s a process of developing trust and confidence.

I’m a firm believer that any question or any comment is fair with no reciprocity as long as it’s not a mean-spirited question — as an example, attacking a co-worker or criticizing a client. But if it’s a professional question that is asked in the right spirit, then they can ask any question, they can criticize anything about the company, and there will be no reciprocity toward them.

But that doesn’t happen in the first meeting. You’ve got to develop trust and develop a relationship. ... It happens over time that they become very effective formats for communicating two ways.

How to reach: Direct Group, (856) 241-9400 or