M.I.N.M.: The Stairwell Meeting
Who: Stan Richards, founder, the Richards Group
Players: All 400-plus employees
Frequency: "Every couple of weeks."
Purpose: "To share critical news and to generate the electricity of a small-company gathering."
Why I never miss it: "It beats the heck out of putting out an internal newsletter."
Twelve years ago, when The Richards Group, an ad agency based in Dallas, got big enough to take over a second floor in the building in which it was then based, founder Stan Richards, 66, got worried that something special would get lost. "Everything changes when you move to multiple floors," he says. "People become tribal. Communication becomes more formal — and less effective."
So Richards began convening regular meetings in a stairwell that connected the two floors. The idea: to gather everyone to hear news straight from the founder. Today those meetings seem downright quaint. The firm, one of the largest individually owned ad agencies in the United States, employs more than 400 people; its clients include Nokia and the Home Depot; and its office space now occupies four and a half floors.
But the Stairwell Meetings continue. They are part of a strategy to maintain the spirit of small-company communication inside a fast-growing outfit. "Agencies can be hotbeds of paranoia," says Richards. "The best way to combat that tendency is simply not to keep secrets from each other."
Radical inclusivity. "Being together is the key — all of us hearing something at exactly the same time. The event that brings us together varies. Another key point: Meeting in the staircase lets us be a little theatrical. Once, when we were courting an airline client, we even dropped oxygen masks from the fourth floor."
Spontaneity. "I'll call a meeting within 15 minutes of receiving information. People should hear good news — or bad news — right away."
The stairwell, naturally. "When we had our new space designed a few years ago, we made sure that the stairwell extended to every floor and that it was right in the center of the office. It's become the focal point of our workplace."
"If I call a meeting, we announce it over the loudspeaker, and people gather in the stairwell. I usually stand on the second level, so that everyone can hear me. We try to keep it short: I announce the news and offer a brief explanation. Then I might answer a question or two.
"But this is not an occasion for group analysis or deep discussion. It's all about communication, pure and simple."
A version of this article appeared in the April 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.