Townhall meetings. Ask-me-anything sessions. The old-fashioned suggestion box. CEOs have lots of options for keeping in touch with their ever-growing ranks of employees. The trouble is that most of them aren't that great.
When we were small (i.e. two-pizza–sized, in Bezos parlance), communicating was easy. If I needed to share news, I just stood up and made an announcement. As we got bigger, growing to hundreds of employees, we started doing town halls, inviting everyone to attend a once-a-quarter meeting.
That was fine for a time, but they were challenging to plan and too infrequent. And with so many people in attendance, not everyone could participate. I felt like our employees needed to be able to send me questions more regularly, so I started an anonymous email suggestion box. That lasted for a little while, too. But as Hootsuite grew to nearly 1,000 employees, suggestions and questions came in faster and faster. I just couldn’t keep up, and important issues went unaddressed.
So I started hunting for a different way to connect with my teams—something that didn't feel too distant and remote but also wouldn't consume more time and resources than I genuinely had to offer. Here's where that search led me.
These limitations of our past experience were top of mind as I set out to look for an alternative. Incidentally, this was around the same time that my employees told me in a company-wide survey that I wasn’t accessible enough on a day-to-day basis. As CEO of a social media company—which prides itself on open communication—this was a concern.
My priorities were pretty straightforward: I needed a way to interact each week with every member of my company, all around the world. The time commitment on my side needed to be minimal. I couldn’t afford to spend hours prepping updates. I wanted a way to share breaking company news, solicit and respond to feedback, and provide transparency into the business. Finally, this had to be something I could do from anywhere, since my schedule often requires travel.
Sounds like it should've been pretty easy right? It wasn't. I first considered a weekly newsletter, but it felt so 2002—impersonal and old-fashioned. Then I thought about holding a weekly video meeting or webinar with the entire company. But live video-conferencing tools like Google Hangouts or GoToMeeting aren’t always equipped to handle hundreds of users in a really interactive way.
I was about to give the old-school conference line a shot when I had a "random coffee" (part of a new program of informal 'blind' chats we've started doing throughout the company) with Amelia Strother, a training consultant here who mentioned that an ex-boss of hers used to send around video updates to keep his team in the loop. We’re all carrying a great video camera around in our pockets in the form of our smartphones, so I resolved to give it a shot.
The last hurdle, though, was distribution: The obvious choice would've been to email the video as an attachment or share it on Google Drive or a similar service. But I wanted something interactive. We’ve been trying out Facebook at Work (which is like Facebook but for internal company use), so I decided to try posting there to see what kind of engagement I’d get. Ideally, employees would watch, comment, and share. Or it might just flop completely and get lost like so much else in my team members' Facebook news feeds.
I’ve been at it for four months now. Here’s what I’ve learned and some ideas on how this approach could be adapted to companies of any size.
Let me get one thing straight from the start: These videos aren’t works of art—and that’s by design. Professional video is extraordinarily time consuming and expensive. You have to think about sound, lighting, and scripts. There are multiple takes and then endless rounds of editing. In the end, a 30-second spot can take a week to produce.
So I just did away with all that. I shoot my videos selfie-style on my iPhone. I give myself one take to get them right—no cuts or edits. If I fumble, I generally just regroup and keep going. In the end, I think the low production value actually adds an element of transparency and authenticity—I’m not hiding behind anything polished up in "post-production."
Having said that, I try not to just deliver a stream-of-consciousness ramble. After some trial and error, I’ve settled on a pretty standard format for each video:
- a brief hello and intro
- a quick rundown of major company successes across different departments
- a moment to share what’s top-of-mind for me this week
- and then a final segment where I respond to a few user-submitted questions
Behind the scenes, a little bit of prep makes it easy to pull together these scripts in just a few minutes. Department heads dump major updates into a spreadsheet each week. Employees share questions anonymously through (yes) an email suggestion box. And I have a teleprompter app on my phone that scrolls through all this as I record. All told, the video lasts about 10 minutes. And the entire prep and production process now takes me about one hour flat.
Sounds great, but is it actually working?
Well, for what it's worth, just hours after I posted my initial video, it had been viewed by Hootsuite employees nearly 1,000 times. They could just as easily have ignored it. But instead, not only were they watching, they were also engaging with the content. I got feedback on everything from our plans to launch a company podcast to new sales initiatives—and these comments themselves generated their own discussions. Interestingly, I noticed lots of people who wouldn’t normally chime in at an all-hands meeting were leaving notes.
In the months ahead, I kept up a regular routine of one, roughly 10-minute-long video each week. I’ve shot videos from hotel rooms, the front seat of a car, a park bench, my office, and other places—really wherever I can squeeze in a few minutes of uninterrupted time. Here’s a (very short) clip from the start of a video I took from my Vancouver office, if you’re curious:
Encouragingly, viewership has remained pretty steady (Facebook includes a handy counter below the video), and comments continue to flow in each week.
Most important, it feels like people are more connected than before. The video serves as a kind of real-time window into the challenges and triumphs of everyone from the customer success team to the sales squad and the engineers working behind-the-scenes.
Again, this is nothing that an in-person meeting couldn’t accomplish. But I've found it's a habit I can keep up each week with only an hour's worth of prep, and it elicits a better response than any of the alternatives I've tried.
This approach isn’t for everyone, though. For starters, you need to fully trust your team members for this to work. I’m speaking off-the-cuff, often about sensitive company issues, and it's all being recorded.
You also have to be okay with a certain amount of vulnerability. If you’re the kind of leader who prefers each and every remark be vetted by your legal team, or if you insist on projecting a perfect, polished image, then selfie-style iPhone vids probably aren’t the way to go. Plus, it helps if you can put your ego aside, because the lighting and camera angles aren’t going to be flattering all the time. Your employees are getting the real you—double chins and all.
Then there’s the accountability factor. When you poll employees on what issues you need to address and post the results publicly, you’re going to face some challenging questions. I’ve been asked about everything from employee satisfaction to whether we’re meeting growth targets and why we had to let people go. But it’s better to get these issues out in the open—and start working toward solutions—than to pretend they don’t exist.
Of course, these exact same limitations—vulnerability, transparency, accountability—can represent huge virtues. Many of your employees have grown up in a culture of living out loud on social media (and in Hootsuite's case, now they work for a company that's based around social). So sharing real, personal experiences—unfiltered and unedited—is pretty normal and expected. It’s the sanitized corporate stuff, by contrast, that generates suspicion and alienates team members.
Nor do I think these are just millennial attitudes; we’d all prefer straight talk over spin, especially when it concerns something as personal as our jobs. And for now, anyway, these quick smartphone videos are the best way I've found to deliver that.