Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on November 2, 2020.
Leaders need an effective way to communicate the mission, vision and the goals of the company to their employees, the role employees play in achieving them, and the state of the business. Employees need the opportunity to communicate with the company’s leaders, asking questions about various aspects of the company’s operations and providing feedback to those leaders.
As chief operating officer of PQ Corporation, the CEO and I found that one of the most effective ways of enabling two-way communication was through periodic town meetings with small groups of employees, both at corporate headquarters and at our manufacturing plants.
Town meetings would consist of 10 – 20 employees sitting in a circle. We would open the meeting by providing an update on how our businesses were doing, the status of new product and market growth initiatives, technology developments and competitive challenges. We would talk about the improvement initiatives undertaken by our employees, many of whom may have been sitting in the room, thanking them for their efforts. We would then invite employees to ask questions and share anything they would like to talk about.
Town meetings were an opportunity for employees to share the results of improvement projects they had undertaken. We encouraged employees to initiate these projects within their area of responsibility and provided them with the resources to do so.
I recall presenting the newly developed mission and vision for our company along with the markets in which we expected to grow to the employees of the industrial chemicals division. The markets served by the division were mature, but generated significant cash flow for the company. I told the division’s employees that their job was to generate cash that could be invested in the company’s specialty chemical growth areas. One employee commented it was the first time in his long tenure with the company that he was told what was expected from the division.
I recall one town meeting at our Jeffersonville, Indiana plant attended by the general manager for a product produced at the plant. He shared with the plant employees an initiative to assume the management of the rail car fleet that delivered product to a large customer to improve rail car utilization.
The hourly employee whose job it was to load the rail cars strongly advised against taking on that responsibility due to issues with repairing the cars, which would have required additional resources to manage. He said the customer currently had the responsibility to manage the rail car fleet and was doing an effective job overseeing the repair of the cars.
As I watched the general manager and the hourly employee discuss the issue, I regret not recording the exchange. It was the perfect reason for holding town meetings where views on an issue could be discussed between a corporate executive and an employee on the front lines serving a customer.
I recall another town meeting at our Augusta, Georgia plant, discussing the categories of capital projects we would undertake at our plants. These included projects for repair and maintenance, health, safety and environmental protection, profit improvement and projects to add capacity to grow our existing business and to manufacture a new product. I told the attendees that repair and maintenance, as well as health, safety and environmental protection projects do not require a return on investment, but the other types of projects would.
One of the hourly employees asked if we used the internal rate of return method to calculate the return on profit improvement projects and what the IRR threshold was for a project to be approved. We then learned that he was going to school part-time to earn his bachelor’s degree in business. That day, all of the attendees of the town meeting received an education on how capital projects were justified by the company.
During our town meetings, employees criticized the company for losing business to a competitor for not meeting a lower price, asked why some employees were in the bonus program and others weren’t, why the profit sharing program wasn’t more generous, and why the company was investing to grow some businesses but not theirs. We looked forward to addressing these types of questions. Without town meetings, we would be unable to do so.
Town meetings are a great opportunity for management and employees to communicate with each other on a host of issues and learn from each other. I would encourage all leaders to conduct town meetings with their employees.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.