November 23, 2014

In the years following the stock market crash of 1929 and during the course of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a series of radio addresses that became known as “fireside chats.” The goals of these chats were to inform and convince the American public about various concerns of the day, new government policies and the direction of the country during an extremely difficult period of history. After Roosevelt, the radio addresses were not as prevalent or frequent until 1982 when Ronald Reagan began the longstanding practice of a weekly Presidential radio address that is continued today.

The history lesson is an important reminder, but it isn’t the moral of the story. What is the goal of a radio address or fireside chat? It was a time for everyone (with access to a radio) to listen directly to the President discussing the topics of the day. An open and candid conversation1 with all interested parties. We can apply this same concept to the way we work with our teams and in our company.

Several times per year, and usually in 8-10 week intervals, we gather the entire company — in-person and over video chat — to participate in company-wide fireside chats. In larger companies I’ve worked with in the past, these events are labeled as ‘all-hands’ meetings, ‘town halls’ or some other corporate name. We use the term fireside chats. We put a digital fireplace up on the television and talk about everything important to the company.

The content and direction of these chats vary. Often times, there is a new direction in the company, a new venture, a new major client or just some big news. These chats are more one-sided as we explore the vision and ideas behind a new direction. Other times, the chats are a conversation. We’ll email the team a list of questions or topics a few days before the chat, and open it up to the floor. Company news, updates and general questions often follow regardless of the opening format.

The importance of the fireside chats can’t be underestimated. We’re all incredibly busy. We’re building a business, growing steadily and forging ahead into new territories daily. The chats give us a time to — even for a few hours — work on the business instead of always working in the business. Or, put differently, we’re working on our company rather than working on our business.

Working in the business is easy: we plan, design, develop, measure and iterate on software. This is what everyone in the company is good at. This is why we’re here. There are millions of tiny details we can choose to focus on every day. We can busy ourselves with these details and get lost in their mix incredibly easy. If we’re not careful, we wake up months (or years) later and wonder why our business is where it is. It is incredibly difficult to focus on the big picture, and overall company direction when we’re in the weeds.

By focusing during the fireside chats, and the preparation in advance, we force ourselves to focus on where the company is going. Where do we want to be? Can we clearly articulate to ourselves and the entire team what our goals are? What defines success for our business? How do we align everyone with a common goal and direction so we can achieve success?

Yes, these are all-hands meetings. Yes, they take up precious time when we could be building software. That’s exactly the point. If we don’t know what we’re building towards, what things are the most important and what defines success then we’re not aligned and moving towards a consistent vision as a company.

Comparing the day-to-day operations of a small business to the country’s economy as a whole during the Great Depression can be seen as a bit of a stretch. However, it does illustrate the extreme ends of the challenge of unity, alignment and belief in a common goal. Clear articulation of vision, open-communication and focusing ourselves on the bigger picture aren’t lofty goals. Whether it be for a business or an entire country, when we’re working together on a consistent vision, the future is brighter for us all.

  1. “Conversation” is a stretch. These were one-sided radio addresses. ↩︎