The CEO in the Hot Seat: Why I Recommend Getting Grilled by Your Employees (and the Best Way to Do It)
It’s 4:30pm on a Thursday, and everyone is staring at me, full of questions. These monthly “Ask Brad Anything” sessions at Animoto have gotten easier, but they’re never easy. They are, however, necessary, and a big part of our culture. For the next 30 minutes, I’m going to answer whatever the team asks.
How’d these Q&As start?
Four years ago, Animoto was experiencing some tension and unrest. Rather than let that unrest continue, I decided to talk it out. The idea behind the Q&As was to give our teams a release valve — a simple way to address whatever was bothering them. There was no guarantee that I could fix it right away, but I wanted them to know I was listening.
The first few sessions were brutal. There was a whole lot of built-up tension. Several teams hadn’t felt comfortable going to their managers with problems, or believed that their concerns weren’t being taken seriously. I got slammed with tough questions.
But after two or three Q&As, it stopped being so difficult. The questions lightened up, and morale improved. Sure, there were still hard questions, but the tone had changed. It wasn’t frustrated employees demanding answers from their CEO — it was team members, trying to really understand so they could be part of the solution.
Why Q&As work
It’s not enough to put yourself in the hot seat once a month. For Q&A sessions to work, you need a healthy dose of transparency and vulnerability. Your team has to know that they’re valued and that you’re invested in them, and that we all will succeed or fail together, as a team. When done correctly, Q&As are transformative.
Here’s what Animoto got out of it:
Our teams felt listened to
The Q&As showed our team that I was listening to what they had to say and taking their concerns seriously. It also let them have a voice in Animoto, which in turn made them feel more connected to the company and invested in its success.
The feedback helped me improve
Q&As aren’t just a chance to vent. The people asking these questions are the same professionals who work every day to make Animoto successful. They write the code. They work hands-on with customers. They do all the groundwork. So their questions are good ones. And answering those questions has made me a better CEO.
Through the Q&As, I learn what isn’t clear in our strategy, and that in turn forces me to be a better communicator. People process information in different ways, and the Q&As allow me to try different approaches in a casual setting in order to make sure the whole team is on board.
In addition, these Q&As became an amazing resource. The Animoto team often has great ideas for how to make our company better, and I leave these sessions with new ideas that help shape where Animoto’s headed.
It’s about creating trust
Putting yourself in front of your team isn’t just about getting your team to trust you, it’s about showing you trust them. By making yourself vulnerable in front of them, you make it crystal clear that you trust both their opinions and their professionalism.
It’s also evident in the way you answer their questions. At Animoto, I answer every question honestly and directly. This shows that I’m open to hearing what they have to say and not afraid to tell them exactly what’s going on.
How you can start your own Q&As
Once you’ve decided to do it, there isn’t much to running a Q&A. Here’s my method for running a successful session.
Set the ground rules
Before I host a Q&A, I always spend time getting ready. The prep work only takes a few minutes:
- Share what’s going on: To make sure all your teams participate, send out an email inviting the whole company to attend. In the email, describe what will be happening and when, along with providing a way for team members to submit questions. Speaking of which…
- Create an anonymous submission form: You’re asking for information that may be difficult for your team to share. Letting team members post anonymously offers them a safe space for expressing themselves without worrying about potential repercussions. For my Q&As, I use a simple anonymous Google form, pictured below, to get input. I send the form out with my initial email to ensure it’s shared far enough in advance that anyone who has something on their mind can reach out before the Q&A starts.
- Schedule for maximum attendance: Look for a time when everyone is relatively free to participate in your Q&A. At Animoto, I believe it’s important to get remote team members involved, so I add a WebEx link to the calendar so they can tune in.
- Prep your questions. I try not to spend too much time getting ready for my Q&As — I’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit. But for now, here’s what I suggest you do to get ready:
- Read over each question once: If you spend a minute processing each question, you’re not caught totally off guard by unexpected queries.
- Group similar questions together: This both prevents repetition and makes it easier to see when a certain question is on the minds of several team members.
- Check for sensitive content: Sometimes questions may not be appropriate for a broader Q&A setting. If that’s the case, set out exactly how team members with this type of question can reach out to discuss their matter privately.
During the Q&A
While you’re in the hot seat, there are a few things you can do to make sure the meeting is a success:
- Answer all the questions: In Animoto’s Q&As, I do my best to read all the questions word for word and answer everything, so long as the questions don’t involve an identifiable co-worker. When I’m done, I always open the floor to any additional questions at the end, though obviously any questions at this point won’t be anonymous. Answering every question is part of the trust-building element of Q&As. Your team needs to know you won’t just skip over the hard ones.
- Be honest and spontaneous: When I first started “Ask Brad Anything,” I’d try to wordsmith answers. Then one day I was running behind and had to wing it. The feedback from that session was the best I had ever received. I realized that being less practiced made me more authentic and open, so now I make a conscious effort not to over prepare.
- Be open to criticism. Just like you, your team wants to make the company stronger. Take their input in the spirit it’s offered. Often the hardest questions are the ones you need to hear the most. Here are some of the hardest questions I got when I first started running Q&As. Coming up with answers for them made me a better CEO and Animoto a better company.
- Be open to questions that are strange or silly. I’ve been asked some truly bizarre questions in the four years I’ve been doing Q&As, and this is great. People don’t joke with you unless they trust you. The informality and goofiness of some of these questions shows that members of the Animoto team want to engage and be a part of our unique company culture.
- Don’t give up, and follow through. It may take a while to see the change you want, but if you’re committed to the process and follow through, things will change. Q&As are only the first step. They show your team that you want to make things better, and you’re willing to go to the efforts necessary to do that. Treat Q&As as a launching off point for potential improvements, and over time you’ll build up critical trust and confidence to strengthen your company.
You may be asking, do these Q&As ever get entirely comfortable? In short, no, they don’t. I’ll admit, I still get a little nervous during each and every “Ask Brad Anything”, and squirm a little bit on the hot seat when I get hit by a hard question. But to me that’s a good thing!
These Q&A sessions are important; my discomfort is just a sign that I treat the process with the proper respect. And giving that respect to my company and our team members has given me more than a few minutes of discomfort could ever take away.