How to Lead a Year-End Staff Meeting

A few years ago, I was at a year-end staff meeting for a medium-sized company. There were probably five hundred people in attendance, and I had been invited to deliver a skill-building presentation for the group.

year-end staff meeting

The event was running for the bulk of the day, and it began with a keynote delivered by the CEO. The room was unusually low-energy for a group this size, because the group was at the end of an extremely challenging year for the company.

The CEO cast his eyes over his audience, and grimly delivered a message he clearly wished he didn’t have to give. “Well, I’m sure it’s not news to say it’s been a difficult year. The number of projects out there are a fraction of what they were just two years ago. Business is down. This year we’ve had to say goodbye to too many of our friends.”

From my vantage in the back of the room, I could see that the energy of the room went even lower. You could hear a pin drop, and I leaned forward, excited to hear how this guy was going to turn things around.

He proceeded: “Looking forward, the prospects don’t get any better. The number of projects we’re hearing about for next year are even fewer and farther between. So… that’s where we are today.”

I got pretty concerned at this point. He had taken the room to a pretty dark place — darker than I was comfortable with — and it was past time for him to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel.

And then he wrapped up. He thanked the crowd, and left the stage. The president of the company announced a ten minute break, and the crowd listlessly rose and startled mumbling to itself.

I was absolutely flabbergasted. This leader had had the perfect opportunity to give his challenged, tired audience a shot of energy, a glimmer of hope, and all he did was capture their despair and make it worse.

One of the biggest, most important things you have to realize about a year-end staff meeting is that it absolutely MUST create some motivation for the coming year. An event like this cannot just be a status meeting capturing the current situation that the company is in, especially if that situation is a bad one.

I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: Human beings are wired for stories. When a message comes our way and it’s structured like a story, we know what it means, and we know how to process it.

But when we receive a message that simply describes a single situation, particularly a bleak situation, all we can do is just wallow in it.

This is what this particular leader had done to his people. I could tell that his intention was to communicate his empathy for the difficult situation everyone felt they were in, and that was a good intention, but his plan was incomplete. And he was leaving his audience feeling incomplete. (I wished I had thought to offer our coaching services to everyone in the company who was going to be speaking at this event so that we could have helped ward off this problem before it happened, but hindsight is always 20/20, right?)

So I took it upon myself to supply what was missing. I was there to build some skills, so I decided to relate those skills to the context that the CEO had so thoroughly communicated.

I was on after the break was over, and, right out of the chute, I acknowledged what the CEO had talked about, the challenging situation the company was facing. Any lightness that might have crept into the audience from the break they had just had flickered out again.

And then I introduced a plan. “The situation out there might be dire, but this company can’t just rely on conditions being good for this company to do well. We can’t just hope that work comes to us. We need to get out there and create the possibility for the work. We need to build relationships with our prospects so that we can be top of mind as a resource when they decide to launch a project. And even more important, we need to become their trusted advisors so that we can influence that decision to launch in the first place. We need to start conversations that inspire these prospects and customers to move forward. If we do this, then a year from now, the situation this company will be in will be completely different. I can’t say that things will be flush, but business will be up because we drove it up.”

With that last sentence, I had created a vision for a happy ending that they could believe in. It wasn’t fantastical, it wasn’t over the top, but it was better, and it was believable. That’s all they needed to have some motivation for getting into action.

From there, it was easy for me to deliver what I had been brought in to speak about. I talked about networking to build professional relationships. I talked about presenting to communicate the core value of the company. I talked about how to listen for opportunities, and how to initiate conversations that could lead to sales.

By the time I was done, the energy in the room had completely transformed. People were no longer fixated on the bleak present, they were focused on a brighter future. And they believed that their participation in an action plan would take them there. Or at least take them in the right direction. That’s all that they needed from this year-end staff meeting.

So, if you’re going to be leading a year-end staff meeting any time soon — or if you’re responsible for structuring one — make sure that your team hears a complete story. A year-end meeting isn’t a status update, and it’s not a year-in-review (or at least not just that). It must be a sneak preview of the year to come.

  • Tell them about the Imperfect Current Situation (which only has to be honest and truthful).
  • Tell them about the Action Plan (which has to be simple and understandable, and has to intrinsically involve them so that they know, at least in a general sense, what is being asked of them).
  • Tell them about a Better Future Situation by the end of next year (which has to be a counterpoint to the Imperfect Current Situation, and believable).

Deliver this, and you’ll provide your team the fuel that they need to get the new year started right.

But don’t just take all of this on faith — Let us know what you think about these ideas. What questions do you have, and how can we help? Post your thoughts below!

And if we can help you prep for a meeting or presentation, contact us here.


  1. Marj Evans-de-Carpio on December 13, 2011 at 7:22 am

    As an independant contractor, I think I’ll hold a staff meeting for myself and tell myself a story, and give myself a glimpse of the great things I can accomplish in 2012!

    I can also use this with the church committee that I chair. We are meeting tonight.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • Pete Machalek on December 13, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Sounds great, Marj! Remember to focus first on what your situation will be having accomplished the stuff that you want to accomplish. The action plan is the process of accomplishing that stuff.

      Let usknow what you come up with!

  2. Charlie Melcher, P.E. on December 13, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Though it may seem a bit odd if you are an individual, but take time to recognize your team or yourself for marketing efforts. Discuss this in a marketing meeting, providing the results, whether good or not as good. Whether you are part of a team or an individual, take time to recognize yourself in private, as your efforts are just as important as others’. Take yourself out to a nice lunch or dinner, and celebrate your successes from the past year, and what successes are to come in 2012.

    • Pete Machalek on December 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      Great point, Chariie! Celebrate your current situation and envision next year end’s situation!

  3. Beth Kwakenat on December 13, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Thank you for the timely message! Although I have no meetings to lead, I do have my annual performance evaluation to fill out. I’m going to use that platform to tell my own story, including the Action Plan and Better Future Me that I envision. We all have room to improve, right?

    • Pete Machalek on December 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      Right, Beth! In this meeting, remember that your actions are the catalyst for a story not about you, but about whatever it is you’re responsible for — your department, or your client base, or your customers. Talk about their current situation and their future situation, as well as the actions you are going to take to get them from A to B.

  4. Stephanie on December 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Devi’s Advocate Here:
    My minds eye is watching Ken Lay telling his hundreds (thousands?) to “buy more Enron stock’ and “we’ll get through this”. I’d recommend not creating a message to provide false hope or “cheer them up” if it’s not the truth. I wonder what Ken’s “little vision” to the throngs of soon-to-be-wiped-out-of-retirement-employees could have possibly painted. Remember – he too “created the possibility” as “The Smartest Guy in The Room”. My guess is if you were to ask them today – they all would have preferred to hear the absolute truth and nothing but the truth – regardless of how dire or bad the situation was. That way they would have been informed and able to base their next career/family/money decisions on reality, not a faux happy ending. While this may be an extrememe example – it is a fact-based reality (Ken Lay really did tell all his people that things were going to get better and to keep buying Enron stock). I get your objective here (motivation, positive outlook, etc. for the “worker-bees”), however, in this economy, I believe it’s better for folks to be informed -in reality – with the truth, especially if the situation truly is dire.

    • Pete Machalek on December 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm

      Stephanie, I ALWAYS advocate truth. Communicate the not-so-happy current beginning situation so that people understand it, and so that they understand that you understand it. And then move on into the future. There is no hard and fast truth about the future. We don’t know for a fact we’re going to wake up tomorrow. But how we act today is based almost entirely on what we believe about the future. You get to influence what your team believes about their future with you. As a leader, it’s up to you to define that future — it is both your gift and your responsibility. Use it wisely.

  5. Marnie Ochs-Raleigh on December 13, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Perfect timing for a wonderful reminder to “focus on the positive and move that forward”. It has been my personal motto for 2011 and has helped make a difference for my staff and my personal outlook. Watching the news, seeing the financial statistics can be over whelming and create a negative atmosphere for employees and also clients.

    I think we are all stressed out, especially with the holiday season upon us, but the gentle reminder that leadership never waits and a good leader can empower a positive outcome is a fantastic way to find closure for 2011 and approach 2012 with a solid plan. Besides, its bound to be a fabulous year, its an even number!

  6. Hien Ngo on January 18, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    We have year-end staff meeting annually just before nearly 200 people have a week off to celebrate the Viet Namese Lunar New Year. This is what we need. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. Asiki Isaac Dagama on December 14, 2017 at 2:36 am

    Thank, this is a very great tool, I read through earnestly and got encouraged to follow up for more help

  8. Asiki Isaac Dagama on December 14, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Great tool, read through it and got encouraged, need more help on drafting the agenda. I have an end of year staff meeting to facilitate next week

    • Pete Machalek on December 14, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Great, Asiki! Let me know if there’s anything else we can do to help!

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