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  • Carl Blanz

A Game-Changing Skill for Leaders

Before I became a chef, all the chefs I knew were the masters of the kitchen. It’s one of the reasons I was attracted to being a chef, because even when you were wrong, you got to be right.


As a young person just entering the workforce, that was an acceptable ambition- to be in charge. Then I worked for a chef who was the exact opposite, I’ve written about him before, Rene Debon is his name.


Rene couldn’t stand being called “Chef”, a title most aspiring cooks live for. I can remember laughing when a new person would call him chef out of respect and he would reply with their job title, “Yes, dining room manager? Yes, cook? …”


Rene demanded a lot and at the same time, made it easy to work for him. He was always working hard to make things easier for his cooks. On more than one occasion, I would come in and find that the hardest or most mundane task of my station set up like cleaning spinach or green beans, or shucking oysters would be done by Rene. Back then I didn’t have a word for that powerful skill, but I do now, the word is; facilitation.


Facilitation = To make things easier for others.


Maybe the biggest benefit to being a facilitative leader is that it makes others want to work for you. Rene could get a lot done, those of us who worked for him were usually eager to fulfill his requests. Our motivation was not self-preservation, it was reciprocity. It’s rewarding to do something nice for another who has done nice things for you.


Crossing The Ocean


Leaders often find themselves on a metaphorical shore, with feet planted firmly on this side of the ocean – where something isn’t working. And the land across the ocean holds hope for a solution, or a new way of being. This ocean is the unknown distance between the current challenge and a resolution. The ocean is a conversation.


In a group setting, it can be really tricky to keep the conversation and the mindset of participants in a good place, especially when the group feels lost. Sometimes there is enough disagreement between participants in a group that the energy changes and all of a sudden, nothing seems possible.


Other times, group dynamics show up and you’ll see someone dominate the conversation. This often will push the introverts into their happy place – not talking.


And sometimes, the group will go off on their own agenda, following something that was not part of the original intention, gaining steam and volume to the point that the facilitator has a hard time refocusing the group.


In meetings or groups, people will sometimes initiate sidebar conversations that distract from the bigger conversation at hand.


It is pretty common in groups for people to try all the ways they can think of to get their wants and desires to happen. Not necessarily maliciously, but out of habit born in childhood trying to work the family system to their advantage.


When you are facilitating a meeting, group dialogue, brainstorming… (crossing the ocean), good facilitation looks like a boat. You, the facilitator can build the boat with the participants. Instead of using a hammer and rivets, you will use a process and ground rules to build psychological safety and meet the end results.


Building a Boat.


Start With End Results.


End results guide how to design a conversation, and they give the facilitator permission to redirect conversations or to put off-topic conversations in a parking lot for another time. End results are a way to describe the other shore- the one where things are different, better.


If you’re looking for engagement and commitment, share the end results before meetings and ask the participants if they would add anything to those end results. You don’t always have to accept what they add, and hearing people right from the beginning sets the stage for psychological safety. If someone adds end results, you can be pretty sure they will be engaged in that part of the dialogue.


Design The Time.


Look at the end results and determine how you are going to get them to happen. Will you be making decisions? Design the process for it. Will you be sharing information? Design a process for it….


Many leaders are so busy that they hurry to meetings, try to prepare for them in two minutes and then are frustrated because the meetings are not productive. This process gives you time to think about how to get your end results to happen. When my team and I are preparing for meetings, for a two hour meeting, we might spend an hour designing the processes that will get us the end results.


Bake In Time for Social Interactions.


This can look like a check in at the beginning of a meeting and evaluation at the end. Almost always, the most impactful thing that happens in meetings/group dialogue is the interaction of the participants. I have found that it’s a good trade to give up an end result or two to make time and space for organic interactions to emerge.


In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle talks about a device the size of a credit card called a sociometer. It measures the amount of time people talk. The people who invented the sociometer can predict with nearly perfect accuracy how successful a project, meeting or team will be by comparing the amount of time people talked. The closer a group gets to equal talking time among participants, the more successful their initiative will be. The scientists measuring the results of the sociometer did not pay any attention to content, just the ratio of talking time between participants.


Here are a few ground rules (more boat building) you can use for meetings and group dialogue. You don’t need to use all of them, and some work better in specific situations.


Start and End on Time.


Pretty self-explanatory. This is about being respectful of people’s time. If you set the foundation so people know that when you are the facilitator, the meeting will start and end on time, they’re more apt to start to show up on time, and to remind themselves, and the other participants to stay on topic.


It can be a little painful at the beginning, but if you would like to improve the quality of your meetings, this helps a lot. The pain comes when there are 10 minutes left in the meeting and you ask the group to make some choices about what to do with the last 10 minutes of the meeting!



Confidentiality.


This is a promise to keep everything said in this meeting here. We often add that if you would like to tell someone else’s story from the meeting, just get permission. This ground rule is a good foundation for creating psychological safety.


Transparency.


This just means that at any time, if anyone is wondering where the conversation or the facilitation is going, they can stop the process and ask for clarity or orientation.


Take Care of Yourself.


This allows people to take care of their biological processes, and also means that they do not need to risk more than they are willing to in terms of being vulnerable with the group.


No Screens.


I have a good friend who invited me to a meeting with his staff, when we all walked into the meeting room, he was standing at the door with a basket for everyone’s cell phone.


Anyone Can Call Orbiting.


This is a cool one. Sometimes, people start adding their stories to the conversation, but they are no longer adding any valuable content. When people are passionate about a certain subject, they tend to orbit around it by relating their own experience with it. They are contributing to the quantity of words, but not necessarily contributing in a way that will keep the conversation on track.


With this one we usually invite people to raise it as a question; “I wonder if we’re starting to orbit here?”. Sometimes a person does a little orbiting right before they say something really powerful, gentle inquiry works better than a bold declaration here.


One Conversation at a Time.


You know this when you see it, sidebar conversations while in a meeting.


All of these ground rules are about permission. Permission to keep the conversation or the meeting on track to hit the end results. Until people understand the ground rules and are willing to commit to them, you do not have their permission.


Using a process and getting permission to facilitate via ground rules is one good way to build a boat.


Finally, one powerful facilitation tool is… “Yes, and”. The best way to increase engagement in a group is to make it safe for them to say something. Even when the participant is off track, if they are engaged, there will be a contribution to the whole. If they are not engaged, no contribution. Agreement, eye contact and acknowledgement for any contribution from the facilitator all create more psychological safety.


Here are two great books that can help you facilitate better meetings:


The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle


Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni


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