Alexis Monville (en)

group of people wearing shirts spelled team

A tale of a leadership team workshop

Day One: Coming Together

For some leaders from different organizations that will merge into one in the upcoming weeks, the face-to-face meeting is the first opportunity to meet in person with each other and their new manager. Even if the three facilitators made sure to greet everyone as they entered the room, the tension was palpable over the friendly chit-chat.

The organizational structure has been announced over the last week, but not all leaders have been appointed yet. The departure of some leaders has already been communicated, and the others intuitively feel we are not done yet with those kinds of announcements.

The oversized room feels comfortable. The tables are in a U-shape facing two giant screens on which we can already see the faces of the four people who were not able or willing to travel. Participants are used to the social distancing rules and leave one empty seat between them, spreading across the room.

We are together for two and a half days to establish, define, and align the mission and the organization’s strategic objectives.

One of the facilitators kicks off the meeting with some housekeeping words and gives the freshly appointed senior vice president the floor for opening remarks. She speaks about the opportunity for the organization and the chance to start together. She thanks the participants for their hard work and acknowledges their deep experience and vast expertise.

She is able to show some vulnerability mentioning she feels tired and nervous. Easy to understand that she could feel that way, as she was appointed six weeks before to tackle the critical challenge for the organization.

She asks people to be honest, speak up, be ready to let go of the past, and consider everything as fixable. She brilliantly closes by mentioning how if we are successful, employees, partners, and customers will look at us differently.

Now we can really start, and the facilitator is back at the center of the room to establish the ground rules and make the participants express what they need. A good time for the facilitators to share their roles. One stays in the background, takes notes, monitors the chat, and shares the documents. The two others alternate being in and outside the circle. The one outside warns that she will take the liberty to reformulate straightforwardly what she heard expressed indirectly.

Alternating at the center of the circle, she asked: “Think of a person you have not good thoughts about.” It was quite amusing looking at people looking around in the room, while an image popped into my mind instantly. Are those views really personal, or are they organizational views? Do you think what you think because people are part of another org? Then, she asked to put those past thoughts in the past files and give people a chance in the present moment.

Now is the time for something big hairy, scary, stinky… Do you guess what is coming? Elephants, of course! Being open is being known, expressing what is only known by you so that others can know it. Participants are asked to express what they need and make it about themselves. The round table allows each participant to say something, building on what the others already shared. It is a nice combination of hopes and fears. Only one participant declined to say anything, revealing frustration from one facilitator who dropped: “You have three days, man.”

In her closing comments, the organization leader mentions how she feels pressured to solve all the problems mentioned. She highlights the opportunity for the leadership team to select what problems to solve first and solve them together.

If you feel it is time for that team to get to work, you are going way too fast, a leadership team needs maturity, and one cannot rush maturity. The facilitator is back in the center speaking of “pre-resilience”: the resilience you built in the past, and that is now in your “bank”.

The organization leader is now in the center to share a story of resilience that will make the whole audience shiver, close to shedding a tear. Asking people to share their stories of resilience in a large group would be too much for many of them. The participants split into groups of four and spend the next 45 minutes sharing their stories. Interesting exercise of sharing vulnerabilities, that group of Senior Directors and Vice Presidents are all human, in the end, facing their own life challenges.

Now that we have gone through the first phase of team formation let’s get to a shared understanding of what the employees in the organization and the rest of the company, the customers, and the partners think, feel, and do.

Once again the group is split into small subgroups to reflect and propose their understanding. The readout is shared after the session with the whole group. The discussion is positive and fluid. The group of remote people demonstrated excellent engagement and collaboration, providing the rest of the group with a great readout.

The last session of that first day is dedicated to defining who we want to be as a leadership team. What would we be ready to commit to? Similar things are brought in all formation discussions of teams. 

Two things I found worth sharing here:

  • Someone proposed to add “assume positive intent,” which drove a lively conversation around the proposal. People approved, but it is not an excuse to be a jerk; you have to give people good reasons to assume positive intent!
  • Someone proposed to add “calling out” people on their bad behaviors not respecting the shared commitment. The proposal sparked another lively discussion. I loved the resulting proposal that instead of calling people out, we should maybe consider calling them in, as they belong to the group, or calling them up to their potential.

All agreed that we would all have to invest some time in building relationships and that the face-to-face meeting was only a first step toward that goal.

It is time for a nice dinner together to close the day.

Day Two: Working Together

“Can you count to 15 as a team?” asked the facilitator as the second day started. The facilitator immediately starts saying: “one,” one participant says “two,” and three participants talk over each other, saying “three.”

We failed the first attempt, as each participant had to say one number without ever talking over another person. We are not allowed to “strategize” as the facilitator starts again immediately with “one.” We improved. We “only” failed at “five” this time.

The facilitator reminds us that we have to include the people online. Another attempt, another failure. Frustrating. I am sure that we could do it if we had the time to agree on a strategy. But it is not allowed.

Instead, the facilitator asks us to take a few deep breaths, close our eyes, and focus on our breath returning to normal. She uses a lovely “meditation” voice, and we continue to get back to the breath. We slowly emerge from that short meditation session by opening our eyes again.

We then made another attempt. A successful one! Interestingly, I was absolutely sure it was my turn to speak when I said “ten.” How did I know? I don’t know. It seemed we felt more confident and more focused after that short meditation session.

I am convinced that first success helped us for the rest of the day. We started bringing some other elephants into the room just after that. An excellent way to start the day!

In her opening remarks of the day, the organization leader starts with an outside-in view, goes through the company goals, and how critical today is in defining the purpose and objectives of the team, and not only what we will do, but how we will do it.

The framework used to work on the mission and purpose is simple and efficient. We just have to fill in the blanks.

This organization exists to…

We will do this by…

So that…

We decide as a group to focus only on the first and last “blanks”: This organization exists to […] so that […]. Building on the team formation work that was accomplished the first day, that quite a large group of people emerges after 45 minutes with a sentence. A sentence that we are all ready to consider as the sentence representing the purpose of the organization.

Now is the time to fill in the middle blank with 3 to 5 strategic objectives, and for that, we are back in small groups, that the facilitators designed to be slightly different from the previous ones.

We are back in the large room, and I am a bit anxious that the other groups will not align at all with each other. The readout starts, and I am happily surprised that the first group has strategic objectives that are nearly 100% aligned with what we have. The wording is different, by this is quite close.

We discussed the rationale behind the wording of each proposal as a team. It progressively becomes clear that we can converge the four groups into one proposal.

The facilitators will close the day saying that they will craft a converged proposal.

We then applied the same framework to craft the leadership team mission providing clarity and driving consistency.

And we call it a day! Another dinner is ready for us, and people start to get closer to each other.

Day Three: Coming out with one Leadership Voice

The last day will be a half-day, and I feel it is enough! The idea is to be able to express all that we discuss with one voice—being able to deliver the message to the different audiences we will address.

We have 20 minutes to prepare a 2-3 minutes pitch to the audience of our choice.

Before getting each of us to deliver our pitch, the facilitators propose to warm us up with a Leadership Karaoke. What are the rules of the game? Simple: each of us will go on the stage in turn, and say: “What you always want to know about…” which will prompt the facilitators to go to the next slide. Then, we will have to speak for 2 minutes… Of course, the slides are kind of random, from a picture of a hot dog, Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs, an electrical telegraph device, or a slide mentioning “company values”… We had a lot of fun and debriefed as a team on the best way to engage the audience.

After the next break, we all went back on stage to deliver our 2-3 minute pitch. After each pitch, the facilitators encouraged us to send a direct message to the person who just presented mentioning one thing we liked, one thing to consider to upgrade the pitch.

A very energizing session in which we confirmed our alignment. We also learned a few things to refine our understanding or increase our impact.

Of course, the last person to go on stage is the organization leader. The address also serves as closing remarks and farewell as some are already traveling back home while the others will stay a bit more to prepare the next day Townhall.

The Next Day

I am sitting at the airport lounge when I join the virtual Townhall gathering all the people who will be part of the new organization. I witnessed an impressive leadership team delivering a clear and consistent message. Furthermore, the way they complemented each other when answering the question was very impressive.

This is just the beginning for that newly formed Leadership Team, but this is a very promising one!