HYCS #11 – Meetings That Transform

HYCS #11 – Meetings that Transform

Every successful leader knows the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Legendary leaders let this knowledge transform them.

Word Count:  1020

Reading Time:  4.5 minutes (8 if you click through)

Assignment Time:  Mere moments

When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, South Africa was on the verge of civil war.  How did Mandela make a country so deeply and bitterly split big enough for everyone in it?  Why did he risk everything on the game of soccer?  The way I make sense of Mandela’s transformation from angry young man to legendary leader is this:  He made himself bigger first.  In order to do that, he had to make the well-being of the whole country as real and important as the factions within it, and more important than his personal grievances.  He made it his business to create a place at the table for the whole, a place big enough that all the parts could find a way to come together.

Our task in meetings is the same as Mandela’s. 

A good meeting is alchemical.  It takes ordinary people and tasks and transforms them into a whole new substance.  When the whole is given a place at the table, meetings will amaze you.  The unimaginable becomes commonplace:  Factions that can barely speak to each other collaborate and laugh together.  The person who never speaks up, comes up with the perfect way forward.  The one who never stops talking paraphrases someone else’s idea.  The controlling leader relaxes and the whole group leans forward in their chairs while becoming more thoughtful and kinder.

Good meetings create change.  Great meetings transform.  Otherwise, you may as well stay home.

As a consultant, you have the power to help a group create and enter the sacred space in every meeting.  Sacred means set apart, non-ordinary.   Meetings that transform make a place for the whole in a deliberate, structured way.  That’s what sets them apart from ordinary interactions or gatherings.   Mandela attended a soccer game wearing the jersey of the all-white South African team, and congratulated the team captain on his winning the World Cup, not just for white South Africa, as in the past, but for all of South Africa.   What a gutsy, big-hearted genius he was.

Nelson Mandela’s actions are a good template for structuring a transformative meeting.

1.  Think in terms of the whole when you plan a meeting.  How can you create a place at your conference table – whether it’s a virtual or actual table?  What does the group need to come together?   These are the questions to ask, and answer.

Did you know that organizations – all groups and teams – have their own anxiety?  Think of it from the organization’s perspective: it’s an entity with the survival fear of every entity, but no means of getting anything done or managing its anxiety.  For both of these things, it needs you

It’s the anxiety of the whole that creates all those triangles in the first place.  And the number of triangles in a meeting is astronomical.  Planning or running a meeting by trying to satisfy the needs of each triangle is the road to madness.  If you can calm the group’s anxiety, even a little, the triangles will ease of their own accord.

2.  Use processes that are visible, obvious and fair.  It’s a paradox:  To make time and space non-ordinary, you need structure.  Ritual is a time-honored way creating space for the magical whole to manifest.  Leaving a group of individuals to its own devices is fine for a cocktail party, but it’s unlikely to transform anything.  Structure and a fair process calm the anxiety of the whole, and helps people find a place for themselves within it.

3.  Invite group members to care for the whole too.   The best teams and meetings have made a place inside themselves for the whole.  This is not the toxic mimic of groupthink or sacrificing a pound of flesh to be a “team player.”  Rather it’s the mature perspective of the person who knows that they must find a place for their individual needs within the context of the whole.   This is a skill that develops over time.  Be the one who demonstrates it.

4.  Run, don’t walk toward the paradox.   Remember the scene in the Harry Potter movies where Harry has to run at a brick column in order to get on platform 9 and 3/4s and catch his train?  Making a place for the individuals and the whole is exactly like this:  It seems impossible, even crazy.  In ordinary time, it is crazy.  In non-ordinary or sacred time, it’s the norm.

But What Do I Do?

Structure your client interactions.  Even a little explicit structure makes a huge difference.  At minimum. start confirming the outcome of every conversation, and use round robin (click here for instructions) to structure conversations that would ordinarily be the free-for-all that is open discussion.  These two things will start to drain anxiety from the whole.  If your meetings are virtual, these two things are critical.

Wear the team jersey.  Show that you have the whole in mind and will not harm it.  When you are talking to a client, make it safe for them to talk about their situation, like this:  “In your shoes, I’d want my boss to look fantastic, ( be concerned about the board, the shareholders, that other department, the bottom line, etc.).  Is that a concern for you?”

Remember:   Caring for the whole means making a place for it and those within it, including you.  It is not taking responsibility for the whole.  It’s the difference between inviting someone to the party so they can make of it what they will, and making yourself responsible for that person having a good time.  Invite the whole, and stay in your own business!

Your assignment:  Start with actions listed under But What Do I Do?  Pick the easiest one and start to do it in every client interaction.  If that seems overwhelming, just notice:  in the meetings you attend or lead, how did the whole fare?  Most of all, my wish for you is that you start hoping for more in all your meetings.

We’ll be spending more time on the how of creating transformative meetings in the next several emails.