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7 Insights on Conversational Leadership — Canadian Media Guild

Yesterday I had a really helpful phone call with friend and colleague Barb Saxberg. Barb invited me to work with her committee to bring conversational leadership to a Presidents Council meeting in Toronto. It was a meeting for 60 local union presidents, CBC Branch Council staff, and for some of the time, senior leadership from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The meeting was held over two days, one with theme of “Looking Back,” and the other with them of “Moving Forward.” Our phone call was a chance to be in reflective learning together. I received several gifts and points of clarity from our call. I felt like we were in the best of what people and organizations do to continuously learn. Thanks to Barb and many other leaders at the Guild.

1. Courage — It really takes courage for someone inside an organization to invite a different way of meeting. They know clearly what they don’t want to continue. They have some sense of what they want to move toward. Yet, it is in the end, a paradigm shift. When the habit is presentations from a podium, sitting in circle is a courageous act. When the history is blasting grievances, small group conversations about values and possibilities are a courageous act. Colleague Juanita Brown of The World Cafe speaks about this — “conversation as a radical act.” Her commitment is like that of Barb and the Guild’s organizing committee. They knew they needed something different. They knew they could have played it safe and done more of the same, but chose not to, even knowing there would be some bumps and challenges. They knew they needed more capacity in their system to face their challenges and live their highest ideas, and that meeting in conversation was one step on the journey. Hats of to Barb, Marc-Philippe, Fiona and the others that lead with heart and courage to find a new way.

2. Team Clarity — For design teams and planning committees that are moving into a new way of working, conversational and participative leadership, it is really important to do some good work up front on agreements. They are the ones that will hear the whispers from participants, the worries. This can be difficult to hold when colleagues start to question the effectiveness of the meeting. Speaking some of this up front and clarifying agreements for when it is “not easy” can really help hold a team together.

3. Harvest is Leadership — Barb is working very thoughtfully to compile a report from the two days. I shared with her some of the notes I had. Some of the key questions. When working from a new paradigm there are two parts of a harvest report / document that feel important. One is the content. What happened. What we learned. Decided. What is different. For the Guild, this includes key questions surfaced with CBC management about work load, quality, sustainable resource models, etc. It includes core values that carry the Guild forward. It includes a sense of report on first next steps. Not full plans. First next steps of plans that grow from values. But the second part, and I believe as important or more, is the narrative on the “how” of working together. This is the one that talks about the need to innovate, to listen and learn together, to move to the next level of democratic participation. This is is the narrative that builds upon older models committed primarily to speed and efficiency, inviting the next level of creative thinking together about unprecedented challenges and dreams. It is the story we tell as leaders. I don’t mean that to be manipulative or ingenuine. Rather, just owning it as an important leadership act. As my colleague in Utah, John Kesler says, “changing the narrative is half of the work.”

4. Surveys — It is common to offer a survey, inviting feedback about meetings. Sometimes on the spot. Sometimes later through email or electronic survey sites. There is a tendency in those surveys to ask how people “liked the meeting.” Though this can be interesting, and I always hope that all people loved the meeting, it isn’t as helpful as it could be. More helpful are questions that speak to the specific objectives of the meeting and of the conversational leadership process. For example, an assessment about strengthened relationships is helpful. About joy. About enthusiasm. About learning new approaches. I tend to focus conversational leadership on three areas. 1. Co-learning (not just presenting into the room, but learning together, creating together). 2. Building relationships (for the challenges that the Guild and all organizations face, we need strength or relationship to carry us through the challenges.) 3. Work (focus on specific projects that are called forward from the group). All are anchored in helping the group do what it needs to do. Action and accountabilities. Surveys need to assess the qualities of the new paradigm of working together, not the old. This is a strong and another courageous act of leadership.

5. Specific Reports — We used open space technology for the “moving forward” part of the day. It was the way to get to action. It was the way to move into priorities. The reports we asked people to complete in their self-organized groups identified participants and key points of the conversation. However, less attention was given to the action steps. I’d like to add a bit more to the forms that include specific responses to next steps, resources needed, proposals, offerings, and asks for what people need. I sensed that the conversations that occur in the groups were quite rich. Yet, more can be done to move from the impression that conversation is “just talking” into “creating next action steps.” In particular, I find myself wanting to emphasize more of the “this is the action” part of the meeting. Needing to be very explicit with it. And in particular offering the freedom framework from living systems that you can “start anywhere and follow it everywhere.”

6. Length of Time for Open Space Groups — At this event we chose three rounds of 45 minute sessions. Some groups that met in the first session re-posted their topics during the second round, thus extending their time to meet. Barb pointed out a good learning for me. When the intent is to explore, shorter sessions can work well. I tend to not go any less than 45 minutes. When the intent is to come up with plans, as was the case for this client group, 75 or 90 minute sessions are more helpful.

7. Preparing the Group — In this case, the participants were told that they were coming to “something different.” They were told that we would meet in circle. That message was clear. However, learning from this for me is that groups need more explicit description ahead of time about how the meeting will be different. Even a list of “will be doing / won’t be doing.” For example, “will be working at small tables / won’t be sitting classroom style to hear presentations.” “Will be creating your own agenda of topics / won’t be assigned to particular groups.” There are a bunch of things to say that just give the most simple form of expectations. Helpful, and I would say kind, to be explicit with this amidst groups that have strong patterns of how they meet. And, I say this with awareness that there will always be an invitation and need for people to welcome surprise and not knowing.

I return to courage, and courage to be in continuous learning. With thanks to Barb, Marc-Philippe, Fiona, Joanna, Gaynette, Xavier, Elizabeth. It takes courage to work in new ways. Particularly with your immediate colleagues and friends. Yet so needed in the pioneering and evolutionary time we live in when we must risk the letting go of the old to find our way to the added benefit of the new. At the Guild. At CBC. And so many other places, where our work immediately impacts the wellness of ourselves and of broad communities.

Photos — A few that turned out well.
Design — Agenda and timing that emerged for the days.

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