“Be daring, be different, be impractical; be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” –Cecil Beaton
During an annual summer trek to the beach, Nikki’s mom was hospitalized. Among the many challenges that week was only having one car and on the beach in the summer and rental cars are quite limited unless you’ve reserved them in advance. Success! A friend found a bright blue PT Cruiser convertible and rented it for Nikki. She was beside herself with despair. How could she drive this joy-filled car while her mother was so ill? So for the first few days she resisted the thrill and drove to and from the hospital with that car snugged up tightly. Then it dawned on her – that convertible could be an escape from the stress, that top down in the beach breeze could be a little bit of serendipity and joy, a boost to her energy and most importantly more energy to support her mom’s recovery. It worked.
Take a moment right now to think about a couple of the best experiences you’ve had in your career so far. Write down a few notes. Now step back and consider the factors that made these experiences the best ones. Was there an element of the unexpected or surprise? Did you do something you didn’t think was possible? Do you learn it was okay not to have all the answers and to create and learn as you go?
I got my first paying nonprofit job when I applied for a communications position that I wasn’t qualified for. I got my first federal grant application funded when I volunteered to write it with mentoring from one of the most successful grant writers around. I became the project manager to build an emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youth when I offered to navigate city politics. Last year our team landed a transformational strategic planning project from a referral and three phone calls. And this year – in an exhilarating partnership – we’re implementing with a client the largest leadership development initiative we’ve undertaken so far.
When I talk to other leaders about their best experiences and think about my own as well as our teams’, it comes down to what Patti Digh in her book life is a verb inspires us to do – that is “always rent the red convertible” – or in Nikki’s case the blue PT Cruiser convertible! There are just times for leaders I dare say that is most of the time – when throwing caution to the wind – opens new doors to new opportunities every time.
There’s one other undeniable element of these best experiences and that is that it’s all about getting into conversation and letting the conversation and the ideas that emerge from it be your guide. Take the concept of staff meetings, for example. Just the mention of it might make your eyes roll, or maybe in your organization it’s one of your favorite meetings. More often than not, staff meetings are one of those more challenging experiences for leaders, especially when the meeting approach is stuck on information sharing. Honestly, no one wants to come to a meeting to be told a lot of stuff that’s already been decided. These “tell-sell” discussions cut off the oxygen supply. (Judith Glaser, Conversational Intelligence, Bibliomotion 2014) They shut us all down and they disengage us and yet they are still common practice. Now if the building is on fire, “tell-sell” directions could be life –saving. Otherwise, they are a source of frustration and suck the life out of inspired performance. When staff meetings are spaces for discovery, strategic thinking, and shared problem solving the results are astounding and your will undoubtedly hear, “that was one of our best meetings ever!”
How does a leadership team develop the courage to throw caution to the wind and “rent the red” convertible? Start by inviting a different kind of “staff meeting”. Consider reframing it as a staff conversation or instead of a planning meeting, a planning conversation. Meetings are conversations where there is an exchange of ideas, so why not call it what it is and design it to be really that? Let’s double click on the word “conversation”. I considered many dictionary entries and find this one to be exemplary. “The noun conversation comes from the Old French word of the same spelling, meaning “manner of conducting oneself in the world.” When you have a conversation with another person or a group of people, you listen closely and respond appropriately, so that your conversation is a true exchange of ideas, not just people waiting for their turn to talk. A good conversation makes you feel heard, satisfied, and maybe even more informed.” www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/
Here are 3 effective ways nonprofit leaders are creating conversations with impactful results. 1) Think about the big picture of staff conversations over the course of the year and what value you want staff to get from the investment of time. If you have monthly meetings think of it as 12 opportunities to have an impact and what do you want that impact to be; then design your conversation plan. 2) Develop a short set of guiding principles for staff conversations and organize the conversations around those objectives. For example, commit to making a caring connection at the beginning of each meeting, invite someone to bring a provocative question, and leave a few minutes at the end of each meeting to reflect on what was helpful, what caused anxiety and what we need to be successful the next time. 3) Rotate facilitators for each meeting and empower those facilitators to do the conversation planning. Co-facilitators could be two or more people who share the conversation responsibilities. For example, one team we know includes 6 managers who help plan 4 organization wide meetings annually. A few members of the team plan the conversation connection. A few other people plan the core meeting content and a few others plan the end of the meeting and any follow-up.
Planning better staff conversations is just one of the ways leaders have to make your organizational journey more memorable and along the way to shift the organizational culture dynamic in unexpected positive and productive ways. Wherever you are on your journey, it’s a good time to have a fresh conversation with your team. Start with these discovery questions and see where the answers take you. If our meetings were energizing and engaging what would be the result? And what can we do together to get to this success?
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