TeamBuild February 2020: Lead from any chair

In my work, I have seen that high functioning groups distribute responsibility to everyone on the team. While the chair, manager, or leader of the group can control a lot through his or her authority, no one person creates great work or brings about profound change.

In one group I worked with, a member who was leaving the team said in a farewell speech, “I believe the (head of the group) has a critical role to play here. But, in my opinion, the problems that exist cannot be solved by any one individual.”

In the book The Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Rosamund Zander talk about how to ignite the creative spirit with examples from music, orchestras, and conducting. The chapter called “Leading from Any Chair” talks about how an individual musician can lead an orchestra from wherever they sit. A cellist in a New Zealand orchestra wrote Ben:

Your shine has inspired me to believe that I have the force of personality to power the section from wherever I sit and I believe that I led that concert from the 11th chair… From this day I will be leading every section in which I sit – whichever seat.

The Art of Possibility, p. 76

Similarly, a core principle of the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Heifetz and Linsky at Harvard is to understand the difference between authority and leadership. Authority is the position you hold (captain, chair, manager, etc.); leadership is the action you take beyond the bounds of your position or authority, to help people grapple with hard realities. While exceeding your authority is not, in and of itself, leadership, it is the case that anyone – even a lowly engineer or a middle manager — can get people to address tough issues and thus exhibit leadership.

Rosa Parks went beyond her authority when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. What made her behavior an act of leadership was that she and other civil rights leaders used the incident to focus public attention and responsibility on the issue of civil rights.

Leadership on the Line, p. 26

What does this look like in a meeting? In one meeting I facilitated, a junior person spoke out, exasperated, to say, “May I suggest a break? I can see that people are tired and distracted. We may be fresher if we just stop for a moment.” I, as facilitator, had not seen this fatigue. It was helpful that someone else saw what was happening and had the courage to speak out about it.

The concept of “leading from any chair” means that anyone in the meeting or part of the group, team, or orchestra, can influence direction and outcomes. And if they have the passion, skills, and courage, they will.

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TeamBuild January 2020: Turn down the heat

When groups face challenges in which there are disagreements, high stakes, and/or resource constraints, conversations can get heated. In times as these, it may happen that emotions run high, language becomes loaded, and individuals present as verbally and even physically threatening. Multiple times, I’ve facilitated a meeting where someone has actually gotten out of their seat and moved towards me, gesticulating with energy and anger.

How can a facilitator or a participant “lower the heat” when necessary, i.e. change the tone to a more rational, deliberate, inclusive, and thoughtful one? Here are a few ideas.

Use the dispassionate voice

Do you remember the voice that you might have used with a toddler or a teenager in a rage? Have you used your affect and words to project control, calm, and empathy?

This is the voice I channel and that I coach others to use in overheated situations. Think of a police officer that yells at you for texting; your immediate response may be defensive. In contrast, imagine that she calmly says she is worried because she saw you texting and notices that you have children in the car; your natural reaction may then be to feel contrite.

Try using a voice that is dispassionate; that portrays strength but not agression; and is rational, deliberate, and direct. As difficult as it may be in a moment like this, tap into empathy not anger, like the calm police officer. 

Name it and rephrase

What should you do when someone uses language that seems excessively harsh, judgmental, or otherwise disruptive to constructive discussion? Consider naming the language the person used, calmly, in a detached tone, and suggest an alternative. For example, “You said that Amy meant to call a meeting when key participants couldn’t be there; could we say, without accusing or inferring intent, that when Amy set the meeting at this time, key participants couldn’t attend?”

Suggest a time out

If you are “on the balcony”, i.e. watching the intensity and heat of the room escalate without engaging yet, you might be able to suggest a change in process that will reduce the tension. For example, you can propose taking a break or returning to the contentious subject at a meeting in the future. Sometimes an even more subtle intervention works to interrupt a heated exchange, such as asking to hear from those who haven’t spoken yet, or turning to what is written in the notes to focus on language.

In the heat of an emotional or difficult conversation, it’s difficult to adjust the temperature, but often appreciated by those who are unable to do so themselves.

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TeamBuild October 2019: Go to the balcony with an organizational scan

In a previous blog (, January 2017), I talked about the technique of stepping back or “going to the balcony” to get perspective on a group. When I start work with a new group I often conduct what I call an “organizational scan” which helps both me and the group get perspective. Some groups I work with now do this on their own, on a regular basis.

What I do

My version of an organizational scan is the following.

  • Interview everyone on the team before meeting as a whole.
    • This is best done in person but can be done by video (i.e. Zoom or Skype) or by phone. Ask three questions, sent ahead of time. Something simple and broad like, “What’s working, what’s not, what do you hope to see out of this process?”
    • Take notes, not for attribution.
  • Draft a summary of what I have heard.
    • Organize data into a Powerpoint presentation.
    • Use neutral language.
    • Start with and accentuate the positive.
    • Provide context for why the team is in the position they are now (note strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats).
  • Start the first in-person meeting with the team by showing the slide show. Annotate the slides verbally with quotes from the interviews (that cannot be traced to an individual). Open the room to discussion.

Doing this to start a project with a team serves several purposes. I get to know each person in the room a little and they get to meet me. I begin to understand where each person is coming from and develop a sense of key issues and factions. Individuals are often more honest with me in person than they might be to their colleagues or superiors or in a survey and I am able to name the elephants in the room.

In an organizational scan I can remind people what they do value, name the challenges and factions dispassionately, and give context for why the organization is facing these challenges now. This tends to jump start the work.

What you can do

There is one team that I’ve worked with multiple times for an annual retreat who now does a version of this on their own. Each year they send a Doodle poll to staff before the retreat to get a read on what core issues might be and design the retreat accordingly. Answers are anonymous. This year they chose to present the results of the poll to the team for discussion.

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TeamBuild September 2019: Finding your voice

There’s an exercise I’ve used with teams that on the surface is about public speaking – but it is also a lovely metaphor for presence and influence. Ronnie Heifetz developed it for his class at Harvard Kennedy School many decades ago and I have used it with superintendents, legislators, undergrad and graduate students, nonprofit executives, and more. I channel the three rules at the core of the exercise when I speak – both publically and in smaller groups.

The exercise starts by asking a volunteer to read something short they have written and adhere to three rules:

  • Be with your audience
  • Make every word count
  • Allow for silence.

I know, when I first heard them, I thought they were trite, New Age, silly. Then I went through the exercise, in which one practices a line or few lines, again and again, trying to follow these three rules. The transformation I have seen, as participants experiment with this is powerful. Speaking with a connection to your words and your audience, having and commanding presence, is powerful. This may be something that has to be experienced, but let me try to explain the three rules.

Be with your audience means to take the time to connect with everyone in the room (or at the table) before speaking and as you speak. In a public speaking context, it means waiting to start. Looking around the room. Commanding attention, exuding calm and control, and “holding” the room with your silence. As you speak, look around the room at individuals; notice who is engaged and who is not, connect with your eyes, body, and words.

Make every word count means to think about each word or phrase as you speak. Put emphasis on the words that have particular meaning, change your pace accordingly, pause when needed. Commit to and connect emotionally to the content of what you are saying. Think about and feel each word.

Allow for silence means to use silence to accent a particular line or phrase that it important. Pause. Look at your audience. Be comfortable with silence. Use it judiciously for it can be powerful. (I tried this during our wedding vows and Paul thought I had forgotten a line – oops.)

Try these three rules when you next speak. Experiment in a small group. Focus on these if you present publically. There is power in emotional connection and presence.

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TeamBuild August 2019: Changing hearts and minds

In working with teams, I think it’s important to understand that some challenges take time and require buy-in to resolve. The leadership gurus I worked with at Harvard, Ronnie Heifetz and Marty Linsky,[i] call these adaptive challenges. They define technical challenges as those that are complicated, such as brain surgery or auto repair, but for which we have the necessary know-how. They define adaptive challenges as those that require changing attitudes, values, and behaviors. I use this delineation with teams to encourage them to pace the work and engage key actors when facing an adaptive challenge.

A wonderful example of this is a client I worked with over the last year. I was asked by a longstanding nonprofit to facilitate a strategic planning meeting to address the fact that program participants had dropped by 75% in five years. When I interviewed the Board members and key staffers, it became clear that the Board was deeply divided about whether to even change what they were doing. Some loved what they did and were willing to draw down the endowment to continue doing it in the same way. Some thought it was already too late, that they were “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” and that the quality of the work they were doing was so diluted by poor attendance as to be unacceptable.

A consultant could have recommended what change in their business model would attract more participants. But it became clear that coming to consensus on whether to even change at all was as complicated as knowing what the right next step was. So we set up four working groups to analyze scenarios that ranged from staying the same, to changing the business model, to shutting down. The working groups met monthly over a year.

One of my favorite illustrations of how taking this amount of time and asking the participants to do the work changed hearts and minds was when we assigned one Board member to a working group that was the opposite of what he wanted to do. When his group finished their analysis of this scenario he said,

“I want to thank the (Chair of the Board) publicly for dragging me kicking and screaming into Group 4…because I have a strong bias (against this idea). But Group 4 is a wonderful group of smart and caring people, and my eyes have at least been opened to (this) being a viable option which I could support under the right circumstances.”

After spending a year looking at financials, understanding the market, and hearing each others’ concerns and hopes, the Board generated multiple viable business options to choose from and came to consensus quickly and easily. At this point one Board member said that, while he had served on many boards and attended many board meetings, this was the best meeting he had ever participated in.

[i] Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky, Harvard Business School Press, 2017.


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TeamBuild July 2019: Why it works to not work

July seems like an appropriate month to talk about when and how to “not work.” Some of the best work that teams get done is accomplished together, but not in a meeting.

Give teams relaxed time

One time I drove to a meeting in Delaware with a colleague and we missed a turn, making us two hours late to facilitate a weekend retreat with more than two dozen key stakeholders from across the state. We were appalled.

My colleague drove as fast as he could and, when we arrived, we ran in to the conference room to find everyone gathered around the coffee table, chatting comfortably, and with great animation. What had they been doing? Getting to know each other in a relaxed environment. When we started the meeting, the atmosphere was unusually warm and lively. We could not have designed a better intervention.

Give teams time to play

I’ve always valued the power of informal time together to build relationships and thus facilitate the work. When I worked with a group of high-level Soviet officials and American academics, we held a meeting at a Florida resort where we could swim with dolphins. The first afternoon we all met on a pier, in bathing suits and nervous smiles, and laughed out loud as each person took a turn with a dolphin. Dinner that night was full of laughter. And the meetings over the next two days were more productive, based on a higher level of trust and intimacy.

Breaks allow check-ins and check-outs

We all know that “bio-breaks” for bathroom, food, and phone calls can help participants be less distracted during a meeting. In addition, these breaks allow people to connect individually. Important work can get done this way, as participants discuss ideas one-on-one, make alliances, and sometimes draw out those who haven’t spoken. I am often tempted to shorten breaks to get through the agenda – but I remind myself that the progress made during breaks can be as important as the conversation around the table.

This is also a key time for the person running the meeting to check how others perceive the meeting. Some times I ask, “How’s the meeting going?” and sometimes I just listen. If I am surprised by what I hear, it may be disconcerting, but allows me to adjust accordingly.

Let ideas simmer

I also like the idea of giving complex or challenging issues time to simmer. I consciously schedule tough issues before breaks, meals, or the night, to give folks time to think on their own and to discuss the issue with others. Last month I scheduled a “simmer issue” at the end of a packed meeting, allowing the participants to think about it over the summer.

It’s summer – as you enjoy a weekend away or an afternoon in the garden, think about how to help your teams take a break.

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TeamBuild June 2019: The power of virtual agendas

In February, I talked about the power of working online with teams. This month I want to zero in on one online tool – a shared agenda that also is used to take meeting notes in real time.

In three organizations I work with, we draft and post our agendas on Google Documents. Everyone who will be in the meeting has editing access. During the call, the agenda is in front of everyone (on Zoom, for example, on a shared screen; otherwise, everyone can pull up the agenda on their own screen). Minutes are noted on the agenda as we talk. This is both a tactical and cultural change that is challenging for some but ultimately efficient and accessible.

Post the agenda ahead of time

Posting an agenda online avoids having to send out an agenda via email. In one group I chair, I have committed to have the agenda online 48 hours ahead of our call. Everyone on the team can edit the agenda before the meeting, which distributes ownership and can result in a better agenda. This also means that you don’t have to go searching through your emails to find the agenda – it is always sitting in the shared Google Doc.

Simplify minutes by taking notes on the agenda

Increasingly I work with teams that take minutes in real time – on the agenda, online, so that everyone can see what is noted as the call progresses. In one group I am in, we take turns taking minutes, to share the load. Visible real-time note-taking also distributes power – it becomes clear what the note-taker is writing down or not, and others can speak up. In addition, while the note-taker for the day has lead responsibility for taking notes, anyone else can add or edit notes as we talk. It’s helpful to keep track of what was decided, who will do what (I note this in the document in red), and to not burden someone with summarizing and distributing notes afterwards.

A cultural change

In this new culture, each person is responsible for accessing the agenda themselves. The agenda does not land in an email; however, email prompts are helpful – “Just a reminder of our call tomorrow – please review the agenda beforehand.” (Where it says agenda, provide the link.)

Last week I heard a client typing while we talked. “Are you drafting an agenda? Put it on Google Doc and I’ll join you,” I said. With that, we worked together online, collaboratively, and efficiently.

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TeamBuild May 2019: Visual voting

This past weekend I used a tool I call “visual voting” and it proved surprisingly effective in moving us forward. For visual voting, options being discussed are written on flip charts and participants walk up to the flip chart and place colored dot stickers next to their preferred options. In this way, there is a quick gauge on where the group stands.

Visual voting is different than a show of hands in two regards – the votes are anonymous and they stay up in front of everyone as a visual representation of which options have more support. It’s also important to note that the team is then looking at flip charts, which is neutral territory, and not at each other. And voting this way is physical – it gets folks up and moving.

The team I was with last weekend was a board that had spent a year examining alternate business models to address the fact that participation in their programs had decreased by 75%. Based on this work, the board met to come to agreement on which direction to move forward with.

Each team presented a business plan; there were seven options under consideration. Following each presentation we entertained clarifying questions but not comments that were judgmental or evaluative. Then everyone was asked to go to two flip charts listing the seven options and “vote.” Each person was allotted three green dots for the options they liked and up to three red dots for options they did not like or had a strong concern about. Everyone had to vote for their top three options (green) but didn’t have to rule any option out (red).

Once everyone voted, the colored dots made it easy to see where there was consensus. We started with discussing options that the group wanted to rule out and in fact, there was one option that got a lot of red dots. There was quick agreement that this model didn’t fit the values or the brand of the nonprofit.

We then looked at which options received the most dots; two options stood out. The group discussed strengths, weaknesses, variations, and overlaps of the remaining options. Seeing the dots arrayed over seven options was a quick and clear gauge on where the group stood and helped structure the discussion.

What would have happened if the dots were evenly distributed? While I’ve never seen this, it would in fact, be useful data. It would let us know that we didn’t have sufficient consensus on key attributes, values, or decision parameters, and would have to back up.

Importantly, visual voting is efficient, anonymous, and can even be fun.

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TeamBuild April 2019: Share the conversational pie

Don’t you hate when you get stuck in a conversation with someone who hogs the “conversational pie”? Similarly with groups, members disengage when one person, or a few people, take up most of the air time. If some people don’t participate, you may miss key data, not get the best decisions, and most importantly, not get full buy-in. I try to be explicit about sharing the conversational space when facilitating a meeting; here are a few approaches I use.

Set the tone early

When I ask for introductions, I say how long or what elements to include and then start first in order to model brevity. If an introduction that follows mine goes on too long, I step in to reinforce the standard.

Engage naysayers; confront bullies

Welcome individuals that disagree. Ask for a contrarian view. Thank them. If naysayers are valued, they may participate in a useful and insightful matter. However, I don’t believe in letting one individual dominate. In my June 2017 blog post about bullies, I mentioned an example in a senior team retreat when someone who had already spoken twice, asked for the floor a third time. I told him that I was going to call first on people who hadn’t spoken yet. He stomped out of the room; I let him go. Later, he returned and waited his turn.

Write it first

Sometimes the fastest thinkers talk more. I often ask a group to individually write their thoughts down on a subject before opening the conversation to the whole group. In this way, thoughtful people who need more time to organize their thinking, may feel more ready to enter the conversation.

Write it for all

I’m a big believer in taking public notes – either on flip charts in a meeting or in an online document during a conference call. I started my consulting practice years ago with a group that worked with high-level Soviets – they called me their secret weapon because I took notes on flip charts and when the Soviets repeated something they had said, I would point to where I had already written it down. Seeing that their point was noted, they would smile and stop repeating themselves.

I also use public note-taking to organize interventions, so that I can acknowledge what someone says while holding to the agreed agenda. “I’ve noted this here; let’s come back to this when we address xyz in the agenda.”

Set the tone, be consistent, and use writing; people appreciate a well-balanced conversation and you’ll get the best out of your group.

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TeamBuild March 2019: Remember to be surprised

In a graduate school course I taught this fall (strategic planning for nonprofits), I ended each class by having my students list a facilitation technique used in class and then writing it up. A few of my students gave a name to something that I did – “Remember to be surprised” – and I thought you might appreciate it.

“Remember to be surprised” refers to the fact that I called out achievements by two different students in two different instances, that I hadn’t expected. As I said to the class, it was an important reminder to me to be open to what people can achieve, a basic principle I try to keep alive in the teams that I work in and run.

One of the students who surprised me was a shy student who often spoke with her face looking down and her hand in front of her face. She volunteered for a particularly challenging part of a public speaking exercise we did where the volunteer has to sing a personal purpose statement without reverting to a known tune and singing in vowels and no words. To everyone’s surprise, she sang with strength, captured the class, and made the point about presence in public speaking with aplomb.

The other student that surprised me was one that turned in a first draft of a semester-long writing project, a strategic planning handbook, that was rife with errors, had poor structure and writing, and appeared to demonstrate a lack of understanding of key concepts. She came to me for feedback, turned in multiple drafts for more feedback, and ended up writing a final draft that was so strong that I sent a copy of it to the Dean of the school.

Remember to be surprised. Remember that individuals aren’t always what they seem at first. Remember to have hope and expectation and be open to what is possible.

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