For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.

 

The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.

Speed Limits and Slow Living

railbed_1893My town recently lowered speed limits from thirty to twenty-five. Adjusting to a slower pace set me thinking about habits, change and slow living.

At first, driving more slowly was an unwanted constraint. Over time, my experience shifted. I brought the shift into clearer focus by reframing, a skill that is useful in coaching and conflict management. To reframe, we put a new frame around an experience in order to shift perception and try on a new reality. For the new speed limit, my new frame is, “I drive more thoughtfully.”

Reframing a negative experience may take effort and seem artificial. This time, however, reframing arose spontaneously from a new internal experience. I noticed myself paying closer attention to driving. As I drove along, I also noticed that spring was coming on, kids were walking to school and the street sweeper had wiped away the winter detritus. I enjoyed being part of the scene instead of racing by it.

Learning #1. Speed is limiting. Like you, I have projects and deadlines that make me speed. Oops, notice how the phrase “make me speed” attributes my behavior to external causes? I bet I have more choice about varying my pace, and I imagine you do, too. How can we deliberately and thoughtfully vary our pace throughout the day and work week?

Learning #2. Only after the town speed limit changed did I notice that driving fast was a habit. By circumventing choice-making, some habits helpfully guide our behavior and simplify life. Habitually pushing the speed limit is not this kind of habit. Pushing the speed limit took me away from being present to safety, responding to the weather, noticing my internal “weather conditions” and much else around and inside me.

Learning #3. Watch the rush: rushing to get there quickly, cover ground and get work done. “Watch the rush” suggests noticing any internal “high” like, “Wow, what a lot I did today!” “Good for me, I beat that deadline!” or even, “Aren’t I valuable. Look at all I do!”

Learning #4. Don’t rush to change. I am inviting us to heighten awareness before making any change. When we rush to change, in this case, hurrying to slow down, we miss information. We rush past “ah-hah’s” that would suggest new behavior to try on. The “ah-hahs” are also valuable because they propel and sustain motivation to change. This “notice more and don’t change anything” dynamic (called the paradoxical theory of change) is a way of thinking about change that is key in my coaching practice.

Learning #5. Learning takes practice. On a recent vacation to Lisbon, I noticed myself rushing around (again.) Over many days, I slowly slowed down. On the last day, I ambled along the riverfront watching fishermen catch blowfish. Even on vacation, I confuse accelerated output with quality results.

I learned to slow down my driving. When I went on vacation, I went back to my speeding habit. I need more practice. So, some tips for you and me.

  • Notice what rushing is like. How and where is the breathing? What is happening in muscles, head, trunk and limbs? Track thoughts. Try exaggerating any one thing, for example, shallow breathing, a tight jaw or a pattern of thought. What is that experience like?
  • Vary the pace of the work day. Take short breaks to get up and stretch.  Breathe slowly for a full minute, focusing only on the breath or on a pleasant experience or loved one.
  • Practice saying no. Start with oneself, saying no to the inner perfectionist or achiever who tempts us to agree to unrealistic tasks and deadlines. Negotiate with these inner drivers.

New Approach to Guiding Change

Inspired by Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, I found a new approach to guiding change: I created a checklist.

Organizational change is often a complex undertaking that takes place in an already complex system. As a surgeon and health reform thought leader, Gawande understands complexity. Think about an operating room. A team works under intense pressure on a patient whose body is complicated; there are both strict procedures and emergent challenges; systemic issues like the nurse-doctor hierarchy are entrenched; errors can cost lives. Sound in some ways like your work place?

Gawande shows that checklists have lots of appeal as a way to get complex processes right. They:

  • Make a “cognitive net” to catch gaps in knowledge, memory, and attention when individuals or teams are busy doing intense and complex work.
  • Identify critical decision points. Each decision point is reached by using process tools that go with the list item.
  • Are created from knowledge (how to do a surgical procedure); experience (how critical incidents have been handled in the past); input from many people (how various neighborhood Ebola response teams worked); hard data.
  • Teach and improve a whole organization, industry, or sector.

fish jumpingHow would I create a checklist for guiding change? There are so many theories and models of change that it is hard to wrap your arms around them. As I worked with clients and refined my MBA course in managing change, I searched, not for a “theory of everything,” but for a practical approach that would be deliberately eclectic, flexible, and also coherent. I wanted clients to avoid the mistakes I often see and that research verifies: failing to include the right people, not communicating enough with stakeholders, failing to anticipate obstacles, and neglecting to anchor change through skill building and new business processes.

Here are the first of eleven items on my checklist.
1. Have initiators firmed up the rationale for the change project, including timing and resources?
2. Have initiators evaluated the complexity and impact of the change?
3. Have initiators done stakeholder analysis in order to make three key decisions (3a-c on the checklist)?
4. Have initiators formed the change project team based on steps 1-3?

Like a Gawande checklist, the change checklist is built on a body of knowledge. For example, for #2, users need to understand what “complexity” and “impact” mean and how to evaluate these factors.

For each item, a set of process tools shows people “how to.” Clients choose the tool(s) they need in order to complete each checklist step. For #2, there is a complexity/impact grid, for instance. For #3 you can choose from several ways of doing a stakeholder analysis.

The checklist reminds you to:

  • Talk about each important step in a change project.
  • Thoughtfully choose the process tools you need.
  • Make decisions based on process tool results.

With the checklist, people realize that change management is a body of knowledge that can be grasped and learned. You do not make it up as you go along. You no longer manage change by following a leader whose experience may not be relevant to this change. Leadership for guiding change can come from anywhere in the organization. The checklist complements and “completes” what are primarily technical approaches to change, like Project Management and Quality Improvement. The checklist is marvelously suited for responding to complex situations because it is both step-wise and flexible.

Board leadership

Non profit boards are great proving grounds for leadership. And, many board leaders and CEO’s agree, boards have lots of opportunity for improvement. Four such opportunities stand out in BoardSource’s latest scan of over 800 non profit boards. Boards can:

  • Spend more energy on learning how to be excellent.
  • Take more responsibility for community outreach and help with fundraising.
  • Become more diverse and inclusive.
  • Give more support to the CEO.

Here are resources and suggestions for leading your board to excellence.

Ongoing learning—the path to excellence

  • Make ongoing board development part of your strategic plan. That way, excellence becomes a whole-board priority with specific actions that advance this goal.
  • Consider using a consent agenda, which groups routine board business items together so they are “consented to” in one motion. Consent agendas free up board time for learning and generative conversations.
  • Do regular board evaluations, evaluating every meeting and assessing the board annually in a board member survey.

See this governance practice guide for more suggestions.

Active ambassadors
Be clear with prospective board members that community outreach and fundraising help are part of the job. To be effective ambassadors, board members do not need to be public relations or fundraising experts or have a lot of money. I recently guided a board retreat where we asked board members to think of people they would be willing to talk to about the organization’s strategic priorities. The board learned that, guided by staff who would recommend specific “asks,” every board member can open doors.

A new DonorPath report is full of good suggestions for growing effective board ambassadors.

Diversity and inclusion
Boards should ask themselves what array of people will make effective board leaders at this point in the organization’s life. Will recipients of the organization’s services have helpful perspectives? What subject matter expertise will help the organization? What age spread will help with board leadership succession? As you know, these are only three of many kinds of diversity.

Having a diverse board does not guarantee inclusion, which results from every member having access to and a voice at the table. You ensure such access and equity through specific practices like providing regular training in understanding board financial statements.

My BoardSource research report on diversity and inclusion contains case studies and recommendations.

double rainbow

More support for CEO’s
Become a stronger partner in two ways:

  • Support your CEO’s leadership growth.
  • Commit to the board’s becoming a more effective “thought partner.”

Even non profits with modest budgets can usually underwrite the CEO’s ongoing work with an Executive coach. In this way, your CEO works on real challenges, learns to “live into” his/her potential and learns to use organizational development frameworks, processes and tools as need arises.

At the same time, the board should deepen its understanding of the organization’s programs and strategic environment in order to become a better CEO thought partner. How?

Begin by deciding what kind of board you want to be. Governance as Leadership describes three kinds of boards: fiduciary, strategic and generative. A board that primarily focuses on oversight is a fiduciary board. Further along a continuum are two more kinds of boards. Strategic boards ask questions like, what are strategic drivers and what priorities increase impact? The third kind of board learns to do “generative governance.” Generative boards seek out thought leaders across sectors and constantly consider “what if…” questions and scenarios. How could you move your board further along this continuum?

Leadership IS Learning

Each of us can boost our leadership by making learning a way of being. As Peter Vaill said in his book by that title, when learning is a way of being, “leadership is not learned;” leadership IS learning.

Start by trying on the notion that everything you do at work is a platform for learning. When you make a decision, face a challenge, wonder how to work with an employee, create something new or solve a problem, you can learn something new. Ask questions like,

  • What do I notice about the work experience I just had? What do I notice in myself? In others?
  • What choices did I make—whether or not I saw them as choices at the time? Did I get stuck? If so, how?
  • What were the results of my actions and thought patterns?
  • What could I do more of, less of or differently?
  • What will I do now?

tiki_questions2Reread my blog post on the Learning Compass (c) and you’ll notice that these questions take you around the learning cycle: experience; reflect; analyze by finding the significance of what just happened; think of choices; make choices that lead to action.

I recently read Sonali Deraniyagala‘s memoir Wave, which is about losing her family to a tsunami. Sonali decided to write about her loss as learning. No, there are no lessons; to distill lessons from the tragedy would have cheapened it. Instead, as she experiences waves of grief, she learns a process. She slows herself down, asking how the grief shows up in body, mind, emotions and spirit. Then she reflects, observing herself from inside and outside. By “outside,” I mean she sees herself in relation to her context– colleagues, community and the family she lost.  Gradually, over a period of years and in the reflective, analytical and active practice of writing, Sonali literally remakes herself.

We could follow a similar process both to learn about specific experiences and to learn how to learn better. Try this experiment. A couple of times during your work day:

  1. Look up from your desk. Take several long, slow breaths.
  2. Notice your thoughts, feelings and your body. You are gathering information, like a researcher or artist.
  3. What contextual things are influencing your work and your experience of it right now? Examples might be deadlines, physical surroundings, the technology you are using and the time of day.

Notice that this little exercise does not take much time. You are creating awareness as a step in learning. Without trying to change anything, notice whether there are shifts just because you are paying attention.

More on learning as a way of being in future posts.  Meanwhile, let’s all breathe.

Managers and Leaders are Different?

The tired claim that managers and leaders are different has serious consequences for the way we treat people and run organizations.

First, what is the alleged difference between a manager’s and a leader’s roles and capabilities? Guru Warren Bennis put it this way,

The manager administers; the leader innovates.
The manager maintains; the leader develops.
The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. (Bennis, 2003)

In other words, a manager sees that projects and programs get done. A leader has strategic vision, originality and the ability to inspire.

Bennis went on to make the case that managers can become leaders—but the either/or distinction stuck—and not just in business schools. Haven’t you heard a supervisor say something like, “she’s a competent manager, but not a leader” or, “he’s just not leader material?”

Such beliefs, whether voiced or not, put blinders on our own vision, constrain other people and limit our organizations. Here is how.

  • Because an employee’s job duties focus on managing programs or projects, we imagine she/he does not possess or cannot learn strategic thinking.
  • We make hiring and promotion decisions based on rigid ideas about what management vs. leadership competence involves.
  • We inadvertently compromise our ability to retain valuable employees.

shutterstock_134350289I propose that we see every employee as a leader—actually and potentially. This view activates the Pygmalion Effect wherein you, as a leader, are like the mythic artist Pygmalion. The human figure he sculpted became real when he fell in love with her. Similarly, your belief in our employees’ leadership potential activates that potential.

Here is a true story about leaders who encouraged leadership behavior in an employee: Even after several improvement cycles, a hospital Quality Improvement team could not bring the post-operative infection rate down to the target. After they invited more levels of staff onto the team, a custodian noticed the small pile of scrubs in the dirty laundry bin and wondered aloud if changing scrubs more often would make a difference. When providers began to change their cover-ups unerringly, the infection rate declined. The custodian’s careful observations, critical thinking and initiative showed leadership in action.

I invite you to explore your assumptions about leadership—what it is and who shows it. Then, analyze the way you develop leaders in your organization. For example:

  • Take a hard look at how you manage performance. “Appraisal” practices are often judgmental and punitive. Recreate a system that focuses on learning and appreciative leadership.
  • Create an organization-wide mentoring system.
  • Provide an external, credentialed coach for all executives (for example, all VP’s; all C-suite executives.)
  • Make sure every person promoted into a supervisor role learns how to supervise with a focus on learning. Provide a variety of ways to learn—with a mentor; with a coach who is not in the chain of coachee supervision and not from HR; by reading and reflective writing/discussion; through communities of practice; through courses.
  • When you form project teams, include staff at all levels so they learn to collaborate, identify problems, find root causes, and design and implement solutions.

Leadership Secrets

Poet William Blake’s poems are full of leadership secrets. Let’s find practical wisdom in this verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Seeing a world in a grain of sand invites us to appreciate a single grain as a whole and as part of a system of beach, sun, perceiver and perceived. In our organizations, we have talented, accomplished staff all around us. How can we more clearly see three things: the light in individual colleagues; their contribution to the whole enterprise; our helpful influence when we pay attention to them?

One CEO I work with — no matter how busy he is — takes time each week to have substantial conversations with several staff members. What are they working on? How is it going? What are the challenges? What excites them? As leaders, we can also take this opportunity to express our appreciation. When you meet with direct reports, periodically ask them how you can support them.

To see heaven in a wild flower, we have to have an image of what we aspire to. We have to believe this aspiration is possible in order to create paths to go there.

We can start with a simple aspiration to see beauty around us every day. One young leader I know ends the day by taking five minutes to consciously reflect on her “daily delights.” Chester Nez, the Navajo World War II code talker, wrote in his memoir that during bombardments, he lay in his foxhole repeating his people’s prayer,

I walk in beauty. Beauty is around me.  Beauty is above me, beauty below me.

The Englishman William Blake and Chester Nez would have gotten on well. When Blake says, “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” he partly means that we have to believe in possibility — beyond whatever foxholes we find ourselves in — and also believe we can seize that better possibility. Furthermore, we have infinite possibility within us.

In our organizations, one way to discover and attain positive possibility is to use the frameworks and methods of Appreciative Inquiry. Invite stories about strength and success, and from these appreciative stories, glean visions, paths and practices for your team or organization. Find more ways to use Appreciative Inquiry at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

spiderweb in sunlightTo hold eternity, we must know how to be present in the presence of another person in the present hour. Leading an organization and living our days can be like a race. Try looking around in the airport at people running, ears to cell phones. Now try looking into the face of each colleague and passerby. What do you notice?

There is another leadership secret in Blake’s poem. Notice how he sees opposites as dynamic, back-and-forth possibilities, as both-and paradoxes instead of either/or. Try this experiment. Next time you catch yourself saying “but,” back up and substitute the word “and.” Do you notice a shift?

Collaboration Keys

In today’s complex world, collaboration is indispensable. Yet too often, it is a vague aspiration or buzz word. stepping stones across pondGood news! You can teach your team and whole organization language keys that unlock collaborative behavior.

Key #1. Sharing your street corner

When a group is wrestling with a high-stakes or contentious issue, encourage better listening and prevent unhelpful conflict by asking people to “share their street corner.” The phrase invites people to realize that they are speaking from a particular standpoint.

When Joan says, “this is how I see this issue from my street corner,” several things happen. She shows awareness that she speaks from a particular context, for example, her job function or stakeholder point of view. Because the other group members recognize the phrase “sharing your street corner,” they get curious to know more about her viewpoint. The phrase also encourages Joan’s colleagues to share their street corner.

In a recent meeting where I introduced this phrase, group members realized that misunderstanding had developed because two manager groups live on different street corners. Once the groups understood their different viewpoints, they explored sources and results of the difference. The meeting helped group members “cross the street” to talk and, eventually, work toward the common “interests of the neighborhood.”

Key #2. Share notions

When it’s time to think about problem solutions or ideas for a change, begin by using the term “notions” instead of “solutions.” A notion suggests one possibility among many. It means “this is just a thought” and doesn’t drive a stake in the ground. Notions encourage a free exchange of ideas that broaden people’s perspectives.

The language of notions also helps prevent two ways teams get stuck. Maybe you’ve seen a group make a bee line toward a solution without entertaining other options or even clearly defining the issue. When the group has a shared understanding about “notions,” they can get unstuck when a group member gives a cue like, “Let’s treat this solution as a notion. What are other options?”

Another way groups get stuck is by spending so much time gathering ideas that they leave no time to evaluate them, make choices and solidify action plans. When your group lingers too long in the world of notions, you can say, “okay, we’ve got several notions. Now let’s analyze them so we can make good choices.”

Thanks to collaboration experts Miller and Katz for these helpful phrases.

Key #3. Speak to the fire.

Imagine your team conference table as a circle with a fire in the middle. When uncomfortable issues arise, the group can handle them openly when group members “speak to the fire” instead of aiming at other group members.

When Derek hears a colleague on the Quality Improvement team defend a process that he feels is broken, he knows he has to speak up. He says, “I’m going to speak to the fire here. My experience is that this process continues to cause delays.”

There is disagreement here–but no blame. “Speak to the fire” is in-common language that invites risk-taking, acknowledges discomfort and prevents blaming.

“Speak to the fire” comes from a collaborative method called the Circle Way.

Take Time to Save Time

Where does all the time go? Not enough of it, too much good work to do, and the pace of change is fast.

shutterstock_207716527With such challenges, can we make space for “think time” so we learn from successes and missteps? Here’s the thing: if we DON’T make this space, we risk working in the same worn grooves and getting stuck in the same ruts.

A paradox: take time to save time

My experience is that making a space for reflection can actually SAVE time. How? Well, first of all, reflecting and analyzing are a practice, like doing yoga or playing an instrument. We get better when we have a disciplined approach.

My colleague Kay Peterson and I teach a framework that helps people:

  • Understand day-to-day work dilemmas, successes, and missteps.
  • Get perspective on one’s actions by seeing how we get stuck, find new choices, and move toward action.
  • Do things better next time–and continually learning over time.

Use a compass to navigate

We use a new version of David and Alice Kolb’s Learning Cycle (2011). We call the Cycle the Learning Compass because it helps us navigate. The Compass helps us quickly locate where we are, on-the-spot, experience by experience. Then it helps us decide which direction to move toward without either idling or racing our motors.

The Learning Compass shows four main directions, North, East, South, and West. These correspond to the four ways we learn, by experiencing reflecting, thinking, and acting. (There are actually nine “styles” or directions embedded in the compass–but that’s for another blog post.)

Compass-4-Modes small image
The Learning Compass

We begin in the North with an experience that is direct and concrete. Moving clockwise to the East, we reflect on this experience, for instance by thinking about our assumptions and how we feel, and noticeing the experience from different perspectives.

When we are ready to use more rational analysis of the experience, we move toward the South. In the southern hemisphere, we form a plan for our next actions. Moving around to the West, we take action, the result of which is a new experience that returns us to the North. A new cycle begins.

How Holly used the Compass

My client Holly recently told me about a perplexing work dilemma. She invited an employee to a planning meeting, and her offer was rebuffed. Because the meeting concerned the employee’s future at the company, Holly wanted to do all she could to lead in the very best way. The Learning Compass gave us a map for working through the situation.

Since the experience with her employee, in the Compass North, Holly had been turning the experience over and over, wondering what to do. She realized that she was getting stuck in the Compass East, in reflection. At the same time, as Holly told her story, I noticed that she kept pushing herself to find a quick solution, in other words, toward action, in the Compass West. Holly knows she is a doer–that’s one of the reasons she’s an effective COO, but in this case she was uncomfortable with the one choice of action she kept coming back to.

I suggested that we move back to the Eastern hemisphere of the Compass, to reflection. She played with looking at her encounter from different perspectives. She got curious about her feelings and indecision. Before long, she began to come up with more choices for what to do. Following her energy, I encouraged Holly to “move South” on the Compass, where she could decide which option made sense. This question resonated: “Going into the next meeting, which choice(s) will give you the greatest satisfaction that you’ve been your best self as a leader?”

Holly decided pretty quickly. She was ready for action, in the Compass West. After trying out this action, Holly can “debrief” the experience on her own because the Compass, with its different ways of learning, is easy to remember and use.

The Simplest Way to Effective Meetings

Do these sound familiar? Your senior team gets bogged down in discussions without clear outcomes. Board members discussing a difficult issue circle around it, avoiding what is hard. A new team treads cautiously while important decisions wait.

For meeting headway, where do you start? Use sturdy group discussion guidelines, which should:

  • Promote deep thought and clear understanding.
  • Keep discussion focused.
  • Encourage healthy disagreement.
  • Yield clear, actionable decisions.
  • State expectations for running on time and evaluating the meeting.

To promote deep thinking and clear understanding, try these four guidelines:

Merryn works with a group 2011

  • Talk about assumptions.
  • Explain the reasons behind what you say and do.
  • Make statements and invite questions.
  • Be specific, using examples and data.

This set comes from Roger Schwarz, who built on what Chris Argyris and other pioneers noticed about how many assumptions lie beneath what we say. We are not trying to hide anything; we simply take our assumptions for granted. These four guidelines invite us to be aware of our patterns of thought and emotion and then tell co-workers where we are coming from.

In a recent meeting, my client–a non profit COO whom I’ll call Karen–used the word “whiners” to describe employees who raise objections to the change she is implementing. During a career in the air force, she explained, she loved the admonition “no whining,” which she thought was a useful norm. By explaining the basis for her thinking, Karen followed the second guideline.

All four group guidelines invited Karen and everybody at the meeting to get curious: What assumptions are underneath the conclusion that people are whining? Do other group members have different views? If so, what is the basis for them? Surfacing such information helped Karen understand what had been her automatic judgement and opened the door to modifying her change strategy.

Meeting guidelines are nothing new. Yet most leadership teams I work with do not use them. Why? The guidelines that have failed them are the wrong kind. Statements like “Respect each other” do not improve meetings because they merely state good intentions.

Instead, guidelines must describe specific, expected behaviors. You cannot directly see respect, which is the result of several behaviors. In addition, people of different cultures, age groups, etc., have different ideas about how to show respect.

Useful guidelines state particular actions that group members can see and hear. That is why there are four guidelines that remind people to be aware of assumptions and reveal their thinking. Here are more examples of guidelines that describe behavior:

  • Avoid “talking over,” interrupting, and side conversations, including texting and sending emails during meetings.
  • Agree on what important words and acronyms mean.

When I lead groups, I use 16 guidelines that invite everybody to monitor and adjust in a continuous learning loop of heightening awareness, speaking up, then making adjustments individually and together. Consistent use of meeting guidelines are a simple way for groups to learn and model mutual accountability.