The power of organizational vision

In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon. Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world. This is the start of a series of ideas and tools to help you with your own visioning process.

In 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged his nation to, literally, reach for the moon:

 “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

In a mere seven years, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans on the planet to set foot on the moon’s surface.  Dozens more followed.  Like all great leaders, Kennedy understood that an effective vision will unleash a level of power, alignment and motivation that can change the world.

I’m in the midst of supporting a visioning process for a large civil rights organization. The team has a phenomenal track record, and is now ready to take their work to the next level.  Their questions and insights have encouraged me to reflect even more deeply on my own approach to visioning – so organizational visioning is going to be the focus of my next few posts.

‘Interpersonal Leadership Styles’ Assessment for High Functioning, Collaborative Teams

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ILS teaches how to ‘flex’ for different styles

“Wow,” said Robert, looking over at me with a big smile. “They are REALLY loving this!”  Robert Gass, master facilitator and co-founder of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, sat beside co-trainer Gibran Rivera and I in the sunlit meeting room at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, high in the mountains of Colorado. The three of us were watching our hilarious, brilliant colleague, Jose Acevedo, exuberantly leading a group of 24 leaders through a half-day training on Interpersonal Leadership Styles. It is one of the most popular modules in Rockwood’s year-long Leading from the Inside Out program for national non-profit leaders.  Four groups of participants were clustered around flipcharts in in each corner of the room. The energy of each group was remarkably different: some were laughing and punching one another on the shoulders, others were fiercely debating, some pondering silently and gently offering suggestions to one another, as they reflected on their different working styles.  And they were, indeed, loving it.

In fact, I have heard back now from dozens of leaders about the power and impact of having gone through a team-wide training in Interpersonal Leadership styles. Why? People walk away with a keener sense of their blind spots and their strengths as leaders – and of their team-mates’. Rather than feeling judged for those differences, or limited by narrow definitions (something I had feared), it turns out that participants become vastly more appreciative, not just tolerant, of one another’s differences.

The ability to work across difference and to harvest the gifts those differences bring is an essential skill for today’s leaders.  Leaders simply must become adept at recognizing and working with not only differences of power and rank as expressed through race, sexual orientation, class, and ability, but differences in style.  Interpersonal Leadership Styles, or ILS, is an accessible tool that supports this kind of learning. And it offers immediate take-aways in terms of how to flex, even in periods of stress, to make the most of one anothers’ unique perspectives.

Interpersonal Leadership Styles is one of several typologies over the past several decades based on the work of Jung and others, to help map out the different leadership styles individuals tend to bring to their teams. Other typologies you may have heard of include Myers-Briggs, Colby, or DISC. It turns out they are all based on largely the same body of Jungian-based social science research – just packaged differently. But the concept isn’t new. In fact, the Chinese first invented work-related typologies over 4,000 years ago, to help assign civil servants to appropriate roles based on their unique styles and aptitudes.

I and most of my other fellow leadership trainers at Rockwood chose to get certified in ILS because, compared to other systems, we found it simpler to grasp and apply immediately. Most of the sessions I facilitate are between 2.5 and 3 hours, although full-day versions are also offered by many of Stratton Consultants’ licensees.  And while at first I resisted pursuing certification in any such system, I became convinced after repeatedly observing the power of teams who embrace their stylistic differences.

For more information about ILS, contact Stratton Consulting.

NEW COURSE: Measuring Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Practices

The incredibly talented, results-driven team at Anima Leadership has a brand-new workshop offering: Measuring Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Practices, on May 23rd, 2013 in downtown Toronto. Wish I could be there!

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The talented, results-driven team at Anima Leadership has a brand-new workshop offering: Measuring Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Practices, on May 23rd, 2013 in downtown Toronto.  I frequently work with organizations that struggling to become more inclusive, diverse and reflective of the communities they serve.  The team at Anima Leadership is simply brilliant at this work,  fusing the latest research from neuroscience, psychology, prejudice reduction, organizational development and mindfulness with proven practices for sustaining organizational performance. Now they’ve surveyed the latest smart practices research on recruitment, retention and advancement in order to develop unique diversity instruments for measuring inclusion in the workplace. Assess where your organization is at and where it wants to go using the Anima Inclusive Workplace Toolkit.

In this workshop you will learn:

  • What gets in the way of establishing a diverse and inclusive organization.
  • Leadership competencies for developing Diversity Champions including emotional intelligence, mindfulness and authentic connection.
  • How unconscious bias results in “blind spots” within all individuals and organizations and the importance of developing bias detection and management skills.
  • How to apply the Anima Inclusive Organizational Practices Continuum using seven factors for measuring organizational change with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion.

For anyone on the East Coast and/or in the Toronto area (or beyond), this will be a fantastic workshop. Click here for more information.

Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!

The Trajectory of Social Change

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How does social change “happen”? And what can social change leaders and groups do to help it happen? Before getting into the philosophy or techniques for movement-building, or for ‘accelerating’ or influencing social change, I’ve found it helpful to unpack the basics. So I’ll start with what, to me, is the seminal and still-useful model for how social change takes place.

Back in the early 1960s, Everett Roger and his academic pals developed the “Social Diffusion Theory”, outlined in the book Diffusion of Innovations. Picture a basic bell-curve: The model describes the trajectory of new idea or technology as it spreads through a community. First, the idea is taken up by “innovators” – a small group educated risk-takers. From there it spreads to a larger group of popular, socially influential “early adapters,” followed by the socially-connected “early majority”. The idea continues to spread through the community, through to the more skeptical, traditional low-income “late majority”, and finally to the cautious and less-connected are “laggards”. Awareness has a role – but “just give the people the info” doesn’t do it on its own.

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At the personal level, Rogers’s theory outlines five steps: Knowledge (just becoming aware of the issue); Persuasion (‘coming to judgment,’ as Daniel Yankelovich would describe it), Decision, Implementation, and finally Confirmation. Other factors are interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. These last five stages more or less correspond to the seven-staged model outlined by the “dean” of public engagement, Daniel Yankelovich, in his seminal book Coming to Judgment. When about 15% of the community’s population has taken up the idea, then it has reached its so-called “tipping point, ” as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book of the same name. Continue reading “The Trajectory of Social Change”