I describe here a leadership team workshop I've developed from my experience working in and with IT companies of all sizes and flavors. It is a completely customized experience, a carefully selected blend of pieces I've put together with the specifics of the Iași/Romanian IT and culture in mind.
If the context is orchestrated or decentralized, if the style of leadership is direct or subtle, if there's a preferences for strict process or maybe for the creative tension that comes from ambiguity, all leadership teams need to be at the forefront of the organizational conversation of how things are done around here. They need to consider the what, the why and some level of the how. They need to be confident in themselves as individuals, self aware as a team, trustful of each other, unafraid to make decisions, with a shared moral code, a goal and a plan. And they need the skills to make it all happen: communication, negotiation, decisions, emotional intelligence, strategic planning.
jump straight to the workshop structure if you don't want to read the narrative description
What's the best use of a couple of days spent with a leadership team?
Is it formulating strategies and plans? Reviewing the year? Team building?
A bit of all for sure, but the key value I go after is an opportunity for the team to reconnect, to discard old assumptions, to speak powerful truths and to get emotional commitment around an ambitious but realistic plan that everybody believes in.
To this end, my workshop is designed to be a somewhat discomforting, unsettling experience, to shake long held assumptions. I do not shy away from conflict or hard questions, I seek disagreement and debate. True agreement on who we are and what we are here to do does not come from polite, predictable statements. Real conversations are what all teams need and what strengthens all teams.
This is not the easy way. The easy way would be a personality test, a pleasant chat about how different we all are, a round the table sharing session, a flip-chart postit game of gathering 50 ideas from everyone in the room and then a design by committee exercise of saying there's a bit of truth in everything. Easily done, easily forgotten. I'm not judging, maybe a light day following by a fun evening is what your team needs right now, and there's nothing wrong with that. This is not that.
High & Low
Many leadership workshops don't achieve their potential because they either look no further than in front of their feet, or they look too far. They either address only operational nitty gritty with no real emotional commitment on the path ahead, or, they put focus only the most idealistic value statements and multi years strategic directions that are disconnected from daily reality and are therefore not believable. A great workshop needs to do both: high and low, small and large, strategic and tactical, hard and soft, back and forth. Today's realities are to be acknowledged but not get stuck in. Value statements are important, but they need to be honest and real in way in which most corporate statements fail to be. It's not even a linear progression from high to low, or low to high, but a constant back and forth, from the small to the large, from the concrete to the abstract, from the impediment to the opportunity, from the existing to the desired, back and forth. Start with an example, find related situations, extrapolate a best practice, test its limits. State a desire, find examples, validate it. Back and forth, high and low. This kind of workshop is very difficult to script, which is why I only do it myself, to keep it adaptable. Its success is dependent on keeping track of the key agenda points, addressing the fundamental questions, but also flexing and adapting at all times, at the sight of the slightest change in flow.
Just enough prep & structure
It's always a good idea to include the participants in the planning by informing them of the main points of what's going to happen and asking for their input. I usually get their input by talking and probing in a bit more detail, but if I'm to summarize to one question, that would be "Tell me the top few issues/problems/topics you'd insist that we go through at the workshop?" If you have some previous exposure to the team and you feel you already have a decent understanding of the situation, preparation over email or chat is usually enough. If not, I do more, one to one interviews, as much probing and prep as I need to feel like I know enough. That having been said, I like to have a pretty light agenda, with the few key sections, a list of the important points, leave a lot of room for adaptation, have the space to spend time where we hit something important and even diverge where there is value in it. My goal is not to perfectly execute a plan, a detailed agenda, that's of no value to me or to anyone. My goal is to trigger real conversations about issues that matter.
Maybe an obvious point, but the workshop needs to be away from the office, without interruptions, laptops and phones put away.
Real conversations are direct, honest, vulnerable discussion on the things that matter. Direct, because we are not afraid of conflict, because without conflict there is no deep agreement. Well, actually we are afraid of conflict, but that's something we'll work on. Honest, because we say what we think. Vulnerable, because we admit mistakes, weaknesses, that we don't know everything. Conflict where we are also vulnerable is conflict from which we learn and from which relationships are strengthened. And last but not least, our agenda needs to have on it the things that matter, not the comfortable surface above it. We could spend a whole day looking professionals and talking "managementy", and actually discuss nothing of consequence, if we don't get to the real issues.
If there's one way to summarize the fundamental objective of every leadership workshop, it is this: get to the real conversations.
From a problem solving perspective, leadership is all about making effective decisions with insufficient information. Leaders must be good at informing themselves from diverse sources, to calibrate pieces of information of varying quality and levels of trust, to know when to stop, to know when to dig more, to have a sense of timing and a sense of calculated risk that they can understand and communicate.
If you're too sure about something, you're probably too late and you've waited too much. If you're very unsure, then you've probably not informed yourself at all. This discipline of constantly understanding what you don't know and then figuring out how you're going to get to know more, and when is time to stop, is not at all unlike delivering a software project in an agile way: small bets, small steps, hypotheses, validation, new learning, new bets.
The practice of validated learning is the practice of leadership and it's best described in The Lean Startup.
Of course, agile leadership comes with a lot of complexities. Communicating the change, changing while keeping a true north, conveying both flexibility and stability, there are aspects which go farther than just figuring out what to do. There's doing, and then there's everything you do around that.
In a way, I will run the workshop in the same way, as a microcosmos of validated learning where we issue and test assumptions by debating them.
There's two variants: the one day and the two days.
For both, the following stand:
- Up to 12 participants, ideally under 10
- Who are they: company leadership teams, business unit/department leadership teams
- Out of office location, can be in the city, somewhere quiet with a flipchart and a projector, water and coffee
The agenda for one day, with more or less focus on each depending on situation:
- Situational Statement: why are we here, objectives for the day
- Rules of engagement: How are we going to behave for the day, directness, conflict, set expectations
- Round the table start: intros (some angle if they already know each other), do they want to add anything to the agenda, ready to start?
2. Business objectives
It's required to put the workshop into perspective by referring to the overall business goals and the codes of conduct under which the team is operating. Is it about aggressive growth? Is it about quality? Of course you need to do everything at the same time, but what's the defining thing right now? Does the company value quick decision making and the risks that come with it, or does it value conservative safe thinking? Are there any specific KPI's? What's the ethos, what are behaviors the team wants to display and see around them?
I like to follow Lencioni's objectives sheet model from The Advantage. I will simplify it and change it according to the situation: sometime I will skip the idealistic goal, sometimes I will skip the standard operating objectives, it depends on the situation.
3. List of issues
The core of the workshop is going through a list of issues: problems, challenges, things that need to be done. I will introduce each issue and invite conversation which I will loosely moderate.
Where does the list come from? 3-5 core issue, issues that have the best chance to lead to real conversation, gathered by me during prep. Some issue will also come up during the workshop, but the majority are usually gathered ahead of time.
4. Tension points
As we go through topics and issues, as we discuss objectives, as do we everything, I will be on the lookout for tension just below the surface and, as I sense it, I will push to bring it out and put it on the table to be debated and argued about. This is what will give the workshop depth and will keep it from staying at a supperficial level.
What are we going to do about it? We've explored and we're identified issues, what do we want to do about it? What's going to be different tomorrow, specifically?
As we go through the topics, we will stop to make decisions where decisions need to be made in order to capitalize and close on the breakthroughs. Tension and debate, conflict, they are precursors to agreement and decisions.
When it comes to decision I will emphasize on the disagree & commit principle: debate as much as you like, debate forcefully, disagree, but once the team decision has been made, it then becomes everyone's decision and all will work equally for its success, regardless if they initially agreed or not.
Hoe does the team make decisions? Consensus? Majority? Leader driven? Formally? Informally? In a way, it doesn't matter: it is far more important to have an openly discussed and agreed way of making decisions, whatever that is, then the mechanism in itself. Everyone in the team should know how decisions are made and feel capable of accessing that decision making process. That alone will make it a subject of conversation and therefore feedback and improvement. I personally tend to prefer and recommend high individuality high transparency decision making processes where anyone is allowed to try pretty much about anything, as long as they are transparent about it and consult and check with those affected before taking irreversible steps.
6. Closure & Action
The puppy rule: who's taking the puppy home? Decisions are like puppies: we can talk in third person about puppies all day long: this thing should be done, someone should do that thing, but until an individual puts their hand up and says "I will do it, by the date of X", we're just talking about puppies but we're not actually doing anything. It's fine to roam and explore, but when it comes to decisions and action, always be asking: who's talking the puppy home?
I will push for an agreed list of decisions and next steps.
Tools & knowledge
Real conversations are the point. In terms of technique, tools and knowledge, I will typically talk about communication techniques, active listening, assertiveness, conflict management, giving and receiving feedback, public comms, cultural differences, personality differences. I prefer to not spend a lot of time on theory, not because I dislike theory, but because I don't want it to become the highlight of the day, I don't want people to go home and be thinking about their personality type or whatever, fun as that may be. I want people to go home thinking about the real conversation they just had in the team. Because of this, there's an intentional effort on my part of sort of downplaying theory, and I will introduce it in small batches, as needed, 3-5 minutes at a time.
The workshop can also be done in two days. What's the difference?
For one, we'll dive deeper into almost everything and therefore the agenda for the first day will likely spread into the second day and instead of taking 8 hours it will take 10, maybe 12 in some cases. We'll spend more time on the first day issues and let them overrun.
Then, we'll add some things:
- Round the table team feedback. For new teams, or struggling teams, or teams that just need to clear the air, we'll have a dedicated session of reciprocated feedback from all to all.
- Exercises in leadership. We'll take some of the issues that turned out to attract a lot of attention and proved difficult to fully figure out and we'll deep dive into them, focusing more and offering commentary on how we're approaching it, how is the conversation going, how are the decisions being made, what can be improved.
- Talk in detail about agility, complexity, decision making. Deep dive into agile decisions, leadership in ambiguous contexts, communicating complexity etc.
- Emotional intelligence. Deep dive and unpack conflict, feedback, emotion, difficult interactions.
- Habit formation & learning new skills. How do we as leaders understand what we need to improve in our behavior and then take specific steps to develop new skills?
Do you need a one day or a two day?
You may need a two day workshop if you really need to define your business objective and have nothing and we need to take it from scratch, or if the team is in a difficult place, with tense relationships, and we need to spend a lot of time working on that, or if there's a particularly long list of issues.
I will recommend an option after we get a chance to discuss the situation.
This workshop is one of my most frequent activities and also one of my favorite activities. It's a great way to bring value and clarity in a day or two, of unlocking tensions and decisions that may have been simmering, unsurfaced and unclarified, for months of even years. Once you unlock the leadership team, you unlock the organization.
Andrei Postolache, Founder & Consultant