Executive Facilitation: Getting the Right OutcomesBy the end of an executive working session, execs need to leave thinking they achieved the outcomes they needed and know what to do next. To do this, here's what we recommend.
Part 4: Techniques to make sure your executives get what they came for.
There are few things in shorter supply than an executive’s time. When invited to a working session, they worry about wasting hours with nothing to show for it.
If you’re running an executive working session, you want them to leave thinking it was time well spent—that they achieved the outcomes they needed and know what to do next, to make it real.
Here are six tips.
Tip #1: Establish desired outcomes.
The only way to get to the right place in the end is to begin with the end in mind.
That means getting consensus on the outcomes of the session well before it starts—when you send invitations. Then, confirm those outcomes in the room.
What do we mean by outcomes? That depends on your organization and your group. Outcomes might include strategies, decisions, operating models or principles, plans, schedules, or conceptual frameworks. Make sure you define them well. What would a good outcome look like? Does it have words, visuals, lists, timelines, assignments of responsibility…?
Also, identify any specific decisions that the group either must make or is not going to make. This can help avoid misguided energy during your session. Sometimes, participants push for a decision instead of properly exploring the topic because they think a decision will be made in the meeting. You don’t want people slipping into “selling mode” when it’s not the right time for it.
Once you agree on outcomes, let them guide the session. Check often to make sure you’re on track to get to them by the end of the session. Use those outcomes to prioritize topics or activities.
Tip #2: Set the rules and enforce them.
Come up with a few ground rules. You’re not being rigid; you’re proactively removing obstacles to your outcomes.
For example, set the timing: start time, end time, and break times. Consider setting a rule that you resume work on time and don’t stop to help late joiners catch up. Decide how to prioritize and focus the work; some facilitators use a “parking lot” (white board, flip chart, or PowerPoint slide) for off-topic discussions, so you stop them but don’t lose them.
Ask participants to voice any objections and then agree verbally to the rules. This will help the group self-correct when it goes off-track.
Tip #3: Prepare the group for productivity.
Think about any obstacles you might encounter with your particular set of participants.
For example, do you have a participant at odds with the others on a particular issue? Get ready to deal with that. You might want to shore up the minority position or, if the participant is just impeding progress, you might frame his or her objections as out of scope; put them in the parking lot and follow up later.
Do you have participants of different ranks? You’ll have to create a level playing field. Maybe make sure the lower-ranking people contribute first, so their ideas aren’t dampened by a boss with a different view. Or gather some ideas from those with less power ahead of time, and prompt participants to share them.
Tip #4: Minimize the troublemakers.
We’ve all been there. One person in the group seems to be taking up all the air. Or worse, they’re actively undermining the group. Lucky you, facilitator, they’re your problem now. Here are some tips:
- Make it a rule. Set an expectation, up front, that participants will stay on-topic, let others speak, and work collaboratively.
- Redirect them. First, assume good will; the troublemaker might not be aware that they’re a problem. Call them out, politely, and ask to hear from others. For example, “Thanks for your input, Jim. I want to make sure we hear all the ideas in the room. Carol, do you have any thoughts on this?”
- Suffocate them. Not literally, but don’t give them airtime. Direct questions to other participants and, if necessary, ignore their comment and pivot to another subject or participant.
- Use your physical presence. Move across the room to stand next to them—or even stand with your back to them – and address the rest of the group.
- Enlist the group. Reward good participants. Encourage constructive, on-topic, collaborative behaviors with praise and reinforcement. Often, the group will move onto the right path and shut the troublemaker out.
Tip #5: Maintain momentum.
As facilitator, your job is to keep the group moving toward those outcomes. Here are a few ways:
- Ask questions to clarify, elaborate, guide, or show the group where there’s a gap in their thinking. Validate, reflect back, and connect dots.
- Exercise patience. Sometimes progress is messy. Give the group the time they need for organic discussion and idea generation.
- Shut up. People love to fill silence. If no one is talking, just wait and they will. And, in any case, make sure you’re only speaking as needed to facilitate. If you’re talking a lot, there’s something wrong. Don’t do the work for them or put words in their mouths. You want participants to own the results of the session; that will happen only if they land on the solutions themselves. We want to share back what we’re hearing to validate it, and connect dots, but we want them to form the conclusions
- Check progress and focus. Breaks are a good time to decide whether your pace and direction are right. Assess this yourself and/or ask a few participants what they think. Is the group hitting the milestones? Are they filling out the picture they need at the end? If not, when the group reconvenes, reset them toward their goals.
Tip #6: Close with clarity.
Did the group produce what they wanted? Show them! Play back what they produced, get consensus that it’s right, then plan to take it forward.
Confirm any decisions they made, then build a cascading messaging plan. This plan defines how to handle the decisions, information, or concepts coming out of the session—what should be kept confidential and what should be shared with the rest of the organization. Next, decide which information goes to which groups. Finally, agree on the talking points and terms to use when delivering the messages. Establish activities, responsibilities, and a timeline. Importantly, define the very next step to be taken for each key decision and schedule a follow-up meeting to check in. This will create momentum and give the group a quick win.
Don’t let your great work stay in the room—use your session outcomes as a launching pad to make a real impact on your business.
Project Management Tip: Get the Disney EffectThe Walt Disney World organization creates a magical experience for its customers. It got us thinking, can a project manager bring that same magic to their work? We think so -- here's how.
How to engineer a magical experience for your team and your client.
Everything at Walt Disney World is intentional.
The trees are groomed in such a way that the bees had access to their nectar. Thorns are removed from the cacti within patron reach. The pavement around low fountains changes to a worn, uneven brick pattern that commands subtle attention, reducing the risk of texters and scrollers falling in.
On the safari, you feel like you are so close to the animals. But, invisible to the untrained eye, are ditches, specifically planted foliage, and other ways to ensure patrons are safe. Is it magic or science? Maybe a little of both. It’s clear that Disney studied animal and human behaviors, and that information was used to ensure an immersive but safe experience. But the effect is certainly magical.
Throughout the park, the mechanics are also designed to be invisible. You hear music but don’t see speakers, see projected images but never see projectors, hear and see fireworks but never see barges, boats, or pyrotechnic staff. You never see a groundskeeper, yet the place is immaculate.
During my recent visit, I marveled at the choreography of the rides. It seemed like no seat was left empty for more than 30 seconds before the next rider was seated. Moving floors went at the same speed as the cars, so the line kept moving as customers eased on and off the rides without getting hurt. The effect was almost elegant, like a waltz.
The cast members are specially chosen and perfectly trained. Everyone stays in-character, no matter what; you’re always interacting with Cinderella or Peter Pan – never, ever the actor. The driver of your vehicle doesn’t feel like a Lyft or Uber, but a new friend taking you to one of their favorite places.
The effect was almost elegant, like a waltz.
The overall experience is that you are the center of this wonderful universe. Everything was created, designed, and implemented with you in mind. A visit to Walt Disney World leaves you feeling embraced and cared for.
As I enjoyed my visit, I thought about the Walt Disney World organization needed to create that magical experience. It requires leadership, strategy, science, innovation, and tight management, thousands of skilled employees – the same things that serve any high-performing organization. After my trip to Walt Disney World, I’m trying to put a touch of Disney into my work with clients.
So how can you manage a magical project?
The Magic of Information
- Learn as much about the client and the subject matter as you can. Information is power; it will help you to deliver the best for your client. You might uncover business needs that weren’t part of the original scope. You might find synergies with other initiatives. Doing your research and constantly learning will help you be more agile, making smart decisions and delivering beyond your original scope.
- Science is your friend. There’s a wealth of information out there that can inform your solution. Ground your work in behavioral science, technical knowledge, and lessons learned by organizations who have done similar projects.
The Magic of Invisible Design
- Think about the outcome your client wants, and design everything toward that end. The organization doesn’t need to see what you did to deliver the results; they need the results.
- Take the employee’s point of view. What will they see, hear, read, and experience? How do you want them to feel, think, and act as a result of the program you’re building? That’s what matters. Start by thinking of that end-user experience and their work lives after you have implemented your program. Focus on creating that future state for them.
Think about the outcome your client wants, and design everything toward that end.
The Magic of Seamless Efficiency
- Break down barriers for your team. I like to call this Dragon Slaying. Look ahead to see what dragons may be on the path to slow your team down and remove them. Sometimes this means that the magical dragon poofs into thin air and sometimes it’s mitigating the risk in a way that your team must merely step over the dragon’s lifeless body. Either way, identify and minimize them, ideally before they become a hindrance for your team.
The Magic of Elegant Orchestration
- Keep up with schedules and deliverable dates. Use your project plan as a living document; update it daily, identifying risks, challenges, and wins. Keep detailed notes of and track deliverable status.
- Ensure all team members are aware of the project plan, dates, and outcomes. They need the whole picture, including the hand-offs: what comes before and after a task and how their work affects other team members and teams.
Dragon slaying: Look ahead to see what dragons may be on the path to slow your team down and remove them.
- Ensure smooth sign-offs and transitions as project moves from one stage to the next. Have clear methods for sign-off and task completion. Document and share completion criteria for each task.
- Build strong communication channels across functional areas. Ensure teams know who to communicate with, when, about what, and how. Establish stand-up meetings, status documents, collaboration forums, or anything else that ensures great communication.
The Magic of Being In-Character
- Cast wisely. Know your team’s roles and superpowers: what they do, how they do it, their capabilities, and their limitations.
- Give them their script and character. Each person must know their roles and responsibilities and the roles and responsibilities of the other Super Friends.
- Put on a show. Remind them they are a cast of characters, not solo players. Where one person is weak, another might be strong. Encourage them to lift each other up and succeed as a team, in service of the client. Your client’s experience depends on the entire team playing their parts.
Know your team’s roles and superpowers: what they do, how they do it, their capabilities, and their limitations.
The Magic of Caring
- The project experience hangs on the well-being of your teams, client, and stakeholders. It might go without saying but treat them with care. Make sure they walk away from your project feeling good about their work and themselves.
- Is your project NOT the happiest place on earth? Set rules of engagement. Plan to deal with conflict. Handled well, conflict breeds innovation and invention. Set the standard that respect, dignity, and civility are requirements on your project.
- Think again about the experience of each client team member and stakeholder. Do they get that your efforts are centered on them? Will they feel your program was a custom-made experience that made them better? Keep your eye on that goal and adjust your work to make that happen.
Make sure they walk away from your project feeling good about their work and themselves.
Whether we think of Disney as a magical experience or an elite organization, we can learn a lot from them.
How to Approach Year-End Goal SettingAs a leader, how should you approach annual goal setting? A clear process and sound principles will make strong goal setting easier on everyone.
Now is the time to start 2024 right.
It’s the end of the year, and most organizations are embarking on everyone’s favorite holiday activity: goal setting.
Leaders analyze the past year’s performance and estimate what they can and must accomplish in the coming year. Executives then review these goals and finalize organization-wide, measurable objectives that drive success.
This annual exercise is necessary, and it makes sense. But why is it so hard?
First, each role has its own relationship to goals. Top leaders want to dominate the market but must also consider the health of the organization. Executives and managers want to push for greatness but also take morale and capabilities into consideration. Employees feel pressure to impress the boss but have to balance that impulse with what they think is realistic and achievable.
And, after all that work and rounds and rounds of reviews, the final goals are cascaded down to the organization, which can be like a game of telephone. By the time a line employee gets his work objectives, they might no longer be recognizable to top leadership.
So, as a leader, how should you approach annual goal setting? A clear process and sound principles will make strong goal setting easier on everyone.
Teams understand their capabilities and limitations, and if given a safe platform, they will tell you what they really think. It’s good to be aspirational, but make sure you propose goals the team believes in and feels inspired to achieve.
A clear process and sound principles will make strong goal setting easier on everyone.
Align up, down, and across.
Departmental goals should directly support organizational goals, and departmental goals need to make sense across teams and divisions. As you translate overall goals to objectives for teams and employees, check them against the strategy. This type of alignment is critical to business strategy and execution — every part should contribute to the whole.
Make sure your goals are balanced across your strategic and operational capabilities. Don’t set one goal so high that achieving it saps energy from other areas or from overall productivity. Discuss where your key balancing metrics are, like volume and customer experience, and allocate investment and resources across those areas, not just those that obviously hit the bottom line.
Employees need to know as soon as possible what they are being measured against. The later you share this information, the higher the risk. On January 2, your teams are already supposed to be working toward the new year’s goals. They need time to shift and ramp up. So, give employees a preview of the new year’s priorities. This is especially important if your company ties goals to merit pay; this is not an area where employees want to be surprised.
Employees need to know as soon as possible what they are being measured against.
Review and support, often.
Create a safe space for employees to report on their progress and ask for help where they feel stuck – otherwise goals can feel punitive. Give people space to tell the most accurate story of where they are so you can support them. That’s a win-win.
Goal setting has big impacts on productivity, morale, and the bottom line. Make sure you use this time to create meaningful goals that help your business succeed and your people thrive.
Executive Facilitation: Making the Session EnjoyableCan executive participants enjoy themselves and do great work? We say yes.! Here are a few ideas.
Part 3: Five tips for a great facilitation experience.
You have assembled key executives to solve a problem, create an important strategy, or make big decisions. Sounds like serious business. But they can enjoy themselves and do great work. Here are a few ideas.
1. Show forward motion.
Participants who feel like they’re wasting their precious time are unhappy participants. Help them keep their eye on the prize; show them throughout the session that they’re moving toward their goals. The easiest way to do that is to:
- Confirm the goals of the session at the start,
- Show a path of milestones through the session.
- Check off these milestones as you reach them.
2. Delight some eyeballs.
Nothing saps joy like dense, wordy slides. You might need a few of them as examples of real-world reports and such but keep the rest of your visuals pretty and clean.
Use only as many slides as necessary to achieve the goals of the session. On those slides, focus on graphics and minimize words. Remember, people can’t read and listen to you at the same time. Keep the detailed content in your facilitator notes.
When choosing graphics, be a little creative. Invest in the beautiful, funny, and surprising. Your participants will remember what you’re saying better when it’s attached to a memorable image.
Nothing saps joy like dense, wordy slides.
Another refreshing approach is to invite a graphic facilitator to document your work. For example, as you create your organization’s new vision and mission, the graphic facilitator illustrates it on a giant paper canvas or smart board on the wall. The graphic documentation is a great reference point to keep the team focused on its goals after the session. Learn more and see examples here.
3. Lighten up.
You want the session to be enjoyable, or maybe even fun. Think about ways – big and small – to elevate the mood.
A good place to set a fun tone is the kickoff. For example, have all participants send you their high school yearbook photo ahead of time, then put those photos on your opening slides. Do the participants know each other pretty well? On a break, have them pick from a list of superlatives and honor each participant when you call the meeting back into session. Find out who was voted “Best Hair,” or “Most Likely to Skydive.” Find other ideas here.
Another way to build in fun is to put learning or decision-making in the context of a game. But use caution; participants – especially those with big responsibilities – don’t have time for meaningless shenanigans. So, if you engage in shenanigans, make them meaningful. It’s ok to play, but the play must move the group forward.
4. Get them out of their chairs.
Engaging the body can help engage the brain. Here are three things to try.
- Work in motion. Invite participants to gather around a flipchart or whiteboard for some activities. Or structure an activity so that they have to move to complete it; for example, ask them to vote on post-its and then move around the room to place them.
- Give them a break. Schedule breaks throughout the session, so participants can stretch their legs or take care of urgent work matters.
- Take it outside. If the venue allows, move the group outside for some of the session. Fresh air, natural light, and a change of scenery are good for creativity and critical thinking.
It’s ok to play, but the play must move the group forward.
5. Give them time.
One of the benefits of executive working sessions is the time they get together. For many execs, this is a rare and precious thing. They have a chance to network, get advice, collaborate on hot topics, and form stronger bonds. Balance the work at hand with unstructured time so participants leave feeling even better than expected.
Important work doesn’t have to be dull or painful. With a little preparation, your participants will walk away happy and eager for your next session.
Executive Facilitation: Being a Great FacilitatorExpert executive facilitation makes a group more powerful and productive. As a facilitator, elevate meetings by helping executives realize their potential.
Part 2: Are great facilitators born or made?
While there are no doubt some innate advantages, we lean toward the latter. Here are some tips to help you create compelling and productive sessions for your executive participants.
Take their point of view.
Execs are thinking about the needle they need to move. Do you know what’s important to the people in the room? Can you describe what they need out of the session, and what they want to do with it, going forward?
Find out. That’s your North Star. A good facilitator maintains focus on the executives’ ultimate goal and how the outcomes of the session will serve that goal.
Meet them at their level.
A good executive facilitator has a certain gravitas. A mismatch between the facilitator and participants undermines the process. Own the room so participants feel confident following you through the process.
How? That depends on your role.
- Are you an external facilitator? A contractor or a member of another function within the organization? You might have a little work to do, especially if participants don’t know you well. Establish credibility, both before and during the session. Remind participants of your CV, illustrate points with stories from your experience. and make sure your content is unimpeachably valid to an executive audience. If they feel you’re one of them, in some sense, things will run more smoothly.
- Are you a member of the executive group you’re facilitating? Facilitating a group of your peers has its positives and negatives. The downside is that your own team might resist your efforts to impose process during the session. If you expect pushback, preview the rules before the meeting and then get verbal consensus as you start. On the “pro” side, you have built-in credibility and you’ll have an easier time maintaining focus on what’s important.
Your role is to help the group produce something better than they could have on their own.
Here are the basics to help you get started.
- Define the session. What is the goal? What does success for the day look like? Which topics will be discussed and what topics won’t be discussed?
- Give people space. Remember, you’re not the presenter; you’re the facilitator. Even if you know a lot about the topic of the session, resist the urge to talk a lot. Also, recognize that some people need more space than others. Introverts need time to process before they chime in. You might need to call on them to get their input. And consider individual styles ahead of the session, so you can plan accordingly.
- Ask good questions. What is a “good” question? It challenges assumptions, plays devil’s advocate, draws out more information, gets at the “why”, or compares to other ideas for the purpose of prioritizing. Also, ask “Why now?” when discussing a strategic initiative; it will spark meaningful discussion.
- Listen. Often, it’s the emotion carried in the words that is most important to pick up on. That’s the area to explore. Great facilitators lead the group into discussion topics they have been avoiding—whether it’s the proverbial elephant in the room or just a touchy subject. Another effective tool is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats Technique – Exploring your mind. It’s a great way to avoid groupthink and pressure-test the emerging conclusion. It also offers a boost to groups who are disengaged or filled with non-confrontational.
Often, it’s the emotion carried in the words that is most important to pick up on.
- Catch the valuable points. This is one of your most critical tasks. As a good facilitator, you are deeply knowledgeable on the subject and goals of the session. Use that filter to grab the key ideas as they float by in the flow of conversation. Maybe you can tag team: assign a scribe to capture these points on the whiteboard or pad.
- Connect some dots. It’s also up to you to make sense of what the group is offering up. Point out links between one participant’s comment and another’s. Categorize ideas against the session’s goals. Identify recurring themes, issues, or opportunities. As the facilitator, you need to be able to see the forest for the trees.
- Synthesize information. The purpose of an executive working session is to generate something new: a concept, model, strategy, plan, or action. What is it? Help the group see what’s emerging. What are we saying? What does that session outcome look like?
- Invite the group to shape the result. Show them what they came up with. Ask, “Is it right? How should we change it?” Ask the group both what they think and how they feel about it. “Give me one word to describe how you feel about this decision we’ve reached.” can uncover suppressed concerns about a solution. People overthink their answers to “what do you think?” questions whereas “How do you feel?” is typically answered more simply, directly and from the gut.
As the facilitator, you need to be able to see the forest for the trees.
- Check it against the session’s goals. Rewind to the beginning of the session. “What was the goal? What did we expect to accomplish today? Did we get there?”
- Draw out next steps. Help the group decide what should happen after the session, with an eye on the ultimate outcomes for the organization. Then determine responsibilities and timing. Finally, get verbal commitment to your plan.
- Define the message plan. Ask, “What decisions did we make that should be shared with the rest of the organization? What should not be shared outside of the group? What are the messages and who will deliver them?” Add those messaging items to the next steps plan.
Executive facilitation is about making the group more powerful and productive. It’s about guiding them toward meaningful outcomes that align with the organization’s goals. With thoughtful facilitation, you can elevate these meetings and help executives realize their potential as a strategic team.
Company Values: Actual or AspirationalWhere do your company values show up? On the website or in the people?
Where do your company values show up? On the website or in the people?
I’ve always been interested in company values. When researching prospective new employers, I search websites for the values and how they are described. I ask about them in interviews. I hope there is something meaningful at the heart of the organization – yes, even for-profit private sector companies.
When I join an organization, I watch to see how these values are lived out by the organization. How do they show up in day-to-day life? Are they a common language we speak as employees? Do they guide the decision-making of leaders?
Sadly, the answer is often, “No.”
Many like me find that the values displayed on websites and office posters are missing from our daily work lives. For values-driven individuals this can be disillusioning. I’ve been there many times in my career.
When I approached Emerson, I was surprised to not find values listed on the website. It was the lack of a proverbial banner waving that caught my attention. In my first interview I asked, “What are Emerson’s values as an organization?” The long-time employee listed them, one by one, without missing a beat. He described them with examples.
I encountered them again during my offer process. The CFO tied values into our discussion about the compensation package. Now, as a team member myself, I’ve pitched in as the organization does the right thing for the right reason – calling on our values to guide those decisions.
Now I conduct interviews on behalf of Emerson. I ask potential candidates about their values, then proudly describe how values play out at Emerson. Each time I say, “You won’t find them on our website, you won’t see a banner in the home office; but they are very much part of our shared thinking, our decision-making, and our conversations with each other at all levels.”
This organization lives what it believes in.
We don’t use a bullhorn; we show values rather than tell others about them.
As other team members have come on board, I learned it wasn’t just me who was thrilled to find Emerson “as advertised.” I’ve reveled in hearing them say, “The values aren’t aspirational, they are actual.”
Executive Facilitation: How to PrepareAre you planning an executive facilitation? First, answer these questions.
Part 1: Preparation
Executive facilitation is the process of engaging a group of leaders, in real time, to reach the best outcome. Put another way, it helps the right minds create something better than they could individually. The goal of executive facilitation is actionable synergy.
Are you planning executive facilitation? First, answer these questions.
Why are we spending time on this?
Executives are drowning in meetings. Pre-empt “This could have been an email” by testing your plan with a knowledgeable partner, like the sponsor of the effort or the senior executive involved.
Begin with the end in mind. What will you accomplish during the meeting? Are the outcomes input and ideas or decisions and plans? Will you end with a binding consensus on the way forward?
How are you going to get those outcomes? Do you need all that time? Do you need each of the people you’re inviting? Test the outcomes, materials, and facilitation approach ahead of time with the sponsor of the effort.
Your goal: the value of everything you do during the session will be crystal clear to the execs in the room.
Who are the players and what do they want?
Know your participants. Know the basics: their names, roles, titles, functions, and time with the company.
Then dig a little deeper. Understand their styles and motivations. Are they likely to speak up or not? Will they happily collaborate and hear others out? Do they have any particular motivations or affiliations that will affect the group’s work?
Ask the sponsor: If this meeting goes sideways, how will that happen? What are the potential road bumps? How should we get ahead of them?
All that intel will help you manage the group toward the outcomes they need. You might need to:
- Draw some participants out to make sure their ideas are in the mix.
- Help those with a minority opinion “hold space” during the discussion.
- Form breakout groups or pick discussion leaders to avoid trouble.
- Present or “plant” information to balance out someone with an agenda or maintain momentum.
What’s the scoop?
It’s important to ground yourself with information, especially if you’re an “outside” facilitator. Sometimes participants make assumptions that aren’t right. This can set the whole group in the wrong direction.
Another problem: you might not have all the information represented in the room. For example, maybe no one in the room represents “the work.” Often, non-executives have the best understanding of the implications of the decisions made in the room. But they’re not there. You, the facilitator, might have to bring that information to the session.
Do a little research.
Talk to the sponsor or trusted experts to make sure the assumptions and data underpinning your outcomes are sound. In other words, make sure the group is having the right conversation.
How should participants prepare?
Participants need the why, when, where, who, and what.
- WHY — Give participants the vision: the outcomes of the session and what those outcomes will do for them and for the organization.
- WHEN and WHERE — Set clear expectations on time and place. Will you start on time? Will there be a buffer, like breakfast or lunch, before you start? Will you offer breaks? When should they expect to finish? Is it ok to join virtually or not?
- WHO — Let everyone know who else will come and what their work role is or whom they’re representing.
- WHAT — Give them a sense of how the day will go. Are there any big topics, activities, or ground rules? What decisions will be made? There’s a big difference between “We will discuss…” and “We will decide…” Let them know the stakes.
And tell them what to prepare or bring to the session. For example, do you need some participants to be ready to report on their areas of expertise? What form should it take? (Slides? Handouts? Written data on a whiteboard?) And make sure the sponsor or senior exec is ready to set up the purpose and expected outcomes of the session; if you’re an external facilitator, you should not do that.
Well begun is half done. Isn’t that what they say? It’s never more true than in executive facilitation. Set yourself up for success by doing the right prep work
Artificial Intelligence and Your Workforce: Three Tips for LeadersLet’s say your organization is adopting AI to gain efficiencies, reduce costs, or deliver better customer value. How should you approach employees about it?
First, we have to agree on what AI is. Then, we can help employees adopt it.
In March, tech gurus including Steve Wosniak and Elon Musk signed an open letter calling for a pause in AI development, citing “human-competitive intelligence (that might) post profound risks to society and humanity.”
More recently, Geoffrey Hinton, hailed as the godfather of AI, quit Google so he could air his concerns independently. In a 2021 commencement address, Hinton said, “I believe that the rapid progress of AI is going to transform society in ways we do not fully understand and not all of the effects are going to be good.” For Hinton, the downsides seem to outweigh the benefits, like improvements in healthcare. The risks he envisions range from job elimination to lethal autonomous weapons. He also says AI might create a world where we will “not be able to know what is true anymore.”
Speaking of misinformation…these stories made it to the table at The View, where hosts weighed in. They talked about the pros and cons of AI, but couldn’t even agree on what AI is. Notably, Whoopi Goldberg said that she defines AI as something “sentient” that “can think for itself.”
Whoa. I’m not saying a robot boyfriend is not in my future, but sentience is NOT what the scientists are talking about. There’s a big difference between smart or fast or autonomous and self-aware.
The lesson for those of us who help the workforce deal with change is this: AI is scary to some people, and possibly for the wrong reasons.
Let’s say your organization is adopting AI to gain efficiencies, reduce costs, or deliver better customer value. How should you approach employees about it?
1. Mind your language.
Maybe don’t call it “artificial intelligence.” I’m not suggesting lying to people; just the opposite. Explain exactly what the new technology will do.
The term “AI” can be triggering. Moreover, “AI” is too broad a term to be useful when talking to employees. AI is a huge category; labeling a new tool “AI” gives very little information to the people who are desperate to know how it’s going to change their work lives.
Think of it this way — will your AI solution detect and prevent dangers in the workplace? Say that! Call it Safety Software. Is AI going to supply customer service agents with better, faster answers to help customers? Say that! Call it Your Customer Service Assistant.
2. Get real.
Approaching any change, what do employees want to know? They want to know how it will affect them – their job responsibilities, their daily tasks, their compensation, their team performance, and their job security.
Get ahead of the resistance by answering questions honestly and thoroughly. Yes, even the bad news. If your new AI… sorry, Customer Service Assistant…will eliminate jobs, be up-front about it.
Most important: document and communicate the day-to-day work that will be different after implementation.
If you don’t tell people the story, they will fill the gap with their own.
3. Reframe AI.
Is the anxiety warranted? Maybe some of it. But AI can also benefit workers — sometimes in big ways. In fact, some employees have already adopted the positive mindset you’re hoping for. A Pew Research study shows 37% of workers are “purely excited” about AI.
And there’s plenty of evidence to back their enthusiasm. AI solutions, like tech before it, can take mundane, focus-intensive tasks off employees’ plates, freeing them up for more analytical and creative work.
One real-world study showed that AI offered big benefits for inexperienced or less-skilled workers by raising the quality of their work and productivity to be on par with their best-performing colleagues.
Armed with facts, examples, and those 37% already excited about it (your “early adopters”), you can – with authenticity — frame your AI adoption as a win-win.
When we need to worry about killer robots, we’ll worry about killer robots. In the present day, lead the change by taking these three steps. You can definitely make AI work for both your bottom line and your human workforce.
Layoffs 2023: Caring for the SurvivorsIf you’ve had to lay off employees, how does an organization rebuild trust, maintain morale, and ensure the productivity you need to survive? Here's our take.
How to Win Back Trust and Stay Engaged With the Remaining Employees
If you’ve had to lay off employees, it’s been a rough time. If the layoff was significant, you literally have a new organization to run. That’s a big transition. How do you start?.
How does an organization rebuild trust, maintain morale, foster engagement, and ensure the productivity you need to survive?
Here are some of your first steps.
- Don’t pretend. The layoffs happened and that impacts everyone. Employees and management will have to deal with survivor guilt, anxiety about the future, disengagement from leadership, and a host of other emotions.
What should the next days look like? As they say, the fastest way out is through. Standford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman recommends finding ways to get over emotional obstacles faster. “By front-loading emotions, you effectively discharge them.” The first step is acknowledging that something painful has happened. Then, find the right ways to provide time, space, and support.
- Over-engage. Tell them why. Share the problem facing the organization, the alternatives, and why the solution included layoffs. In many cases, an employee would reach the same conclusion.
Then, describe the experience for remaining employees. How will workflow and responsibilities change? Answer the question on each employee’s mind: “What about me?” Get tactical, specific, and local.
Finally, ask employees for help in planning the next phase. This activates a sense of control. There’s nothing like a layoff to make people feel powerless and afraid; fear doesn’t bring out the best. But including employees in plans that affect them gives them a sense of control. Control feels safe. It frees up people’s energy for what you want – doing their jobs and moving the organization forward.
- Help them connect. Many employees will feel the loss of these splintered relationships. For some, their friends just got fired. For employees who didn’t lose friends, their teams and support structures are broken. Help them create new connections within the new organization.
For example, you might start communities of interest or “book clubs” on development topics. These groups work across functions and allow people to discover connections in unlikely places. This promotes an informal cross-functional network that can pay off for the organization. And your efforts don’t have to be work-related. Simply creating spaces for social interaction can foster new friendships.
- Revive enthusiasm. What comes next? If you’ve done the work to dissipate negative emotions and engage, the next step is giving people a focus for their energy.
So be sure you have a clear vision and you share it. But, beyond that, make sure your message lands. What future is in store for the organization? How can everyone help get there? What’s your rallying cry? Create a shared purpose on which everyone can focus.
Layoffs are never a good thing, but they can ensure the survival of your organization. If you do it right, employees can emerge stronger and more engaged than before.
Comparisons: Your Leadership SuperpowerPeople unconsciously compare. As a leader, ask yourself: What comparisons are they making? If you know that, you can influence behavior.
You’re judging me. As you read, you’re evaluating whether what I say is true or false. You’re deciding whether I’m credible. You’re gauging my words against your experience to determine whether or not my advice will work for you.
Your people do the same to you. They judge every word you say and write, and every action you take. It’s constant and unconscious, and it’s hard-coded in their DNA to keep them safe.
And what’s behind it—the comparison—is a leadership superpower, if you know how to use it.
People constantly, actively, and unconsciously compare.
They compare your price to what you charged before, and to what they can get elsewhere. They compare their raise to what they read on Glassdoor. They compare your presentation to what they heard on the grapevine.
These comparative judgements affect behavior. People buy, join, quit, collaborate, adopt, undermine, and make deals based on those comparisons.
As you lead, ask yourself: What are they comparing this to? If you know the answer to that, you can create trust and influence behavior.
Comparisons help us gauge safety.
What’s your reaction to the picture above?
If you have been bitten by a dog, this picture is upsetting. If you love dogs, you might find the picture endearing, knowing that “mouthing” is a sign of attachment. You have compared this picture to your experience and responded based on that.
At Emerson Human Capital, we see it in business as well.
Research shows that the most successful source of new hires is referral. Why? Because the employer compares the candidate to the trusted employee. The candidate compares the company to their friend’s stories. Both the company and the candidate feel safer moving forward.
This is also true for sales. Sales people often look for referrals or “warm leads”—an introduction by a friend. They know that the buyer will assume their experience with the friend will be similar. That makes the sales conversation safe and increases the chances of succeeding.
If you want your team to feel safe, learn what they might be comparing against from their experience, and make sure it’s safe.
Comparisons determine value.
Let’s say you want to buy an airline ticket for your next vacation. You might find a United flight for $1,240. Then you check American. They have flights, but they require layovers. You go back to Google Flights and suddenly see the rates across all the airlines have gone up to $3,950. Now, the original price feels like a bargain. The $1,240 price didn’t change—what changed is the price you’re comparing against.
Reed Hasting, Co-CEO, employed this comparison strategy when he described Netflix’ performance on the July 19, 2022 earnings call.
“Looking at the quarter…we’re executing really well on the content side…we’re talking about losing 1 million instead of losing 2 million.”
Most people want to associate their initiative with something that’s good, to make it feel safe. However, negative comparisons are powerful when you need people to act.
For example, my parents had a beautiful RV they wanted to sell. The dealer so loved it, he kept it at the lot entrance to impress people as they arrived. The camper sat there for over a year. Finally, we asked him if he had another vehicle that was less appealing. He did. So we asked him to park our RV next to it, and price ours slightly lower. The camper sold within three days.
A value comparison is about changing the conversation.
It’s about taking a person from one reference point to another. Academics call this reframing. If you want your people to see value in what you’re doing, compare against something that shows value.
Comparisons help us learn new information.
When we learn something new, we compare it to what we already know. That helps us retain and recall information. When we don’t have a good comparison, we have to create a new category in our mind, which makes information much harder to learn.
Let’s say you plan to visit our office in a month. I tell you the office door code is 3120, but you cannot write it down. You may or may not remember that number. But, if I tell you it’s the Chicago area code with a zero, it’s more likely you will remember it. You have a way to hook the new data to something you already know.
If you want people to remember something important, compare it to or contrast it with something familiar.
Comparisons create expertise.
A novice understands a category. An expert understands differences between similar items within that category. For example, if I ask you to tell me what a fish is, you’ll probably say that it’s something that lives in water, uses gills to breathe, and fins to move. But an expert can identify a muskie from a salmon based on precise characteristics, like the shape of the tail, the color of the skin, the size of the eyes. An expert developed that expertise by learning the differences between fish.
If you want your team to be experts, help them understand precise differences.
Comparisons evoke emotion.
A vivid comparison will make dull data come to life. Let’s say you’re showing a financial report that shows a new business unit with great potential but poor performance. You can show graphs on a PowerPoint slide with arrows pointing up. But you capture imagination if you describe the new business unit as Rich Strike, the 80-to-1 come-from-behind winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The CEO of a food products company recently announced a reorganization. His goal was to normalize the reorganization. This company had multiple flavors of their products, which required them to change the configuration of their manufacturing lines every day. To employees, that was a normal, predictable operation. So, he compared the reorganization to reconfiguring a product line. It made what could feel frightening seem normal.
People don’t change in response to data.
They change—they act differently—in response to how they feel about what you say. Your comparisons are a powerful tool because they impact the emotions that drive behavior.
Leaders create meaning by interpreting events, memorializing history, and describing a compelling future. Events are about meaning, and nothing helps people create meaning like a strategic comparison. To be effective, you need to know what people are conjuring up in their minds, and if necessary, change that reference point. You need the right comparison.