I recently attended an empowering evening with thought leaders in Ann Arbor called Hello Sunshine x Together Live. It featured an array of speakers telling stories. Couple that with the fact that I work at a company focused on helping leaders tell better stories to their people, and it adds another layer of interest.

One of the speakers, Priya Parker, kicked off the evening talking about the importance of gatherings and people coming together. Specifically, she mentioned the concept of Transformative Gatherings – meetings that galvanize a team by creating moving, magical, and mind-changing experiences. It really stuck a chord with me. Why?

My company exists solely to help leaders, managers, and frontline employees – in other words, entire organizations – transform. Transform strategies. Transform cultures. Transform behaviors. Transform processes. We enable organizations to achieve their specific change and transformation goals. In essence – we support transformational leadership.

And trust me, organizations need help. A substantial number of change initiatives fail (the data is depressing!) because leaders aren’t doing enough to embed the change in the organization. They launch a new strategy in an all-company meeting or town hall and call it a day. Maybe a few follow-up emails go out and then they assume they’ve done enough. They’re wrong. We know it and Priya Parker knows it too.

A Gathering vs. A Transformative Gathering

In her book, The Art of Gathering, Parker defines a gathering as three or more people who come together for a specific purpose*. When we understand why we gather, she says – to acknowledge, to learn, to challenge, to change – we learn how to organize gatherings that are relevant and memorable, from an effective business meeting to a thought-provoking conference, or from a joyful wedding to a unifying family dinner.

So let’s break that definition down and apply it to a business environment. If your organization is preparing for a change – big or small – how did your leaders communicate that change?

Think about that last town hall, all-company meeting, or email string that went out from Internal Communications. It probably included the following elements, as defined by Parker:

  • Focusing on a Specific Purpose – Leaders announced a new change initiative: “We’re planning to enter a new market.” (Or to launch a new product line, merge with a new company, change the way we operate – you get the picture.)
  • Acknowledgement – Leaders might have recognized there’s something at hand that needs to be discussed: “We have a new strategy because we acknowledge what we’ve been doing in the past needs to be different going forward.”
  • Learning – Or maybe leaders shared a learning – this can be via a one-way tell or a two-way conversation. In most business gatherings, it’s the former vs. the latter: “Let’s talk about what that new strategy is going to look like for the business and for your function.” If it’s a thorough tell, the email might say: “Here’s what this looks like for you as an individual.”
  • Change – At the end of all this, the likely output is a set of guidelines from the leaders about how the company will make all the required changes.

So, as you left the town hall or all-company meeting, or as you finished reading the email, you probably had an idea of what was going to happen next. But did you feel transformed? I’m guessing no. Maybe not even energized, and possibly scared to death you were going to lose your job. Or worse, you actually didn’t understand what was happening because the tell wasn’t as clear as the leaders thought it was when they drafted that 50-slide PowerPoint deck or lengthy email message.

Hardly an example of transformation leadership. It was most likely not galvanizing, mind-changing, or moving, and certainly not magical.

Transformative Gathering Means Ditching the Town Hall, All-Company Meeting, or Email from the CEO

When you dig further into Parker’s thinking, she starts to detail examples of what Transformative Gatherings really look like:

  • New Perspectives – Transformative Gatherings get people to show parts of themselves to each other with fresh eyes. It’s not the same old, same old. It offers the opportunity to be vulnerable – in a good way.
  • Ceding Control – While there is some form of an invisible structure, there’s organic life to the meeting. You cede power to your guests, but they’re still operating within a context or framework provided.
  • Enliven and Enrich – When people are invited into something, they don’t know exactly what’s going on. They don’t fall into standard roles or pre-approved scripts.

So think again about the last time you or your leaders communicated change.

  • Did your leadership team give you the why, what, and how of the change they were proposing?
  • Was there an opportunity for them to show their vulnerability? That they didn’t have all the answers, but they thought this was the best answer?
  • Did they show you the data in a series of 25 charts that your degree in graphic design, human resources, or psychology didn’t really cover and it went so fast you couldn’t even process it all?
  • Was there any dialogue involved? Did you have a group discussion about the change they were announcing (that didn’t involve the bathroom, hallway, or your internal chat tool with your co-worker on the floor below yours)?
  • Did you get to hear perspectives on the change from others in the business – your peers, co-workers in other functions, or people at different levels of the business with different experiences?
  • Was there an opportunity for everyone in the business to ask questions? Real questions that weren’t pre-vetted by a gatekeeper before being handed them off to the leaders (I know this happens, I used to be the pre-vetter).
  • Did you get a chance to arrive at your own conclusions that the change that leaders were proposing was actually a really exciting proposition and that it could mean great things to you and the organization?
  • Did you get to challenge other people’s thinking (in a respectful and considerate way) and hear their perspectives and learn what it means for their areas of the business.

This is why we need to scrap the old way of launching strategies and change initiatives. People aren’t coming out of traditional launch meetings transformed, energized, or engaged in the needed change because the right conversations aren’t happening.

Change – whether big or little – shouldn’t be introduced in a standalone meeting or an email that’s centered on the C-suite reading from a presentation. Like Parker, I believe in the power of transformative gatherings – meetings that engage you and give you the opportunity to become an active participant in the change from the start.

It’s Time for Transformational Leadership and Transformative Gatherings

Leaders, HR, OD, Ops, Strategy, and Comms should consider transforming the way they engage people in the new change. If you ditch the company town hall and instead structure a your next strategic launch in the way Parker proposed, the outcome is going to be way more impactful because people get the opportunity to acknowledge there’s a change coming; to learn what it’s going to look like; to talk about the why, what, and how; and to discuss how the change impacts the business, the function, and the individual.

Transformative Gatherings remove the one-sided conversation and create a forum for real dialogue, where people ask questions of leaders, peers, and their managers. And imagine if managers also focused on creating transformative gatherings for their teams on a regular basis. WOW! It’s mind blowing how the conversations can shift and the outcomes can change.

Does this resonate with you like it did with me?

January 3, 2019


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