Meeting in pairs to build deeper forum connections

When we meet in person, we informally connect one-on-one during breaks, and can socialize over drinks and dinner afterwards.  When we are meeting virtually, the opportunities for casual, pairwise connections are almost non-existent.

To make up for that deficit, consider implementing this plan to encourage paired meet-ups between forum meetings:

  • Set up a round-robin schedule with pairs of members (plus one trio if you have an odd number in your forum). The pairs rotate after every regular forum meeting or on a monthly basis.
  • Pairs are asked to meet by whatever means works for them: a virtual “coffee” in Zoom; a conversation by phone, perhaps while each is going for a walk; or email, text or WhatsApp exchanges.
  • The plan can be left open-ended and flexible with no reporting back to the full forum, or each member can be asked to share one thing they learned about their partner at the next meeting.

Try this for a month or two, and then check-in with everyone on whether all would like to continue on a regular basis, or only as long as the forum is meeting virtually.

Moving to a “wartime” forum footing

Earlier generations remember where they were during the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11.  All of us will remember the COVID-19 Pandemic.  These extraordinary times call for new modes of engagement with our forums, including these possibilities:

  • Meet more frequently but for a shorter time. Some forums are meeting every week for an hour.  Others are meeting for two hours every other week.  Still others are calling emergency meetings as needed.
  • Continue to emphasize the importance of being there for each other, but agree to meet even if you can’t have 100% attendance. Evolving needs mean that commitments are less certain than in more stable times.
  • Focus updates on M.I.T. – the Most Important Things on members’ minds, on which they think the forum can offer some support, ideas or experience. Get to the essence quickly, identifying 3-5 word headlines such as “Messaging to employees,” “supporting elderly parents,” or “conserving cash.” Combine any similar MITs into a single topic.
  • At the moderator’s discretion, or with member input via the chat function, identify the most urgent and important topics
  • Instead of longer, traditional presentations/explorations, try to allow time to address multiple topics, asking members to make short and concise requests for:
    • Ideas
    • Experiences
    • Feedback on any ideas/actions they are considering
    • “I Notice…” feedback
    • Connections and leads
    • “If you were in my shoes…” feedback
    • Opportunity to vent or emote (no feedback)
  • Be efficient. Everyone in the forum can offer feedback once about the topic.  No repeating; instead say “plus one” to another person’s thoughts. Avoid tangents. The moderator can call “tangent alert” to refocus on the topic at hand.
  • Encourage one-on-one, out-of-meeting connections to address or expand on what can be covered in shorter, virtual meetings.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to YPO and HBS facilitator Michael Bloch from whose work this blog post is adapted.  For more details, see Michael’s full “wartime forum” agenda.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming as a forum exercise: Becoming me. Becoming more. Becoming us.

Michelle Obama writes powerfully in her autobiography, Becoming, about her own life, but her words speak directly to me:

“It’s not about being perfect,” Michelle says, “it’s not about where you get yourself in the end. At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.”

Michelle continues, “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim.  I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach towards a continually better self.”

“The journey doesn’t end,” she goes on.  “I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children.  I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person.  I have become by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.”

“It’s all a process,” Michelle concludes, “steps along a path.  Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor.  Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”

And Michelle goes further in the three major sections of the book which are called:

  • Becoming me,
  • Becoming us, and
  • Becoming more

Throughout the arc of her life story, Michelle recognizes, over and over again, that the becoming is never done.  And though she didn’t intend it this way, I read her autobiography as a lesson directed at me.

I am not finished becoming the best version of me when I connect to my wife in marriage, and I’m not done evolving my marriage and other relationships, even as I also devote myself to larger community and professional goals.

  • Becoming me is about my practices of mindfulness, gratitude and purpose, turning inward, so I can then turn outward.
  • Becoming us is about my connection with my wife, and also about all of the other relationships I want to cultivate and nurture. How can I relate authentically and humanely on a one-on-one basis, including making amends when I have wronged others?
  • And becoming more is about my communal and professional commitments. I relate this to giving back, paying it forward, leaving my small part of the world at least a little better than where I first found it.

Every day represents a new opportunity to become a better “me”, a better partner, and a better contributor to the larger world.

Reflecting on Michelle Obama’s words in forum, we might explore:

  • Michelle observes that the continual act of becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. In the coming year, what do each of us need more of, patience or rigor, or something else?
  • What does “becoming me”, “becoming us”, or “becoming more” mean for each of us?
  • How can we, in our forum, support each other in becoming more of who we want to be?

With the support of our forum, may each of us be able to say a year from now: I’m not done becoming, but I’ve made some progress.

Exploring strengths and weaknesses

The following questions can be used separately or together to frame a great conversation on how forum members see their strengths and weaknesses, and how that might affect their professional trajectories and career paths.

  • Which of your strengths might others say you overuse or rely on too much?
  • Describe how one of your strengths is also a weakness.
  • What might change in your job or business that might make your current strengths less useful?
  • What is the next professional transition you face?  If there a strength you need to give up to successfully make that transition?  What new strength do you need to develop? What weakness might emerge or become more important?
  • Describe a weakness or flaw of yours that hasn’t hurt you yet, but might in the future.

Acknowledgement: These questions are suggested by USC Professor Morgan McCall in his leadership exercise “Hedge Your Bets.”

Where would you “seat” yourself today?

The New Yorker recently published a cartoon that shows a host at a restaurant about to seat a couple.  He asks them: “Do you want me to seat you in the ‘Had sex this morning’ section or the ‘Had a fight this morning’ section?”

All-in-one, the cartoon is funny, sensitive, and revealing.  And as a icebreaker question, it may have nothing to do with sex.  Share the cartoon at the beginning of your forum meeting and ask everyone to respond:

Where would you “seat” yourself today?  Are you in a good frame of mind, or are you cranky, sad or angry?  Or are you somewhere in between, some mix of thoughts and emotions?

Forum sparks: Watch a TED talk!

Watching an inspiring, provocative TED talk can be the beginning of a great forum conversation. Choose a talk in advance, watch together, and then use these prompts to start your conversation:

  • I feel…, and I’m reminded of a time when I…
  • I’m wondering if…
  • I might apply the speaker’s ideas in this way…
  • I would like to watch this talk again with… [spouse/boss/team/others] because…

Choose your own favorite talk, or consider using one of the following:

Holding each other accountable in forum

In forum we withhold judgment, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.  In fact, one of the most powerful uses of forum is for me to hold myself accountable to a certain goal, commitment or deadline; with the other members of the forum serving as my witnesses.

If your forum wants to focus more on personal accountability, consider these possibilities:

  • Any member can voluntarily ask to be held accountable to report back to the forum at a specific future date on their progress/action related to a specific goal.
  • The forum can designate one member to serve as the accountability/commitment “secretary” who will ask about any pending items, either at the beginning of the meeting or during updates.
  • This SMART goals template can be used by any member to ensure that any goals they set are S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-framed.

Possible conflicts: Can I be in forum with this person?

Your forum is considering adding a new member, and one current member is concerned about a potential candidate, saying some variation of:

  • We have close mutual friends.
  • Our spouses are close friends.
  • The CFO of my company is a good friend of this person.
  • This potential forum mate had a close, longstanding relationship with one of my co-founders and their spouse.
  • We were in the same MBA class, executive education program, or section at business school.

In situations like this, it’s important to be fully transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.  The key question: Can I be open and honest about all aspects of my life with this possible new member?

Additional clarifying questions:  What is the exact nature of the relationship?  How close is it in practice?  Is there regular contact/communication? (Sometimes people say they are “close” but rarely see each other.)

Keep in mind that in YPO, members and their spouses are usually each in a forum, are friendly with many other members and spouses, and see each other regularly at monthly chapter meetings.  There are many close relations, but forum confidentiality is still fully respected.  Everyone keeps in mind the clear boundaries between what is said in forum and what is shared in other settings to avoid violating forum confidentiality.

In summary, there is no simple answer – neither an automatic rejection, nor a blind acceptance of the new member.  The nuances of each case must be carefully considered.

It’s the hard days who determine who you are

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of FaceBook, and author of the bestselling book Lean In, was invited to speak at the University of California commencement in 2016.  She chose to talk not of what she has learned in life, but of what she has learned in death.

She related the tragic story of how, a year before her husband Dave, age 47, had died suddenly of a previously unknown cardiac issue. She shared the challenge of deep adversity, and “of what you can do to overcome adversity, no matter what form it takes or when it hits you.”  Sheryl went on to say:

A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”

Sheryl concluded: “We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do then?”

I reflect to myself: How have I responded when Option A was no longer available to me:

  • When a professional colleague of mine died too young of cancer and the opportunity to collaborate with him was lost?
  • When I expected to receive a job offer that never came?
  • When a treasured business partnership came to an end?

I am inspired by Sheryl who said:

Dave’s death changed me in profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.

As a forum, consider reading Sheryl’s book on this topic, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, or this shorter version published in the Boston Globe.

Then discuss as a forum:

  • What have been some of life’s toughest challenges for me?
  • How did I deal with them?  What role, if any, did gratitude play?
  • Almost all of us will face deep adversity at some point in our lives.  How can forum be a sounding board and resource now and in the future?

Would you steal your forum mate’s computer or car?

Of course not. We all learn from an early age to respect the property of others so taking without permission is simply unacceptable.  But far too often and without thinking, we steal something even more precious from our forum mates – their time.  When you arrive 10 minutes late for a forum meeting and six other members must wait to begin, you have stolen collectively an hour of their time.

Tardiness is a chronic problem among busy executives, but time is money, and there is no better example of that than your forum mates wasting time around a table, their combined compensation ticking away at thousands of dollars per hour. And chronic tardiness, no matter how innocent, can gum up the gears of a forum’s ethic, build resentment and anger, and make forum members less willing to share and be vulnerable because of that tardiness-induced stress.

Here’s one simple way to be on time:

  • Block plenty of time on your personal calendar to arrive early, even assuming traffic delays or other unforeseen circumstances.
  • If you are early, simply wait outside in the lobby or in your car, checking email, making phone calls, or reading the article you’ve been saving but never get to.

Your fellow forum members will appreciate the courtesy and respect you are showing for them, and this will build everyone’s commitment to not steal our forum mates’ most valuable possession, their time.