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.

For the unprecedented times in which we now live: Forum update questions

As you prepare your forum update in times of pandemic, you may choose to answer one or more of these questions:

  • What part of your life or family needs the most care right now?
  • What leadership challenge in your business has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What personal or professional relationship has been stressed by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What is the greatest fear you have now?
  • How has/will the crisis affect your company or family’s burn rate (income vs. expenses)? What approaches are you considering to deal with the situation?
  • Do you feel you are over-reacting or under-reacting to the evolving situation?
  • What risks do you see to your business/industry as a result of changes to the global business environment?
  • How is the coronavirus global situation causing you to re-evaluate your priorities, if at all?
  • What can you stop doing right now that will help you focus on this current challenge?
  • What key transition is coming up in your life that you are most scared or uncertain about due to the crisis?

With every question you can also reflect: How does the situation or challenge make you feel? How can the forum help?

Ten tips for awesome virtual forum meetings

A forum member recently said to me his group’s mantra from the beginning has been “Forum is always on, always in person, no one calls in.”  In a time of pandemic, social distancing, and restricted travel, that approach may no longer be sustainable.

And yet, we need forum more than ever!  Consider following these recommendations developed by my facilitator colleague Vince Corsaro and others:

  1. Pick the right meeting platform.
  2. Use the technology well, following established best practices.
  3. Reinforce security and confidentiality.
  4. Set norms that support a virtual format.
  5. Plan a shorter agenda focused on deep, connecting conversations.
  6. Consider scheduling “virtual coffees” outside of full group meetings to support each other in tough times.
  7. Get back together face-to-face as soon as you can.
  8. Create a private social media platform (e.g., Slack, WhatsApp) to support ongoing communication.
  9. Use shared, community building apps (like those available for Fitbit users) to monitor members’ health and fitness goals.
  10. Find other creative ways to connect such as a virtual “happy hour” or a designated day to post selfies on the group’s social media stream.

For more details and suggestions on each of these ideas, see Vince’s Google doc.

Top Tips for Moderators

The role of forum moderator – being a peer leader of other leaders – can be challenging at times.  Take to heart these seven tips and you too can be a successful moderator.

  1. Don’t be a “chill” host. As suggested by Priya Parker in her beautiful book The Art of Gathering, leading requires planning, intentionality and focus. Great (forum) meetings don’t just happen by chance.
  2. Delegate! Don’t feel you have to do it all yourself.  Healthy forums operate on a voluntary, shared leadership model where everyone is expected to pitch in to support the group’s activities.
  3. Agree to norms and live by them. A forum constitution can be a touchstone of shared values, commitments and expectations that can be referred to whenever situations develop that may disrupt the group’s equilibrium or effectiveness.
  4. Clear the air early and often. Letting annoyances, distractions and anger build up can lower trust and lead to forum members disengaging.  Addressing issues before they escalate helps create a healthy space for members to share their toughest life challenges and highest aspirations.
  5. Get on the “balcony”. Regularly take an outsider’s perspective.  How are we doing? Are we hearing from everyone?  How can we improve?
  6. Be willing to experiment! Almost every aspect of forum can benefit from mixing it up occasionally.  Doing something once doesn’t commit the group to stick with it forever.
  7. Ask questions of genuine curiosity. When stressed, refrain from judging questions, and instead ask learning questions.  How did you come to see the situation this way? How does this issue affect you? What leads you to believe this is the right way forward? What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves?

Reviewing the Past Decade, and Visioning for the Next Decade

The core of a regular forum meeting is monthly updates.  How am I feeling about what’s happened since we last met?  What do I dread and anticipate that’s coming up? When you want to zoom out to a much longer time horizon, consider doing this exercise.

Questions to reflect on in advance of the forum meeting:

Review of the Past Decade:

  • What difficulties/hardships did you face? What did you learn?
  • What, if anything, would you do differently if you had the chance again?
  • How did you change? What did you gain? What are you willing to let go of?

Vision for the Next Decade:

  • Where am I in two years?
  • Who is around me? How am I feeling (differently than today)? What am I creating?
  • Two years from now, how will I think about where I want to be in eight more years?

In the forum meeting, there are two options on how to share depending on the available time:

Longer version (two rounds)

  1. Each person takes 5 minutes (timed) to reflect on the past decade. Then open up to general discussion for 10-20 minutes. What coming up for me as I hear others? How am I feeling as I hear the ways that others have answered the questions?

Repeat in the same fashion, looking forward to the next decade.

Shorter version (one round)

  1. Each person takes 5 minutes (timed) to reflect on both the past and next decade. Then allow an additional 15-30 minutes to reflect further: What coming up for me as I hear others? How am I feeling as I hear the ways that others have answered the questions?

Source: Kerim Baran, member of an HBS Alumni Forum in San Francisco with original credit to Ciela Wynter, an executive/CEO coach and founder of Joan of Sparc, an innovative platform for empowerment and transformation through self-inquiry.

What should I share during my forum update?

I was recently asked by a new forum member:  When we share our monthly updates, are we supposed to just pick one thing or several or one from each category (business, family, personal)?  Can you provide any guidance for how to choose?

My response:

  • Don’t overthink it. Go with what’s deepest, most challenging, what carries the most emotional weight for you, what keeps you up at night (worry/fear) and/or gets you up in the morning (excitement/joy).
  • Questions you might ask yourself to help prioritize how to use your limited update time:
    • Which of these issues are deepest and most significant for me?
    • If I would like to look back three years from now and say my forum has had a life-changing impact because they helped me with an issue, which issue(s) would you choose to share with the forum?
  • Other questions that might help you select what to share:
    • What is the toughest relationship challenge (personal or professional) that you are facing now?
    • What is the toughest leadership challengeyou are facing now?
    • What is the greatest fearyou have now? What key transition is coming up in your life that you are most scared or uncertain about?
    • What is going on in your life right now that you have not spoken with anyone about? What are you hiding?
    • What are you complaining about, blaming others for,or notice yourself playing the villain, victim, or hero?
    • What are you not sharing because you don’t want to seem perfect? (You will feel like you are bragging about your good fortune.
    • What are you not sharing because you don’t want to seem imperfect? (You will feel inadequate compared to your forum mates or to others in your life.)
    • What is something that you don’t like about yourselfthat you are working on?
  • You might end up focusing on one key issue or several, and they can be drawn from any and all parts of your life (business, family, personal).

Meeting with a potential new forum member: What do we discuss?

If you are considering adding a new member to your forum, it’s ideal for two or more members to meet the candidate for coffee.  The current members can then compare notes after the conversation.

Your meeting agenda can include:

  • Sharing your forum’s constitution/norms, both to educate the candidate and to encourage their own questions about forum commitments and principles.
  • Describing your forum’s typical meeting schedule (day, time, location) to see how that fits with the candidate’s schedule. Ask yourself whether the forum would be willing and able to adjust to accommodate the new member’s needs?
  • Asking about the candidate’s previous experience as a member of a peer support group. What are the candidate’s objectives in joining?
  • Without breaking forum confidentiality, sharing some themes and types of issues your forum has explored. Ask what topics the candidate would like to explore in forum.
  • After explaining and committing to forum confidentiality, doing a short icebreaker exercise where the current members share a past experience or current challenge that might come up in forum, and the candidate shares some aspect of their life. This can help spark a conversation about how forum supports its members.

At the end of the meeting, be clear with the candidate about next steps, and when they can expect to hear about being invited to an upcoming forum meeting.