What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team …

A recent New York Times Magazine article profiled Google’s efforts to enhance the efficiency and productivity of its teams.  What Google found to be effective at work parallels what we have known for a long time about healthy forums.

Perhaps the most important point: Great teams (and great forums) ensure “psychological safety,” a sense of confidence that the group will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.  Psychological safety leads to a team or forum climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

As your forum begins its next meeting, ask yourself and each other:

  • Do I/we feel safe in this group?
  • Can I share my toughest challenges and highest aspirations without feeling that I will be judged?
  • Do our forum norms (the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function) reinforce our sense of psychological safety?

Should a member take a sabbatical from their forum?

Forums sometimes ask about members taking a “sabbatical” for a period of time or participating on a remote or limited basis.  Several considerations if your forum finds itself in this situation:

  • If a member cannot commit to participate regularly, a sabbatical may be the best choice.  If everyone else is very committed, and a member is sort of in and sort of not, it is not great for forum health.  Everyone (including the partly committed member) could get frustrated pretty quickly.
  • If everyone agrees that a member will take a sabbatical, it should be for a clearly defined period, typically no more than one year.
  • As the end of the designated time period approaches, the forum should revisit the member’s status.  Is the member rejoining with everyone’s agreement and commitment, or would it be better for the member to permanently resign?  No one’s status should not be left indeterminate or open ended.
  • Before a sabbatical or resignation, invite the departing member to give an “exit” presentation.  The theme can be around goals for the sabbatical or long term life goals.  The presentation can end with everyone expressing appreciation for the member’s contribution to the forum.
  • If, instead of a sabbatical, a member is going to stay in and participate remotely, see these best practices for virtual participation: https://alumniforumblog.com/2013/09/09/attending-your-forum-meeting-virtually-the-right-way-to-do-it/

Updates focused on business and leadership

Members often join forum for business value, but may then find that personal or family issues take a large part of the forum’s time.  To help surface members’ business and leadership challenges, consider using this new, specialized update form at one of your future meetings.  You will quickly build a parking lot focused on three key dimensions: the future of my business, my business today, and personal leadership.

Putting a bow on it: How (and how not) to conclude a forum meeting

Forum meetings can come to a close in many different ways, some that build connection and community, and other that leave members dissatisfied or disappointed.

The classic ending:

  • Each member shares a new perspective, insight, planned action, or new appreciation as a result of the meeting. (This can even be a standard practice every time.)

Other options and possibilities

  • +/Delta: what went well in the meeting, what could we have done better?
  • Appreciation for each other. In its shortest form, each person turns to the one on their left and shares something they appreciate about their contribution to the forum.  The process continues around the circle.
  • Letter to myself
    • Each person writes a letter to him or herself that summarizes what they specifically commit to do differently as a result of the meeting.
    • Each letter goes into sealed envelope; the moderator collects the letters and mails them out in two weeks.

How not to conclude a meeting:

  • With housekeeping (meeting scheduling or other logistic matters). Take care of these items earlier in the agenda so the meeting can end on a high note with substantive value.
  • With one or two people rushing out because the clock has been ignored, and some members can’t stay beyond the agreed ending time.
  • With issues or problems that have been raised and not cleared. Clearing the air is usually done at the beginning of a meeting, but it can be done at any time.  Don’t allow issues to fester; address them as soon as you can.

Tackling life’s hardest challenges: Have you articulated your forum’s purpose?

Does your forum have a constitution or set of norms that summarizes goals, expectations, and responsibilities?  If you have such a document, has the forum reviewed it recently to confirm that it is up-to-date and reflects the way the forum wants to operate?

I encourage you to review the beautiful purpose statement created by a relatively new Harvard Business School forum in New York.  On two, carefully crafted pages, they describe their purpose, who they are, how they work together, and what success looks like.  It’s suitable for framing, and they’ve graciously agreed to share it with others.  Bring this document to your next forum meeting, and use it as a launching point to start a conversation about your forum’s purpose.

Paying it backward: An exercise in self-reflection and gratitude

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.  – Pericles (495 BC-492 BC)

The concept of “paying it forward” has been popularized in recent years: We strive to respond to a kindness or support we have received by being kind to someone else. But do we pause often enough to thank those whose original support inspired us in the first place?

The following forum exercise demands we do just that. The steps are as follows:

  • In your next forum meeting, ask each member to share the story of a person who had a big, positive impact on their life, but whom they have never properly thanked.
  • If time allows (perhaps during a retreat), give members time to compose a letter that they could actually deliver to the person they’ve selected. Ask each member to commit to deliver their message by some future forum meeting, perhaps three months in the future to allow adequate time to make the connection.
  • Members deliver their messages in one of the following ways, depending on the circumstances: in a personal meeting, by telephone, or via handwritten letter or email. If the person is no longer alive, the forum member’s thoughts and feelings could be shared with a surviving spouse or children.
  • You may even hold members accountable. In the same way members can be fined for arriving late to a forum meeting, failure to complete the assigned task could require a similar penalty.
  • At the designated, future forum meeting, members discuss:
    • The story of delivering their message of gratitude
    • Reflections on what this act meant to the recipient and to them
    • How can I pay it forward? How can I be a better role model, mentor, or booster so that others can benefit in the same way that I have?
    • Inspired by this experience, do we want to do this again in the future, each choosing another person to whom we want to express gratitude in this way?

Bill George on the Power of Forum

Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic and current HBS professor, has offered a wealth of wisdom to forums over the years.

Most recently, Bill wrote on the Huffington Post about the Power of Vulnerability.  He quotes the rock singer Criss Jami who said “to show your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable, to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”  Our forums are truly transformative when they demonstrate the power of this thought.

Bill also recently published, with Nick Craig and Scott Snook, the second edition of his Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader.  The book contains a wealth of exercises appropriate for a regular forum meeting or retreat.

Bill has been a member of a forum for decades (what he calls a “True North Group”) and he shared additional experience, guidance, and topical ideas in True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development, co-authored with Doug Baker.

On an HBS alumni conference call, Bill summed up the value of forum this way:

“Forums provide a peer support group where you can get real, where you can be honest about the difficulties you are having, and where you can share the fear of failure which causes so many people to self- destruct.  Having this kind of group in your life is invaluable.”

Bill, thank you for all you do to support the forum experience!

So Your Values Live On: Sharing Your Leadership Legacy

Most successful businesspeople, by a certain age, plan to put their financial and material affairs in order to facilitate a smooth transition of business ownership and other possessions to the next generation.  But far fewer consider how they will pass on their non-material assets – what they want to be remembered for, what they see as their leadership and personal legacy.

Fortunately, the little known, but ancient tradition of ethical wills provides a beautiful vehicle to do this, and your forum can be the ideal place to begin the writing process in a confidential, supportive group of peers.

For centuries, both famous statesmen and average people have been moved to write their own ethical wills (also called “legacy letters”), to pass along not only possessions but also beliefs and stories to their children, grandchildren, and larger community.

To begin the process, forum members might ask themselves:

  • What do you wish you had been able to ask your parents, grandparents, or business mentors? (It’s likely your children, grandchildren, or business successors have similar questions for you!)
  • Who have been the biggest influences on your life? What lessons did those people teach you?
  • How have your most challenging life experiences shaped who you are today?
  • How has your life been different than you imagined? Do you have any regrets?
  • What lessons has your work life taught you? Do any favorite stories illustrate these points?

Conversations about these topics in your forum serve another critical purpose: The reflection and writing process can help each of us think deeply about how we want to live and lead in our own personal and professional lives today.  We are giving a gift as much to ourselves as to anyone else.    Simply stated, ethical wills have the power to make people confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives.  They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for.

A written ethical will is the traditional approach, but the concept is to share your legacy, not restricted to a particular format.  Each of us must chart our own course, as suggested by a recent New York Times article on bringing the ethical will into the 21st Century.  Some may choose to write a letter (long or short), others to record a video, and still others not to write or record at all, but to use their new thinking to inform their actions or to change the way they spend time with family and at work.

All human beings want to feel that their lives have mattered, that they have made a difference for the better in the people they have touched.  Read some examples of ethical wills prepared by others, discuss the idea in your forum, and then try your hand at writing one of your own.  You deserve to know what life has taught you, and the not-yet born children of your children’s children will thank you for it.

Bob Halperin received an ethical will from his grandfather, has written legacy letters to his children, and has led multiple workshops and retreats on this topic.

The top five regrets of the dying …

The Huffington Post recently published an article by Bronnie Ware entitled “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”

The items listed in this article provide a powerful catalyst for a forum conversation on this topic:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

(Read the full article for a fuller discussion of each of these points.)

How do you feel as you read each of these statements?  What might you learn about yourself as you listen to your forum mates react to these thoughts?

Business topics for your forum

Many forums ask about getting business value from forum.  Consider tackling one or more of the following topics at a future meeting:

  • Raising and engaging in difficult conversations at work
  • Growth directions for young companies
  • How to prepare for growth/growing pains
  • Finding the courage to say NO to enable/allow resources for another YES
  • How to be honest with your employees about challenges/opportunities
  • Choosing the right people/hiring the right people quickly
  • Choosing the right business model
  • How to avoid commoditization/remaining differentiated
  • Preserving your company culture through change
  • Do I have the leadership skills needed to take my business to the next level/stage?
  • How can I help my business get through the existential challenge(s) we are facing right now