The secret of brilliant leadership workshops

Guiding principles to improve the design and delivery of leadership workshops


John Dore reveals a number of guiding principles to improve the design and delivery of leadership workshops

Based on my experience of working with numerous CEOs and seeking feedback from hundreds of participants, I’ve developed guiding principles to improve the design and delivery of leadership workshops. Myriad factors must be considered, but, for brevity here, I have highlighted seven critical factors that can transform the experience.

1. Decide why you need to meet

Before you start determining what needs to be on the agenda, who should attend and where you will hold the workshop, consider carefully: why should you meet at all? In my experience, asking why is seldom clear. The organising team can be deep in the detail –inviting speakers, chasing presentations and confirming dietary requirements before they know why they are doing it. A well-structured briefing with the CEO about why they want to bring their senior team together can be a more valuable conversation than the subsequent 48 hours spent in a hotel embroiled in a frustrating circular debate. The ‘why’ can often refocus the agenda on the critical reasons for meeting instead of a long list of competing business objectives and internal issues.

2. Bring the outside in

Leadership workshop agendas are often too inward looking, reporting old numbers, updating project, discussing perennial cost challenges and thorny resourcing issues. I have found that there is more engagement by looking outside the organisation; seeking to better understand the customers, competitors, future trends and market dynamics that will shape the business in the future.

I worked with the CEO of one major financial services firm who brought (with no warning) a large group of real customers to join the annual meeting and meet the senior executives and to talk openly about their real-life experience of the firm and hopes for the future. It was a brave move by the lead executive who coordinated the workshop, but the insights gained were compelling. Other ways of bringing the outside in are perhaps less risky, but I have seen real value in sourcing unusual external speakers from disruptive firms and sectors, markets with diverse perspectives that might challenge and surprise. Guest contributors, if used at all, should serve to open minds, not induce yawns.

3. Use independent facilitation

If the workshop brings together disparate colleagues from around the business (sometimes from around the planet) how do you ensure that all perspectives are properly heard? If the plan is to simply “broadcast news” and have a convivial dinner, then job done. But I have found that this narrow format often creates deep frustration. Often the route to collaborative decision making is through employing professional facilitation that can transform the impact and productivity of the workshop.

There are a number of other advantages to this; not least that the CEO and business heads are able to participate fully in discussions, not feel obliged to steer and manage the workshop itself, as well as the ‘housekeeping’ that might entail. A skilled facilitator can ask the questions in the room that no one else may feel comfortable to raise and ensure wide participation from the group, providing some ‘air-traffic control’ for the more vocal contributors.

4. Don’t shrink from bold harsh realities

The workshop should be an opportunity for leaders to talk through issues openly and candidly, not politically or circumspectly. Such openness does not come naturally amongst a senior and politically charged cohort. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in their book Why Should Anyone Work Here? advocate leaders to practice “radical honestly” in the stewardship of their firms. For them the importance of high levels of trust within complex matrix organisations is paramount and key to this is more “open and honest information sharing”.

I have been involved in organising off-sites and workshops that have (unfortunately) coincided with a catastrophic market crash, the shock resignation of a key leader, a hostile corporate action, a major media scandal and news of recent fatalities in the workplace. These experiences brought into very sharp focus the merit, if any, of having the leadership team holed-up together. But I also found that these were pivotal moments of demonstrable leadership for the key figures in those firms. It should not take the circumstance of a sudden crisis to generate “radical honesty” amongst the senior team, but where I have seen it happen the effect has helped steer a more unified response.

5. Leave time to reflect

Building in any time for reflection amidst a myriad of competing demands on a busy schedule is a major challenge. In my experience it almost never happens. Unless it is carved out in some half-hearted “well-being” session at 7.00 am, reflection doesn’t get programmed on leadership workshops. I worked with a large senior team in the Spring of 2015. The venue for the meeting formed part of a 200-acre estate with spectacular vistas, lakes and roaming deer. But the workshop agenda was programmed so intensely that the opportunity to explore, to stroll, or to ‘shoot the breeze’, was restricted to drinks on the terrace on the last night of the workshop. Surely an opportunity missed?

Research has shown that reflection is key to embedding learning and understanding in leaders. This is not about simply going for an idle walk around the block between presentations. Reflection time can be properly planned and facilitated in small groups. Even time scheduled for a walk could be valuable in itself and would send an important signal to leaders about how their reflection time was regarded as value-creating. 

6. Remember both hemispheres

Not every offsite needs an exploration of MBTI preferences, or some other psychometric tool, but as a base minimum you should remember that all members of your audience come equipped with a left and right side to their brain. If you bombard the group with data, some will be invigorated; some instantly bored. Ask the team to “paint the company’s future on a canvass” and those with a more rational vent may be equally bemused (though may not say as much out-loud).

In my experience, most workshops spend the majority of the time focused on numbers, forecasts, charts, analytical input and an over-emphasis on looking backwards. Workshops are more effective for all participants when this rational approach is appropriately balanced with creative exercises for brainstorming and future thinking, as well as entertaining ways of exploring teamwork and collaboration. When facilitated effectively, even the most data-conscious introspective types will still respond positively to the challenge of thinking creatively about the issues in a different way.

7. Beware of the danger of ‘half-life’ action planning

You will recognise the scene. The flip-charts are full to bursting with scribbles, arrows, post-its and creative invention. The CEO has thanked the participants and wished them a safe journey home. The workshop is over for another year. Immediately, anything of value that has been agreed during the workshop is in mortal danger of decaying within days. It is vitally important to carefully capture decisions and outputs from discussions and provide these succinctly within hours (not days) of the completion of the workshop. It should be produced in a format that can be easily shared - not simply forwarded by email without a sense of co-authorship or ownership - and shared through personal face to face briefings by leaders with their teams.

Planning your next leadership workshop

Bringing leadership teams together to navigate future business issues can be productive and energising. It can also be time-consuming, risky and unproductive if not carefully thought through and facilitated with expertise. Before planning your next workshop reconsider the default format of these events in the past and how they have been perceived. Did the previous workshop design and facilitation style leave space for contributions and alternative perspectives, or just press on with a pre-determined agenda? Were newer team members brought warmly into the fold, without the trial of having to politically earn their spurs? A discussion with past participants, particularly those relatively new to the organisation, may shed much light.

The best leadership workshops I have been involved in have deliberately addressed only a small number of objectives, but have also at their heart enabled the CEO to impart something of their own values into their team. They have sought to make the design of the workshop a little like themselves at their best: honest, dynamic and engaging. When the tone is set like this from the top, then the wider adoption of good practice into regular team-meetings, department updates and town-halls can be a beneficial outcome for all employees.

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