Some have argued that if a forum has no conflict, it is not intimate enough – members are sugar-coating their sharing, not willing to raise issues that need to be resolved.
It is not that forums must have conflict, but forums are made up of idiosyncratic human beings so conflict is almost inevitable. That conflict can be swept under the rug, or it can be discussed transparently and vulnerably. Healthy, effective forums achieve greater intimacy and value through the process of addressing and resolving conflict(s).
Conflict comes in different forms:
Disagreement over forum norms (is it okay to come late, miss many meetings, hog the air time)
Disagreement over forum purpose/goals/how to spend our time (e.g., business vs personal focus)
Different opinions on polarizing issues (e.g., political views) with one or more members advocating to convince others of the correctness of their point of view, leading others to feel judged or “commanded” to think in certain ways
Business or personal conflict: One member begins doing business with another, or two members decide they are going to date/become a couple
Methods to address conflict depend on the type of issue:
On norm violations or individual behavior that causes anger, sadness, or disappointment on the part of another member, clear the air between member A and B using the standard issue clearing model
One of the tenets of Forum is that updates are for the person giving them - what he or she needs to say. As an experiment, try "flipping" this model.
Every member is asked in advance to prepare a question they would like to ask each other member of the Forum – maybe something they haven't mentioned in a while, perhaps an area of concern, or simply information you’re curious about.
You can then proceed in one of two ways:
(Shorter version) For the first “Updater,” go around the room and ask each other member to share their question. The Updater listens, takes notes if they wish, but does not respond until all questions have been asked. The Updater is then given three minutes to share reflections, insights, or updates that respond to the questions. The Updater is not obligated to answer any question.
(Longer version) For the first Updater, choose at random someone to ask their question. The questioner can pass (perhaps a previous questioner already asked the same thing), and the Updater can also decline to answer. Whether the Updater accepts or declines to answer could suggest a presentation topic. When the Updater is done answering the questioner they can say "next" to move on to the next randomly-selected questioner. Set a time limit per Updater (probably 4-5 minutes).
Each member gets only a fixed amount of time, and depending on how long it takes the Updater to answer, the Updater may end up addressing one question, or several -- though probably not everyone. If the exercise proves useful, the forum could perhaps do it again allowing more time.
This exercise aims to take the forum a little deeper, adds an element of fun and unpredictability, and may help reveal some blind spots. Sometimes others ask better questions of us than we ask of ourselves.
Thank you to Melissa Weiksnar. This blog post is adapted from an exercise she created for her forum.
We had two members miss the last meeting, and they only told us at the last minute and had a non-emergency excuse. How do we bring this up and emphasize to them the importance of forum attendance unless it’s an emergency?
I responded with a series of questions for the moderator and forum to reflect on:
What are the norms of the forum with regard to attendance? Was this a clear violation of that norm, or are your norms either ambiguous on this point or more forgiving? Does the forum want to revisit and clarify those norms?
If this was a norm violation, does the forum have an established practice of clearing the air to ensure that concerns like this don’t remain unstated and unresolved? Are you prepared to do this clearing at the next meeting? Would it be helpful to call the absent member first, to have a private conversation, understand the situation more fully, and then decide how to discuss the issue at the next meeting?
More broadly, is the forum aligned on its goals, and on why and how members can support each other in making forum a priority in our lives? Would any changes to the meeting timing, length, or venue make attendance easier both for the one who missed the last meeting and for others?
At the highest level, are we using our precious meeting time to discuss forum-worthy issues, topics that we can’t share with many others in our life? Are we designing and filling our meetings with discussions that are truly priceless, can’t-miss, and that we would only want to miss if there is a true emergency in our lives?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing an op-ed in the New York Times called “Advice for Living” shared this wisdom:
Another often-asked question when I speak in public: “Do you have some good advice you might share with us?” Yes, I do. It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. “In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.
Justice Ginsberg is not saying that we should be fully deaf; neither is she denying the value of speaking up or of clearing the air to sustain healthy relationships. Instead, I hear her recommending: Presume goodwill, listen with curiosity and respect, be aware of your verbal and non-verbal responses, own your feelings, and ask for permission before offering feedback. And being “a little deaf” can be part of that equation – in marriage, in daily life, and in our forum meetings.
After months and months on Zoom, consider doing this exercise at the beginning of your first in-person meeting. This can be done outdoors and in a socially distanced way if necessary.
Members pair up, inviting each other to find a space in the room or outdoor space where you can privately face each other, separate from the other forum pairs. If both are comfortable doing so, lower your masks.
Look into each other’s eyes. Appreciate the life and humanity and warmth of the person standing in front of you.
Greet each other by name: “Hello A”, “Hello B.”
Hold your hands out to each other – as if to hold hands or to give each other hug if you were close enough to do that. Then put your hands to your side.
Smile! Even if it can’t be seen through your mask, it will be seen in the glint of your eyes.
One person speaks first, using a selection of these prompts: (Max 1 minute)
I’m happy to see you because…
I appreciate your presence in our forum because…
I’m eager to hear about [some aspect of your life]
I’m eager to tell you about [some aspect of my life]
The other person listens for a minute, and then responds in a similar fashion. (Max 1 minute)
When time is up, extend your hands again in a virtual hug and thank each other for your time together. “Thank you, A, Thank you, B.”
Move silently around the meeting space, find another partner, and repeat the process until all (or most) pairs of members have met.
David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times about “the art of making connection even in a time of dislocation.” The possibility of deep talk exists, he argues, even if we are meeting over Zoom. Consider bringing these ideas to your next forum meeting.
Ask elevating questions. What crossroads are you at? What commitments have you made that you no longer believe in? Who do you feel most grateful to have in your life? What problem did you use to have but now have licked? In what ways are you sliding backward? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking questions that imply judgment or are simply yes/no, consider starting with “What was it like…” or “Tell me about a time…”
Don’t fear the pause. Instead of stopping to listen halfway through another’s sharing so you can begin composing your own response, be comfortable with silence and reflection time.
The midwife model. Think of your forum conversation as helping a fellow member give birth to their own child. That means lots of patient listening, giving the other person a sense of control, sitting with an issue as it slowly changes under the pressure of joint attention.
No matter who started the conversation, no matter whose issue was explored in depth, we can all take something of value away from each meeting. By allocating a specific time at the end of the meeting to share takeaways, we encourage greater self-reflection. And as I hear what you took away, I may agree, may take away a different point, or may be sparked to consider a new approach. Possible takeaways may be in any of these categories:
Question: I wonder why? What if? How come? Would I…? Can I…?
Appreciation: I want to express gratitude to a fellow forum member or to someone else in my life. I will do that before the next forum meeting!
Issue: I need to pursue, explore, gain a greater understanding of X, so I can do a better job of Y.
Perspective: Wow! That’s a new angle, a whole new way to think about my problem or opportunity.
Insight: I can now more keenly see the true nature of my situation, because….
Idea: A new conviction, conception, opinion, principle, or framework is forming in my mind!
Connection: I need to make a note to reach out to person A to pursue…. Or maybe a forum mate can introduce me to person B?
Intention: I have a new goal, purpose, or objective in mind. I need to flesh this out further.
Action: I have a new S.M.A.R.T. goal, one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-framed. Shall I tell my forum mates about this goal, so they can serve as my accountability witnesses?
Our forums have been meeting virtually for months now. We’ve gotten used to Zoom. We’ve adjusted our meeting frequency, length and agenda to accommodate the opportunities and challenges of this new format. Now we are beginning to ask: What’s next? Are we ever going back to the old “normal” of monthly meetings, 3-4 hours in length, and always in person; or will there be a new “normal” for our forum?
How and when will we have our first in-person meeting?
People are hungering for in-person gatherings, but still many are afraid. Given these mixed emotions, it’s important to clarify upfront the lowest common denominator of safety requirements so that people are feeling their safety will be respected should they decide to meet in person. Specific dimensions to consider include:
Should we start with a shorter meeting, perhaps two hours long, to begin getting comfortable with the idea?
What venue is acceptable? Outdoors, in the backyard of a member’s home; or inside in a room that is large enough for socially distant seating? How will members be assured that great care is taken in all areas of hygiene?
If the plan is to meet outside, but it starts raining, will we end the meeting and go home? If we scramble and run indoors, will that lead to someone’s discomfort?
Will everyone always wear masks or only when social distancing is not possible?
Do we bring our own food/drinks to minimize close-up contact, or will we take turns going to grab a drink or snack so as not to crowd anyone?
Should we provide a Zoom back-up option in case the weather doesn’t cooperate, or if the forum decides to revert to a virtual format due to last-minute changes in the health status of individual members or surging local virus rates?
What if some members are not ready or able to meet in-person?
It’s generally considered best practice for everyone to be in the same room, or for all to be virtual. That way, all members participate with equal standing.
However, your forum may reach a point where all except one or two members are willing to try an in-person meeting. We listen carefully and respect the needs of all members. Perhaps some have their own compromised health situations or are caring for family members who need to be protected.
With the blessing of those who choose to stay virtual, the forum may gather in person with one or two members still on Zoom. Each remote participant gets their own separate laptop/screen. If using Zoom, pin the video for one remote user on each computer. Put the computers at different places around the room to give remote participants the best possible view of everyone who is physically present. Follow these best practices for the optimal experience.
What if some members are no longer in your local area?
COVID has disrupted everyone’s lives and some members may have relocated during the pandemic. As long as all meetings are virtual, it doesn’t matter. We don’t care where you are calling from, as long as you continue to participate reliably.
If your forum resumes in-person meetings, those who are temporarily out of the area can continue to participate via Zoom, if the forum allows that. Those who have relocated for a longer, indeterminate period present a bigger challenge. They may also continue to participate virtually for an agreed number of months, while they seek to join another forum; they may take a sabbatical; or they may resign, with our deep appreciation for their time in the forum.
Longer term, would a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings work best for our forum?
Some forums, now comfortable with virtual meetings, may experiment with a mixed mode of sometimes all-together, and sometimes on Zoom. The frequency, length and format of meetings will vary depending on multiple factors:
The number of members who are no longer in the local area, but who can return occasionally
Commuting times to get to meetings or frequency of member travel out of the area
Planned agendas, with some topics working well remotely and others better addressed in-person
We’re all figuring this out as we go, and open, honest conversation and respectful listening will help get us through this transition.
Thank you to Mo Fathelbab and Roni Witkin for their suggestions regarding this blog post. All opinions are my own.
Discussions in forum about larger societal issues, such as race, racial identity, or race relations, have the potential to derail and to cause hurt feelings and a sense of being judged negatively.
Before beginning such conversations, ask all members to review and agree to a set of guiding principles. These eight principles (adapted and summarized from the Daring Discussions Toolkit) provide an excellent starting point.
Ground yourself in love. Many social problems stem from our willingness to turn people into the “other” and deny their basic humanity. Holding onto hate hurts us deeply while love drives us to invest our time and energy.in each other in a more productive way, raising the level of relationship between us.
Strength is compassion & vulnerability. When we think of strength, we often think of toughness and inflexibility. However, it takes bravery to be vulnerable and great strength to be compassionate rather than judgmental.
Suspend your first judgment. When we judge each other, we shut down our power to listen to what others are saying. Be aware of the impulse towards judgment and advocacy; then take a moment to breathe deeply.
Seek clarification before jumping to conclusions. Assume others in the forum have good intentions and want to find common ground. Rather than launching into a response based on judgment, or what you “think” another member meant, ask open-ended questions.
Be honest about your experiences. Focus on sharing your direct personal experiences, as opposed to stories you’ve heard in the news or through other people. This is the heart of forum: sharing as deeply and truthfully as you are able will help others feel empowered to do the same.
Be unconditionally accepting. It is possible to both accept someone and disagree with them at the same time. The goal is not to “win” a debate, but to find common ground, to see our own blind spots in new way, and to be enriched by the perspectives of others.
Reflective & intuitive listening. Listen patiently and quietly, then reflect back before sharing what’s on your mind. “I hear you saying that….” “I appreciate you sharing with me that….”
Be aware of the privilege you hold in the conversation. Privileges we hold may be exactly those things of which we are least aware. We can simultaneously hold some kinds of privilege or relative power, while experiencing some form of oppression as well. Being aware of the privilege you hold is an important part of creating space in forum for others to share difficult and vulnerable truths about their experience.
You haven’t been travelling for months, and now the world is (maybe) slowly opening up. As you consider making long-delayed or long-planned trips, what’s the right choice? Should you bunker down or get on the plane? Forum can be a great place to talk through decisions that are multifaceted, involve conflicting emotions, and require you to coordinate with family members or business colleagues.
Invite each member to share one or two upcoming travel decisions (either personal or business) that they’ve made or need to make. Possible questions to address:
Why do you feel you need to make this trip? Why now?
What safety or other practical concerns do you have and how might you address them?
If your spouse/partner or other family members are involved, how do their approaches/philosophies differ? How might you resolve any potential conflict.
How do you think about risk vs. return in making this particular travel decision? What weight do you give to different factors?
How do you think differently about business vs. personal travel?
Each member has 2-3 minutes (timed) to share their answers.
After all members have shared, open up to general conversation, including takeaways and possible accountability to report back to the forum. What new perspective, insight or question are you taking away from this conversation? Do you expect to make the travel decision you shared in the next month? Would you like the forum to check in to see what you decided at the next meeting?
I used to think that sex and money were the final frontiers in forum. If we are willing to share deeply about these topics, perhaps our forums have reached a level of trust and vulnerability that leads to transformational value.
In the America we now inhabit, I wonder if race and racial attitudes might be even more sensitive and taboo. Some questions you might consider at your next forum meeting:
How has your upbringing influenced the ways you think about people from other racial backgrounds?
How would you describe the current extent and nature of your relations with people of other racial backgrounds? How do you feel about that?
What recent or long past personal experiences are you reminded of as you read about protests across America? Why?
As a business leader, how have you supported (or undermined) efforts towards racial equality and racial justice?
You may wish to read this excellent guide to Daring Discussions before you begin the conversation.
Two recent articles that forum members might read in advance:
Thank you to James Isaacs from whose exercise this blog post is adapted.
We are passing through one of the most disrupted periods in recorded business history. There has never been anything like this. Kudos to all who are still standing!
While there are glimmers of green shoots coming up around us, and the teasing possibility of “re-opening” from Shelter-in-Place, the cold hard reality is that these current recessionary conditions are going to persist for some time into the future. Forum is the ideal place to talk through how we are reacting, adapting and growing in this time.
Each member prepares in advance to give a brief (5-7 minute) presentation using the following questions to stimulate their thinking.
Reacting – Since we last got together a month ago:
What was your best moment in reacting to something?
What was your worst moment?
What have you done that has worked best in reaction to something?
What have you done that has worked least well?
Was there some reaction that you would love to have a “do over” on?
What was a great decision you made?
Is there a decision that you are just not facing up to? Why are you avoiding the decision?
Adapting – Since we last got together a month ago:
What is something that you have changed in either how you operate your business, how your family is functioning, or how you act personally in relation to COVID-19 that shows healthy adaptation?
Growing — Since we last got together a month ago:
How have you grown in the last month?
What is a strength or attribute you are showing that you didn’t before?
Starting with the axiom, “this might be the best work I ever do” under this stress, how have you shown some of your best work this last month?
What behavior, strength, attribute, tactic, strategy, attitude, motion, action, movement, etc. do you think you need to get through the next stage of this?
A few notes:
You do not have to respond to all questions. Respond to those that speak to you.
Feel free to use other approaches to express your thoughts and feelings.
Try to touch on your personal, family and business life.
Go for the 5%, your deepest feelings and issues which are most difficult to share outside of forum.
Allocate 2-3 minutes after each member’s presentation for others to resonate, notice, share experience, pose a thought-provoking question, or connect the dots between multiple members’ experiences.
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:
(Of course, this can also be done even if your forum is holding its regular meetings in-person.)
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 walk or lunch date, or a conversation by phone.
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 and ask whether all would like to continue paired meetings on a regular basis.
In your one-on-ones, answering one or more of the following questions, can help build deeper connections:
Describe a significant event in your life in the last year. What happened? Why was it so significant to you?
What are three ways your team at work would describe you as a leader? What’s the area of leadership you’d most like to improve/develop?
What’s a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan to overcome this fear in the years ahead?
When you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun? Where do you find yourself most relaxed and happy?
Describe one of your most challenging or difficult career experiences. What toll did it take on you and what did you learn?
You know the expression ‘It’s lonely at the top’. When do you feel like that in your role? Why?
Share an experience, either professional or personal ,of overcoming adversity against the odds. How did you do it? What impact did the experience have on you?
These days we all need to wear some kind of mask when we leave our homes and can’t socially distance from others. Forum, meeting on a virtual platform, is one place where we can take off both our physical and our “psychological” masks, be vulnerable and discuss what really matters.
Consider doing this combined icebreaker/update activity at your next virtual forum meeting:
MASKED: Please bring and show your favorite or usual mask, and tell its story (up to 1 minute each, go around the “table”)
UNMASKED: Take off the “mask” you are wearing in front of your colleagues, family, and/or self. How are you REALLY feeling at this time? What is the Most Important Thing you want to tell the rest of us? Can you be vulnerable with your fellow forum members, and can you ask for what you need? Up to 3 or 4 minutes each (depending on length of meeting and number of members).
NOTICING (Optional, 10 minutes): Members have one minute each to quickly notice what was said or unsaid, tone and body language, anything you resonated with by deeply listening. No dialogue, questions, judgment, or advice giving. Members will not have time and are not expected to comment on every other member’s update.
Note: It’s best to tell members in advance about this exercise so they can have their physical mask handy, and can reflect on the suggested update questions.
Credit: Thank you to Melissa Weiksnar for sharing this exercise.
Is your forum struggling to schedule its first retreat? Are some members not sure about the value?
Consider sharing this excerpt from Mo Fathelbab’s book Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders with other members of your forum.
A single retreat is said to have as much value for group growth as six to twelve months of meetings – reason enough for groups to schedule at least one retreat each year.
What is a retreat? A retreat is an organized one to two-day, out of town meeting that provides a group with the opportunity to rebuild, rejuvenate and grow. A successful retreat is planned using a work component and a play component. The work component includes a formal agenda with updates, presentations, exercises, and housekeeping. The plan component can be anything from skiing to rock climbing to white water rafting to any number of parlor games. And, of course, shared meals are an important element.
Retreats can be held in a variety of locations: hotels, bed and breakfasts, resorts, private vacation homes, even boats. Vacation homes can be particularly effective retreat sites because the group can stay together in a family atmosphere, enjoy total privacy, and share some of the menial tasks such as cooking, that engender a stronger sense of friendship.
The retreat provides an opportunity for self-discovery as well as to get better acquainted with fellow members, especially new ones. It is not at all unusual for new group members to feel some hesitancy before attending the first retreat. Seasoned groups, though, quickly realize the value of the retreat and look forward to the intensity of the experience.
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:
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.
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:
Pick the right meeting platform.
Use the technology well, following established best practices.
Reinforce security and confidentiality.
Set norms that support a virtual format.
Plan a shorter agenda focused on deep, connecting conversations.
Consider scheduling “virtual coffees” outside of full group meetings to support each other in tough times.
Get back together face-to-face as soon as you can.
Create a private social media platform (e.g., Slack, WhatsApp) to support ongoing communication.
Use shared, community building apps (like those available for Fitbit users) to monitor members’ health and fitness goals.
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.
- Given the virus and offices closed down, should we cancel our monthly forum meeting or connect virtually?
- How should we adapt our meeting to be most helpful to all of us?
- How can forum help me stay calm and resilient in these challenging times?
These are the kind of questions forum members are asking in light of the escalating health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus. I suggest keeping in mind three simple messages.
We need forum now more than ever
Many of us have cancelled upcoming travel; others have had essential supply chains or product launches disrupted; and some are even questioning the financial viability of their businesses. The months and years we have invested in building our forum’s bonds of trust and support can be a powerful source of strength while the world whirls around us.
At this fragile and uncertain time, we may question our competence, priorities, or decisions. We need a place where we can take off our masks, be vulnerable, and discuss what really matters. Forum can be that safe port in this “viral storm.” The worst decision right now could be to cancel your next forum meeting.
Meet in Zoom or on another platform which allows members to both see and hear each other.
Ask each member to be in a quiet, private space, sitting in front of their computer (preferred), or else using their tablet or phone.
To accommodate the virtual format, shorten your usual 3 or 4-hour meeting to 1.5 or 2 hours. This still allows time for updates and one full or two mini-presentations.
Start with an appropriate icebreaker: What strategy helps you be strong during tough times? What part of your life, family or business needs the most care right now? What leadership or relationship challenge has been exacerbated by the virus?
Embrace the spirit of the Buddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and consider ending your meeting with a virtual “hug.” Close your eyes as the moderator invites each member to breathe three times consciously, thinking with those breaths: “I’m glad I’m here; I’m glad you’re here; I’m glad we’re here together.”
Stay flexible and be open to new possibilities
As the old saying goes, “people plan, and God laughs.”
If your planned retreat must be postponed, commit to each other that you will reschedule as soon as possible. The timing is out of our control, but we will again be face-to-face and be able to give each other a real hug!
We are blessed if we have a forum where we can be truly safe and known. Now is the time to seek out that place where you can be “respected and cherished, protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged and heard.”
The People’s Supper is a non-profit organization that uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives. Their work, born of a belief that “change moves at the speed of trust,” might also inspire our forums. They often begin their suppers with this invitation to “brave space” by Micky ScottBey Jones:
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” —
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.
May our forums be such brave spaces, that we create and nourish together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Get on the “balcony”. Regularly take an outsider’s perspective. How are we doing? Are we hearing from everyone? How can we improve?
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.
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?
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)
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)
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.
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 us, and
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.
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?
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 challenge you are facing now?
- What is the greatest fear you 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 yourself that 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).
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 or on Zoom. 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.
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.”
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?
Ask members to rate their organization on each point in both articles on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=we’re doing poorly and 5=we’re doing this very well.
Use the results of this assessment to choose selected dimensions (or others that emerge from the discussion) and do a deeper dive, inviting members to share what has/has not worked along those dimensions.
Closer: Each member to share one action item, new perspective, or question they are asking as a result of the conversation.
Follow-up at the next forum meeting: What did each member do? How did it work? How are they feeling now?
Every member of a forum will over time have needs for a referral, introduction, expertise, new investment, or ideas on hiring, technology, or some other personal or professional issue. At the same time, other members can often offer direct or indirect leads to help the first member.
Consider incorporating this “Needs and Leads” into your meetings on a regular or occasional basis:
The moderator sets up the exercise by explaining the objective and giving an example. “I’m looking for distribution channels in South America” or “touring ideas in Italy” or “a science tutor for my son.” Note that even if you can’t personally provide a direct connection, you might know of others who could help.
Go around the room, and each member states a need (or two) in under a minute. If any other member thinks they can help, they raise their hand.
It is up to the members with “needs” to follow up with any members who provide “leads.”
Optional addition: After a member shares a need (and sees who can help), the member can also share a lead of any type. Some examples:
I've just read a book on diversity, inclusion and equality that has been very helpful in sharing our company's approach.
I just researched electric vehicles prior to my purchase and would be happy to share.
I recommend this great book I just read, movie I saw, app that I installed in my phone...
Note: Thank you to Joan Mara for her suggested additions to this blog post.
Shakespeare opined that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and Pascal observed “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
In that spirit, try one of these three approaches to concise updates, preferable with advance notice so members have “the time to make it shorter.”
If your update this month was a movie title, what would it be and why?
Share your update as a six-word story, and then “unpack”/explain the story. For more on this rich approach, inspired by a famous challenge to Ernest Hemingway, see this website.
Prepare your update as a “tweet” (i.e. 140 characters, including spacing and punctuation), trying to include feelings. At the meeting, everyone will read their “tweet” (you don’t actually use Twitter!), have a thematic discussion, and go into more depth where needed.
Melissa Weiksar, who suggested the last option, reports that in her forum, everyone had a slightly different interpretation; perhaps the most interesting from someone who did his as a string of noun/verb/feeling updates. People appreciated how they had to truly distill what was most important.
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.
Melissa Weiksnar, a longtime member of an HBS forum in Boston, suggests this occasional variation on members’ monthly updates.
Ask each member to share an “ERMIA” update”: What did you Eliminate, Reduce, Maintain, Increase, or Add since our last meeting? And how does this update make you feel?
This kind of update helps members focus on issues of balance – how are you spending your time, what have you changed recently, and what would you still like to change? Items to be mentioned could relate to your business, personal, or family life.
We know that forum works best when it is a judgment-free zone. We speak from experience; we don’t tell others what to do.
But some situations are much harder than others. Consider the case of two forum mates, “John” and “Mary”:
John, in full candor, shares something that he has done or some decision or choice he has made.
Mary feels strongly that what John did is wrong, bad, immoral, or unethical.
Even if Mary does not share her feelings out loud, is she still judging John negatively, and does Mary need to clear the air with John?
Or is Mary clean with John as long as she doesn’t verbalize her negative judgment of John?
I believe the answer to this case can be found in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, the foundational text on judgment-free living and clearing the air. Rosenberg makes the compelling case that, “when you’re busy judging people, you have no time to love them.” In that spirit, Mary needs to clear the air with herself, not with John. In that process, perhaps she can come to feel not “I judge John negatively because of what he did,” but instead, “I wouldn’t have done what John did, but I will not judge him.” This can be our guiding mantra in forum (and in life), even if, as flawed human beings, it will be an ongoing struggle to be judgment-free.
Mary (and all of us) might further reflect:
Have I truly tried to understand what John did? Under what conditions would I do what he did? What would have to happen in my life to do exactly what he did?
If I see something in John that I don’t like, is this in any way an aspect of something I don’t like in myself?
A further complicating dimension: What if, in Mary’s view, what John did was not only wrong, but illegal?
While it’s simpler to paint the world in black and white, illegal acts can range across a spectrum from running a traffic light to petty shoplifting to embezzlement to first degree murder. In general, our role in forum is to be an active listener, to ask thought provoking questions, and to share our experiences. We are not to act as prosecutor, judge and jury.
However, I make one exception to this philosophy: If John has physically harmed another, or announces his intention to physically harm another (or himself), Mary (and others in the forum) are obligated to do something. That means, depending on the situation, helping John get the professional mental health support he needs, and/or bringing the issue to the attention of appropriate public safety authorities.
Has your forum ever confronted situations like this? How have you dealt with them? And how can we enhance our forum experiences by sharing best practices in these most complicated cases? Please share your thoughts.
It is sometimes said that sex and intimacy are the final frontiers of forum. When forums are willing to share deeply about topics like these, they have reached a level of trust and vulnerability that leads to transformational value.
An exercise focused on issues raised by the #METOO movement, can be one part of these conversations.
The hashtag #METOO is about the phenomenon of people (usually men) in the position of hiring, mentoring, supervising, and/or opening doors for women, and using that as leverage for requiring, suggesting, or demanding a sexual relationship as either an explicit or implicit quid pro quo. The discussion can be broadened to include any type of sexual harassment, gender bias, or sexism in the workplace.
To encourage deeper sharing, meet first in small groups of 2, 3 or 4 members (Optional: Men and women members of the forum meet separately.) (30 minutes)
When the #METOO story broke, what came up for you? How did you feel? What in your personal life experience did it bring up for you? How have you personally been part of a “#METOO” moment or a possible #METOO moment as a participant or a bystander or an upstander, and how did you feel then? And how do you reflect back and feel now about that story?
The full forum reconvenes (30 minutes)
Confidentiality ground rule: Each of us is allowed to share only our own stories with the full forum, not the stories told by others in our small group meetings.
What thoughts and feelings did the sharing bring up for you? What was it like to talk about this? What further thoughts you are having now? What did you share in your small group that you might want to share now?
Possible additional prompts/questions:
What was your business school/college/high school experience like as it relates to #METOO?
What recent or long past experiences are you now reminded of? Why? How does that make you feel?
How do you feel differently from the other people in the forum regarding this issue?
How are you resonating with this conversation? What other memories/experiences are being triggered for you? How does that make you feel?
Our religious and spiritual beliefs and practices can be a powerful theme to explore in forum. One way to do so is to invite each member in turn to take about 5 minutes to answer these questions:
The religious/spiritual background of my family of origin was…
As an adult, I still believe/practice the following…. I no longer….
(Optional, if relevant) My spouse’s religious/spiritual background was…. He/she still believes/practices the following…. He/she no longer….
My (or my family’s) current approach to religion and spirituality is working/is not working for me in the following ways…. And here’s how I feel about that….
After all have shared this background, members are invited to respond and resonate with each other, sharing what moved them, the emotion they felt, and what new memories or experiences came up for them.
At the end, go around the circle and each member shares a new insight, perspective, or question they are taking away from the conversation.
No problem is being solved, but important experiences and feelings are shared, helping all members get to a deeper level of self-awareness on this important topic.
Note: Members may appreciate knowing about this exercise and having the opportunity to prepare in advance.
Many forums standardize on one four-hour meeting monthly plus an annual retreat. However, there are many ways to mix it up, to accommodate individual scheduling needs, and to build richer connections between members. Some options to consider on an occasional or regular basis:
Try a shorter meeting between 2-3.5 hours, either because that’s what works one month or because your forum is smaller and less time is needed.
If you regularly have shorter meetings, consider adding a 30-minute check-in/quick update call between monthly meetings.
Once or twice a year, shorten the meeting to about 2.5 hours (time for updates and one presentation), and then go out to dinner or cater the meal in to a member’s conference room or home.
Plan a 5-6 hour mini-retreat, with or without a professional facilitator.
In the summer, rent a boat (or find a friend who has one). Go on a 2-3 hour cruise, including extended updates only, then socializing.
Plan a holiday dinner with spouses or a summer picnic with kids to get to know each other’s families.
Don’t limit connections to forum meetings. Meet one-on-one, either as part of the coaching process, as a follow-up to someone’s presentation, or to discuss shared personal or professional interests.
When requested by a member with an urgent issue, schedule an emergency meeting. Such sessions have only one agenda item – a presentation of the member’s urgent issue. The meeting usually lasts an hour or less and may be held via conference or video call. Because the meeting is not on the regular calendar, absences don’t affect member attendance statistics.
If too many members are traveling, meet virtually using Skype, Zoom or another video meeting platform.
Forums sometimes struggle with the process and effort of generating a rich parking lot of possible presentation topics. If you want to almost guarantee a great list of options, try this method at your next meeting.
Before updates, randomly pair members up and announce the pairings. (Have a trio in addition to the pairs if you have an odd number in attendance.)
To prepare updates, members can use the standard update form, but also ask them to consider either these questions or how they would complete one of these sentences: “The one thing I don’t want to share with my Forum is…” or “The one thing I have not yet shared with my Forum is…”
When members are sharing their updates, everyone listens carefully, but we pay particular attention to the update of the person we have been paired with. Proceed through updates without any interruptions or questions.
Immediately after updates, meet separately in your pairs (or trio) for 10-15 minutes to help each other reflect on and define the most significant, deep issue or two on which each of you would like to hear the group’s experience. Consider in your conversation what you heard today, but also issues that your partner has mentioned in the past.
Come back together and each member reports out the issue(s) they have identified for possible presentation. Someone should scribe all of these topics on a white board or in a notebook.
This should generate a great list of at least one topic per member for presentation either that day or in the future.
Typically, a forum’s moderator serves for one year and is then succeeded by another member of the group. There are several approaches groups can take to selecting the new moderator.
The current moderator offers to serve for another term of one year and the rest of the group agrees.
The current assistant moderator automatically becomes the new moderator. (This option makes the most sense if the full group understood and agreed from the beginning that the assistant was “next in line.” This is not generally the case for assistant moderators selected during the orientation meeting at the beginning of the forum’s existence.)
The current assistant moderator offers to become the new moderator but leaves it open for discussion and group consensus to decide if that is the best choice for the group.
A secret ballot is held to select the new moderator (This is how Alumni Forums normally select their first moderator during their initial orientation meeting. In this method, there are not normally any nominations before the voting, but people can vote for themselves.)
A volunteer steps forward, offers to serve as the next moderator, and the group agrees by consensus or acclamation to accept the volunteer’s offer.
There is no one right choice for every group every year. In the case of one Alumni Forum, the moderator for year 2 was selected by secret ballot and in year 3 a volunteer stepped forward and was enthusiastically endorsed by the group. In year 4, the assistant moderator said they could not commit to serve as moderator and the moderator for year 3 agreed to serve a second year.
When it comes time to pass the baton, it is generally best for the group to have an open and honest discussion of all selection options and agree by consensus on which approach seems right for the group at this time. The process may be different next year.
One final point: The current moderator is encouraged to think proactively about who might be his/her successor. Try to choose a member who meets the “ABC” criteria:
“A” for Ability: A combination of high emotional intelligence and high executive functioning skills
“B” for Bandwidth: The time to responsibly and reliably fulfill the role.
“C” for Commitment: Overall engagement and enthusiasm for the forum and its benefits.
Socializing the idea with potential candidates in advance is usually more effective than just asking at a meeting “Who would like to be the next moderator?”
Ice breakers or other forms of short conversation starters can be a great way to introduce a meeting, and to go deeper and get to know each other better.
While you can find suggested topics in the Alumni Forum Services Resource Library or via Google, creating your own can be even more meaningful and engaging. Here are three ideas to stimulate your own thinking.
Idea #1: My best boss ever was … and why…
When Tom, a former boss that I deeply admired, died prematurely due to cancer, I wanted to remember and honor him at my next Forum meeting. I asked the moderator if we could do this ice breaker in Tom’s memory. Not only did I get to share a little of Tom with my Forum, we all benefited from hearing each other’s memories of our best bosses.
Idea #2: The three places I would wish to have my ashes spread (whether or not I will be cremated)…
I recently read a Wall Street Journal articlethat reported more and more people were finding creative places to spread their departed relatives’ ashes, with or without permission of the owner of the intended final resting place. This ice breaker provided a wonderful way to learn more about the significant physical locations in each member’s life.
Idea #3: My most memorable moment as a fan or an athlete was…
Our Forum happened to be meeting the day after the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year. This prompted one member to suggest this ice breaker – a great introduction to members’ achievements (or disappointments), on or off the playing field.
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.
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.
One sign of a healthy forum is that all members are willing, even eager, to explore their toughest issues and highest aspirations in forum.
While that is the ideal, some forums find that members are reluctant to present, or are always deferring to others. To encourage more members to step forward, first ask all members at every meeting to complete one of these sentences:
If I was to present today, I would explore…
I would appreciate hearing the group’s experience that can help me think about…
Then, working with that list, don’t just wait or plead for a volunteer. Instead call on a full repertoire of presentation selection methods including:
Voting: During a break, each member gets to cast three votes for the topic/presenter. Your votes can go all to your own topic, all to another member, or be divided as you wish. The member with the most votes becomes today’s presenter. This method can be done in the open (everyone can see which topics are getting the most votes) or anonymously (put your votes on a separate piece of paper, and the moderator then counts up the votes).
Secret ballot: Each member writes on a paper the name of the person they would most like to see present today. Again, you can vote for yourself or someone else. The moderate collects and counts the papers. The member with the most votes is invited to present, either on the topic they proposed for the parking lot, or something else of their choosing.
Finger shoot: All members are asked simultaneously to hold out between one and five fingers. Five = I must present today. Four = I want to present. Three = I would like to present. Two = I don’t need to present. One = I don’t want to present.
Put in place a rotation of one presenter scheduled in advance, and one chosen on the day of the meeting. The scheduled sequence is reviewed monthly and presenters may be moved forward or backwards in the queue based on the urgency and importance of issues.
Most forums follow the traditional model of rotating moderators annually, often with an assistant moderator who also serves as moderator-elect. That model works well for many, but some forums embrace that we are all leaders (of the forum), and all must take responsibility for our success as a forum. Other forums struggle to select individual leaders, but still want the forum to function effectively.
For forums that want all members engaged in leadership, consider the “ABC” rotation model. A forum of nine members is divided into three groups of three: ABC, DEF, and GHI. The ABC team agrees to lead the forum for the first six months of the year, followed by DEF for the second half, while GHI manages the content and logistics of the forum’s annual retreat. Each team decides internally how to divide their responsibilities. At the end of the year, the teams rotate responsibilities, with GHI taking the first half of the year, ABC the second half, and DEF planning the retreat. The rotation model can easily be adapted to work with forums that are smaller or larger in number.
I’ve worked with multiple forums that have found forum leadership can be as easy as A-B-C. Everyone contributes, and everyone benefits from solid, shared leadership of the forum.
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.
There are many ways to encourage forum members to share during the updates part of the meeting. One of the simplest approaches is to ask members the following questions. Each person can then decide which question(s) resonate with them and which they will answer when they share their update.
What is the toughest relationship challenge (personal or professional) that you are facing now?
What is the toughest leadership challenge you are facing now?
What is the greatest fear you have now?
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?
What is something that you don’t like about yourself that you are working on?
Whichever question(s) members choose to answer, encourage everyone to also answer one more question:
Adding members to your forum can be a source of renewal and new energy, but the process needs to be managed thoughtfully to maximize the probability of successful new member integration. Consider following these steps:
In a forum meeting, get clarity on these questions: How many members do we want to add and when do we want them to join? Are we looking to enhance peer quality or diversity of perspectives or both? Are there any other demographic considerations (e.g., gender, industry, career stage, scope of responsibility)?
Appoint a forum member to serve as “point person,” managing the process of communication with potential candidates, and with your local chapter/club in sourcing candidates.
Decide how your forum will engage with candidates: over the phone, in coffees with selected members, and/or by inviting them to a partial or full meeting. Everyone needs to be clear on the process and time frame. Ideally, at least a couple forum members will meet the candidate(s) before they attend a full forum meeting. Topics of discussion can include:
- Member and candidate demographics/backgrounds - Forum experience to date and expectations/aspirations for the future - Reviewing the forum’s constitution or norms - Coordinating calendars: Determining when the candidate will attend their first meeting
Before the candidate attends a full meeting, arrange for them to have forum training (or at least an orientation call) to review forum principles and processes.
Select an integration exercise to use at the first meeting that the new member will be attending. Some ideas are available here.
To support the integration process, assign a “forum buddy” to every new member who will check in regularly in the first few months after joining. Also encourage other members to meet the newest members for coffee or a meal to get everyone connected as quickly as possible.
One of the tools used in Forum is the One word open/close. This tool has lots of value in Forum but did you ever consider its value at work?
Lets first talk about how and why the one word barometer is used in Forum. The specific question asked of the members is, “how do you feel at this moment in one word?” the truth is one word seems limiting to many people. This is particularly true when they are attempting to cram an entire thought into one word and that itself can be frustrating. On the other hand, if that word truly reflected a feeling, that one word can tell an entire story. If I state just the facts about something that happened I’m only sharing a part of the story and I’m only sharing a part of my truth.
Consider the following example: 1. I have not seen or spoken to my brother in 15 years. 2. I have not seen or spoken to my brother in 15 years and that makes me feel abandoned. 3. I have not seen or spoken to my brother in 15 years and that makes me feel guilty. In number one we are simply left to assume how that might make the person feel and we may very well make false assumptions. In example two, we are led to believe its the brother’s choice. In number 3, we are led to believe a completely different story as guilt implies a responsibility and self-fault.
In Forum, these single words help the moderator to take a pulse of the group and to address issues of concern.
What about at work? Really? Is it weird to ask a co-worker, “how are you feeling?” Let’s consider the example above, can we really afford that big a miscommunication with the very people with whom we spend 40-60 hours a week? Furthermore, can we afford a misinterpretation because we are afraid to ask a simple word? If we assume we understand, and we don’t that can lead to big problems.
A potential forum member recently expressed concern about being placed in a forum where most of the members were considerably younger than him. Being of a “certain age” myself, my response was as follows:
Most of my friends and many business associates are around the same age as me. Forum is one place where I can broaden my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.
Personally, I’m actively seeking to develop deeper relations with younger people. With all due respect to my peers, those who are 20+ years younger have an energy and entrepreneurial spirit that inspires and motivates me.
Just as I’ve reached the age where I prefer to select a dentist or accountant who is not going to leave the scene before me, I also seek friends and forum mates who are more likely to be with me into old age. (I suppose that may sound selfish, but I need to look out for myself, while also serving others.)
My contemporaries can tell me about their experience as parents of teen or adult children, or as children of aging parents. It’s a whole new perspective to hear instead from forum members one generation removed, who are themselves the same age as my kids or who are observing the aging of their own parents.
I’ve benefited from being in forum with younger members, and I encourage others also to be open to the possibilities.
I was recently asked by a forum how they should respond when informed that two members have begun dating. I was told the forum had good dynamics; everyone liked each other; and the group was functioning well. The remaining (non-dating) forum members were reluctant to make a quick decision with some members trying to understand what options might be workable for allowing them to remain. Others were wary of the conflict.
I shared the following thoughts:
The fundamental question: Does the new relationship between two members (in this case, dating), prevent anymember from being fully open, honest, engaged and committed to the forum? It is essential that everyone speak their truth and clear the air if the forum is to maintain a healthy dynamic.
Normally this would be a situation where one member would leave, but there is no reason both need to leave.
Another forum I observed had two members who were business partners. They were happy and the rest of the group accepted it. My personal view is that this undermines the ability to share and trust, but everyone in the forum is a consenting adult, and that could be the case with this dating couple as well.
The forum should discuss future scenarios: What if the couple gets married? What if they break up? Even if the group accepts that both can remain for now, does everyone (not only the couple) reserve the right to raise concerns in the future? The last thing you want is an elephant in the room that no one can discuss.
Finally, in light of this new relationship in the forum, see this other blog post of mine on “Known and Safe, Safe and Known.” Invite all members to read this poem, and then to respond to the questions at the end of the post.
The voluntary moderator is key to the success and health of your forum. Some ideas to consider as you organize your own forum’s leadership plans:
The standard model is to have a moderator and asst. moderator, often with the assistant also being the moderator-elect. As an alternative, two people can serve as co-moderators and share/divide the responsibilities.
Ideally, the moderator’s term is one year, but sometimes that’s not possible. If so, terms should be no less than three months to ensure continuity in the forum’s meetings.
Over the life of the forum, each member should have a chance to rotate into the moderator role, but not everyone will have the time, temperament, and skills to serve. That’s okay. There are other opportunities to serve the forum.
Whatever approach you take to the role, the moderator should delegate, delegate, delegate! He or she is not responsible alone for the success of the forum. Many tasks can be “outsourced” to others: sending meeting notices, keeping the parking lot, ordering food, coordinating retreat content and logistics.
The most important roles of the moderator are to lead by example, serve as a role model, and ensure that forum remains a safe space for members to share their toughest challenges and highest aspirations. That’s also the role of a leader in any organization, so serving as moderator is great practice for the rest of your life.
Andrew Miller, a member of a Harvard Business School Alumni Forum in Toronto, shares two cartoons and his interpretation of how they explain the benefits of forum.
In the first Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, an artist’s vision is obstructed and distorted by a fly on his glasses. The forum reading: My peer support group helps me identify underlying assumptions, beliefs, and biases that color my vision and distort my perception of reality. The forum doesn’t help so much with the technical, fine details of how I do my work or live my life; it doesn’t tell me how to use paint or a brush to create my masterpiece, but at a deeper level, the forum helps open my eyes to new perspectives and possibilities and brings greater clarity to my thinking.
In Gary Larson’s second cartoon, an airline pilot is surprised to see a goat way up high in a cloud bank. The forum view: Sometimes I get so wrapped up in an issue that I lose perspective – it becomes overwhelming with emotions and information and ideas whirling around. It’s easy in a busy life to get spun around and lose sense of direction. Forum helps me get my bearings – gets my head up and over the clouds to see things more clearly. Forum helps me see my path and chart my course with greater clarity. Forum discussions help me from crashing and burning.
James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in his commencement address this year, suggests that there are five key questions we must regularly ask ourselves. His questions also strike me as great ones to ask of each other during a forum meeting.
Dean Ryan argues that, if we get in the habit of asking these questions, we’ll have a great chance of being both successful and happy. In this six minute excerpt from his talk, he explains why he highly recommends these particular questions:
Wait, what? (a question at the root of all understanding)
I wonder, why/if? (a question at the heart of all curiosity)
Couldn’t we at least…? (a question at the beginning of all progress)
How can I help? (a question at the base of all good relations)
What really matters to me/us? (a question that gets you to the heart of life)
Dean Ryan ends with a final bonus question: “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” Life even at its best is filled with pain, sorrow and disappointments. Still, even so, he asks, are you living a fulfilling life?
If you ask the first five questions regularly, you just might be able to answer the bonus question, “Yes, I did.”
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?
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.
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.
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.) See this other blog post with more ideas on this approach.
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.
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. 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.
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, 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.
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!
When seeking to identify possible presentation issues, forum members typically complete this sentence:
If I were going to present today, I would talk about “X”
To help get to deeper issues, ask members instead to complete one of these sentences:
I am (sad, mad, ashamed, afraid or confused/conflicted) about “X” I am (angry at/having conflict with) “X” person about “Y” specific issue I’ve been avoiding/I’m dreading dealing with…
To get even further, consider having members pair off and first share updates with each other. This dialogue can lead towards identifying one or two big issues that can then be shared with the full group.
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.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert must either be in a forum, or have learned in other ways that the path of telling people what to do (giving advice) is fraught with peril. Witness two of his recent cartoon strips on this topic.
In Adams’ first strip, the pointy-haired boss observes (in a rare bit of wisdom from his mouth) that “advice only works for the one who gives it.” In Adams’ second strip, Dilbert responds to an offer of advice that “advice is just ego and ignorance disguised as helpfulness.”
In both cases, Adams’ observations reflect that advice is often more about value for the giver than for the recipient; and more about judging the recipient than looking honestly at oneself.
Consider sharing these humorous takes on advice giving with your forum mates, and channeling Scott Adams the next time you serve as your forum’s language observer.
The recently released movie “Inside Out” may wow you with its animations and special effects, but it is not a children’s movie. We peer inside the brain of a young girl and see five emotions – joy, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear – fighting to control what will be imprinted into her core memory, and with which emotional “color.” Encourage everyone in your forum to watch the movie before your next meeting, and then pose some of these questions suggested by Abigail Burd:
When we meet Riley, most of the time Joy is in charge of her thoughts and personality. Which emotion(s) do you feel most often?
Riley and her family go through a lot of changes when they move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Have you ever gone through a big transition like this?
How are the glowing balls, or “core memories” made? What are yours?
What do the core memories have to do with Riley’s personality?
When Sadness touches one of the happy core memories, she colors it blue. What do you think is going on then? Is it possible that our current moods can color our past memories? Or how we define our personality?
When Riley’s mother tells her that she is helping her parents by being their “happy girl,” Riley feels pressure to only show them her joy. What do you think of this?
Do you think that our society values certain emotions over others? Which ones?
At the end of the movie, Joy learns that other emotions, especially Sadness, are also important. Why?
Do you think it is easier for males or females, or for younger or older people, to express different emotions? Which ones? Why?
Harvard professor Richard Light recently wrote in the New York Times about a new seminar for undergraduates called “Reflecting on Your Life.” The format and the questions posed are designed to help freshmen identify their goals and reflect systematically about various aspects of their life. The intended audience may be young adults, but it struck me that, with a little adaptation, forum members at any age could benefit from this approach. Two examples:
Make a list of how you want to spend your time over the next six months. What matters to you? What’s important? Next, make a list of how you actually spent your time, on average, each day over the past week, and then compare the lists. Finally, ask yourself, how well do your commitments actually match your goals?
If you could become extraordinarily good at one thing versus being pretty good at many things, which approach would you choose? Given your choice, how can you organize your life to follow your chosen path in a purposeful way?
See the full article for more exercises you could adapt and bring to your forum.
Professor Bill George, in his book Finding Your True North, A Personal Guide, suggests that living authentically and with purpose requires a shift from an “I” to a “We” orientation. Following is an exercise from his book that could easily be used by a forum at a regular meeting or retreat.
Looking at your life story, describe a time when you were leading from an “I” orientation?
Describe a time when you were leading from a “We” orientation?
In leading from a “We” orientation, what impact did I have on others and on the results I wanted to achieve? How did this compare to the “I” orientation?
What percentage of my time is currently marked by leading from the “We” orientation? What percentage of my time should this be?
Leading from “We”: At present ____% In the future ____%
As Professor George says, in reality, there are times when you are “I” oriented, and other times when you are “We” oriented. The important question is how much of your time as a leader is spend in one rather than the other, and whether you can lead from the orientation you need, when you need it.
This exercise can help all forum members learn where they are in shifting from an “I” to a “We” orientation.
It’s sometimes said that money is the final frontier of forum. When forums are willing to share deeply about a topic like this, they have reached a level of trust and vulnerability that leads to transformational value.
This does not mean that all members have to be ready to disclose income, net worth, and other key financial indicators. Instead, consider these options:
One (brave) member shares voluntarily their financial snapshot, and then describes how they think about their situation, options, and concerns. Others can then respond with their own experience, without feeling they need to disclose specific numbers.
Here’s a list of a great list of conversation-starting questions (adapted from a recent Wall Street Journal article on this topic):
What is your most painful money memory?
What is your most joyful money memory?
How did these experiences shape your relationship with money?
What three things did your parents teach you about money?
Which of these lessons have you applied in your financial life?
Was your family rich, poor, or middle class growing up? How did you feel about that?
What were your family’s values around money?
What is your greatest financial fear?
What are your most important financial goals? Do you know how much is “enough” for you, this year and long term?
What are you willing to do differently around money?
I would love to hear how your forum approaches this topic. We can all learn from each other.
I recently received the following question from a forum moderator:
Our forum is looking to create a “statement of commitment” to clarify the level of commitment we expect of ourselves and one another. We’ve had some challenges of late with members not prioritizing the group over outside commitments, and it has raised the issue that we may have misaligned expectations for the sacrifice we are each willing to make to be present. I volunteered to draft up a commitment statement and was wondering if you have anything you can suggest.
A starting point for this conversation is to develop (or review if you already have) a constitution or forum mission statement. Here’s a sample from our resource library.
A simple approach if you want or need to start from scratch is to ask each member to answer the following two questions and for the group to discuss commonalities and differences to agree to a unified statement:
Three years from now if I got everything I want from this forum, what will I have gotten?
What am I willing to do (commit to) in order to make sure I got the above?
David Brooks recently published an insightful op-ed in the New York Times called The Moral Bucket List. The article provides great food for thought for any forum. Some questions that your forum might discuss after reading the article:
What are my “resume” virtues? What are my “eulogy” virtues? What do I aspire to be versus who I am today?
Consider Brooks’ “moral bucket list.” Which of these have I cultivated in the past; which can I cultivate in the coming year?
How can forum help each of us as we strive for meaning and purpose in our lives?
I am often asked: How is my forum doing compared to other forums? There is no simple answer to this question, and apple-to-apple comparisons are difficult. However, you can examine your forum by asking these questions:
Membership: Do we have the number of members we want, balancing the desire for optimal size, peer quality, and diversity of perspective?
Attendance: Are most, if not all, members showing up on time to every meeting?
Scheduling: Do we get our meetings on the calendar at least three months in advance? Are members willing to make forum a priority commitment so that scheduling does not become a huge time and emotional drain on the group?
Leadership: Is our moderator responsive, engaged, and committed to the group’s success? Have we selected an assistant moderator, both to help now and to succeed the moderator when his/her term ends?
Presentations: Are members willing, even eager, to explore their toughest issues and highest aspirations in forum?
Retreats: Does our forum schedule an annual retreat to go deeper, reinforce best practices, add to its toolkit, and recommit to the shared forum journey?
Ask yourself these questions, and you can then qualitatively assess your own forum on a 1-5 scale: 1 (in real trouble), 2 (weak, needs support), 3 (doing pretty well), 4 (strong and high functioning), or 5 (very strong, transformational).
You still won’t know how you compare to other forums, but you will have a basis to take action inside the forum and get the help you need from outside. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions.
I was recently told by a forum moderator: “Our update quality is varied from member to member, with more of them becoming travelogues, rather than getting into the heart of the emotional impact and significance.” The moderator asked how to reframe and refresh their updates. Following are a few ideas:
Set the tone that forum updates are about the issues and challenges you can’t share anywhere else (what we sometimes call the top 5% and bottom 5% of your life). The acronym that summarizes this is MITy WISE:
Most Important Things
Why it’s important
Significance for you personally
Emotions you are feeling
Especially appropriate for the beginning of a new year: Try annual, instead of monthly updates. See this other blog post for more details.
Flip the format of updates: Ask that members start with the emotion they are feeling, then why the emotional feeling is significant and important, and only then share the facts.
Do another round after completing your standard updates. See this blog post for the prompts to use.
When a new member joins your forum, you are eager to have it go smoothly for both new and veteran members. Consider following as many of these practices as you can:
Before the new member attends his or her first regular meeting, have a couple veteran members meet the new member for coffee. This provides a chance to review the forum’s typical agenda, meeting schedule, and other norms, and answer any questions. If in-person isn’t possible, schedule a phone call, fold these points into the first meeting, or set a follow-up before the second meeting.
Begin the first meeting by asking each member, new and old, to commit or recommit to forum confidentiality.
Substitute an integration exercises for one of your usual presentation slots. This might be “Lifeline,” “If you really knew me…” or other new or previously used exercises.
Plan on the new member participating in updates just like everyone else. Veteran members can model the process.
Encourage the new member to present relatively early in their membership, not necessarily at the first meeting, but don’t wait six months.
Assign a “buddy” to the new member to meet for coffee or a meal before the second meeting.
A Forum member told me that he tried a different presentation approach at a recent meeting: He simply discussed “the five things I’m most ashamed of about myself.” He reported that it was quite difficult, but the other members quickly dove in with their own issues, and it helped bring the forum closer together.
Obviously it takes a while to build enough trust to do this kind of presentation, but the member found it quite helpful.
Are you and your forum ready to tackle this topic?
– Begin the discussion with a story. This is a well-known one that might set the stage.
– Icebreaker: How did you observe your parent(s) talk about and deal with their parents as they became older and needed help? What lessons did you take away?
– Presentation/discussion options:
One member shares his/her particular situation in typical forum style and others respond with relevant experiences.
Two or three members dealing with related issues share mini-presentations, and then others respond with their questions and experiences. (This approach is more complicated than the traditional single-presenter session.)
Go around the table asking: What question(s) are you (or your parents if forum members are younger) wrestling with related to this topic? Record the questions on a flip chart/white board and then decide which ones you want to focus on using these prompts: – What thought provoking questions could we ask each other to help us think about this topic in new ways? – What stories from our own experiences could we share to help each other?
– Closing exercise: Go around the room and ask each member to share what insight/idea/perspective they are taking away from today’s discussion.
Forums are always looking for challenging and thought provoking questions which lead to deeper understanding and greater trust, and may suggest possible presentation topics. Following are some questions to consider using at your next meeting.
Tell me a time when you felt great shame that you have not told anyone about before.
What are three names you have been called over the course of your life, and why.
When you were growing up, what did you really want to be?
Tell us about the last time you were inspired.
What stories do you hope people will share at your retirement party?
What role in your life do you feel least qualified for?
Do you think a nuclear weapon will be used again in your lifetime, and how do you feel about that?
Which parent influenced you the most?
If you had to pick one person with whom to spend a long time on a desert island, whom would you choose?
If you suddenly inherited $1million, what would you do with it? For the portion you put into savings, how would you allocate it?
What were your New Year resolutions this year?
If I could redo my summer, I would have…
If you were to go back to school, what would you study and why?
If you were to be cremated when you die, what three places would you like your ashes to be spread?
What is your family’s burn rate, and how many months could you go with no further income?
When a forum member has an urgent issue to present and the group’s next meeting is not scheduled for sometime, consider arranging an emergency meeting.
Since the purpose of the meeting is only to have a single presentation, it will be shorter, somewhere between 30-90 minutes long.
It may be held either in person or via conference call.
Because the meeting is scheduled on short notice, and in order to work for the presenter, attendance is optional, and missing the meeting does not count as an official absence.
You can still follow the standard presentation format in this special meeting (e.g., coaching if time allows, communication starter, presentation, Q&A, experience sharing)
In the four years my forum has been in existence, we have had two emergency meetings of this type. Both were arranged as conference calls on Saturday morning at 8:00 am because that was the time when we could get the most members.
Every month we come to our Forum meetings, prepared to give an update on what’s happened since the last meeting and what’s coming up. We strive to share what’s meaningful and significant, the really tough dilemmas or unresolved issues we may not be able to share outside of Forum.
Once a year, consider an annual, instead of a monthly framing of these updates. In place of the standard format, ask everyone to reflect upon the “best and worst” of the last year, and the “dread and anticipate” of the upcoming 12 months. Then take extra parking lot time and try to think about issues from the yearly perspective. This may help you step back and look at important but not urgent issues in a new way.
As another aspect of this annual update, ask everyone to touch on learning and updates from the presentations they had done during the last 12 months.
One forum shared with me that, after taking this new approach, they voted to make this an annual practice!
When a presenter has been identified in advance, there’s no reason to delay the coaching of the presenter until the night before or the day of the Forum meeting.
A Forum member recently wrote to me and summed up nicely the advantages of advance, in-person coaching:
I become nervous when the coaching is happening for the first time right before the meeting. One to two weeks before is ideal because, both when I’ve coached and been coached, it has given me as the presenter (and the person I coached) a chance to let the presentation “steep” and therefore be stronger. It also allowed me to come up with other ideas before the presentation as well. And based on my experiences both ways, face-to-face was definitely more satisfying than over the phone. Being able to see the other person as they wrestle with the topic allows the dimension of body language to enlighten, and in my experience makes for a less rushed experience than a phone call.
You are joining a Forum for the first time and are excited to learn that one or more other members have significant Forum experience, perhaps in YPO or another organization.
Of course, it can be great for a Forum to benefit from the wisdom that comes from previous experience, but proceed carefully. Sometimes the more experienced member may assume that what worked before will transfer automatically to his or her new forum.
The more experienced member might ask:
– My old Forum was happy with a more “flexible” approach, but is my new group also ready to deviate from “standard” process?
– Does my new group need more time, whether length of meeting, or length of individual segments? Do I need to be more patient?
– How can I truly model best practice, being the first to share, withholding judgment, raising issues or concerns in the most constructive manner?
And newer members can consider:
– Has the more experienced member fully listened to the concerns and questions raised by the novices?
– Are we comfortable introducing a more complex or challenging protocol, or do we still need to learn the basics?
– Can we leverage the “expert” more effectively, not by listening to theory, but by asking him/her to demonstrate and lead some meeting elements?
Ironically, if you are so busy you don’t see how you can take on another obligation; this may be exactly the right time to commit to a monthly Forum meeting.
How can that be?
Many members share that it is the four hours they invest in Forum each month that helps them maintain the right priorities, focus, and balance during the remaining 29½ days of the month.
Consider this story: A member says to a fellow member, “I can’t make it to the next meeting due to my overwhelming commitments.” The other member responds, only half-jokingly, “Well, then it’s even more important for you to attend, and you should be the presenter!”
When the harried member shows up, he or she will find a group of peers who are often equally stressed over their many professional and personal obligations. And he or she will learn from the experience of other executives who are also trying to make it all work and hold it all together.
The worst decision may be the opposite of what you think at first: NOT joining or NOT showing up at your monthly meeting.
At a recent multi-Forum meeting in New York, we distributed the book How Far Will You Go? Questions to Test Your Limits. The book includes hundreds of questions like these:
What is the strongest opinion you hold? What is the biggest lie you have ever told? Who have you most feared in your life? What is the strongest craving you get? What have you lost that you would most like to retrieve?
Use this book to help your Forum break the ice, go deeper, and get to know each other better. You can buy the book on Amazon here.
Two ideas, using this book or other similar collections of icebreakers:
– At the beginning of a meeting, invite a member of the group to open the book and ask a question of their choosing as an ice breaker/conversation starter.
– At a Forum dinner, pass the book around and invite anyone who wishes to select a question to ask the group. (This works best if you are eating in a private dining room.)
The only ground rule is that whoever chooses a question must be willing to answer it themselves first.
The writer Eudora Welty could have been speaking about Forum when she wrote:
My wish, my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.
May you continue in your Forum to “part the curtain,” sharing your toughest challenges and highest aspirations with each other.
When we get together with others at a Forum meeting, it either works, or it doesn’t. For me, it works:
…If everything is on the line, if in any given moment, someone is going to say or do something that might just change everything. Something that happens in the moment and can’t possibly be the same if you hear about it later. It might even be you who speaks up, stands up and makes a difference. (At most other meetings and events, you can predict precisely what’s going to be said, and by whom). In the digital age, if I can get the notes or the video later, I will.
…If there’s vulnerability and openness and connection. If it’s likely you’ll connect with someone (or many someones) that will stick with you for years to come, who will share their dreams and their fears while they listen to and understand yours. (At most other meetings, people are on high alert, clenched and protective. Like a cocktail party where no one is drinking.)
…If there’s support. If the people you meet have high expectations for you and your work and your mission, but even better, if they give you a foundation and support to go even further. (At most other events and meetings, competitiveness born from insecurity trumps mutual support.)
…If it’s part of a movement. If every Forum meeting is a building block on the way to something important, and if the members are part of a tribe that goes beyond demographics or professional affiliation. (At most events, it’s just the next event).
The first law of screenwriting is that the hero of a great movie is transformed during the arc of the story. That’s the goal of a great Forum meeting, as well. But it’s difficult indeed, because there are so many heroes, all thinking they have too much to lose.
Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria has spoken eloquently about the need for executives to cultivate a sense of “moral humility.” (See his TEDx talk here)
What gets managers into trouble isn’t that that they lack knowledge of what’s right and wrong or that they have not had enough ethical training. Instead, they go off course because of “moral arrogance.” They think to themselves “I would never do what Jeff Skilling or Rajat Gupta or Dennis Kozlowski did.” They believe that they know better, that they would never succumb to the pressures that have lured other successful executives.
Where does your Forum come into this equation? Forum is the confidential, safe place where you can talk about tough moral quandaries, about choosing between right and wrong, or even choosing between right and right, situations in which some stakeholders will gain and some will lose. These are often issues that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss with your boss, peers, or subordinates. And close family members may not understand the business context or pressures you are facing at work.
The Wall Street Journal has written that “[business] schools should do more to ensure that the dialogue [about ethical behavior] develops into an ethical support structure after graduation. Alumni often mention that the hardest decisions they make occur when job demands conflict with their values. And, importantly, that they are isolated when making them.”
With Forum, you are not alone in making the toughest ethical decisions. You have a place where you can learn from others’ experience and cultivate your personal sense of moral humility.
Listening to the lifelines presented at a Forum orientation, one is struck both by the differences – and similarities – in our lives so far. In this exercise, we explore what our individual histories suggest about our different fundamental motivations.
Steps in the exercise:
(Optional before the meeting) Ask members to think in advance about why people do things important to them and what are important drivers for how you live your life today.
The moderator or a member of the Forum facilitates a discussion, identifying possible “motivations” that could drive how we and others live and make choices in our lives. (See the list below of possible “Seeking Motivations” and “Constraining Motivations” which the Forum can use to jumpstart its discussion.)
One member of the Forum serves as the focal point/presenter, discussing their motivations and how that relates to their life so far.
Other members take turns sharing what they believe have been their motivations and how they are reflected in their life so far.
~~~~~~~ Possible motivations
We may be seeking…
Autonomy – Be My Own Boss/Work Alone
Lifestyle Freedom (defined as time to pursue other important activities)
Altruism – Feeling I am Giving
A Supportive Family
Be the Boss
Affiliation – Part of a Team/Community
Create and Raise My Children
Working/Being with Other People
Power & Influence
Want to be a Star
Creating Something New
Support My Spouse
Want to Keep Doing Different Things
Positioning for Big Thing Later
Doing Something Important
Want to Win
We may be constrained by…
Shame of Who We Are
Fear of Loosing
Wanting to Work/Be Alone
Fear of Rejection by Others
Adapted from an exercise suggested by Rick Williams, Member Harvard Business School Club of Boston Alumni Forum
I am sitting in a forum presentation, and members have begun to share their experiences. I sometimes think, unfairly, that one particular forummate will have little to contribute on the current issue.
This is where the power of experience sharing (instead of advice giving) often surprises and delights me. The member I have in mind may not have the confidence or expertise to tell the presenter what to do, but he or she has a deep reservoir of experience that can be surprisingly relevant.
I’m thinking of two particular examples. In one case, a forum member had described a significant business decision that would have huge impact on his employees and community. The least likely member to contribute (in my narrow mind) shared not a business, but a personal experience, that in the end resonated more with the presenter than any of the seemingly more relevant business experiences that others had shared.
In another case, an older member had presented on a tough family relationship situation. In response, a younger forum member shared his experience of a relationship at work and what he had done to repair the relationship. The younger member was at a very different life stage and had no directly comparable way to shed light on the older member’s family dynamic. He instead drew on a very relevant work situation.
I’ve learned that before we jump to give advice, we need to trust the process. Sometimes the most valuable contribution comes from the least likely place because we have empowered every member to share experience, not limited ourselves to those best positioned to give advice.
The job of the coach is not to answer the presenter’s question but to help the presenter ask the right question. Following are some questions you might ask when you are coaching to help the presenter focus in on the most important issue:
How would you define the problem?
Why is it your problem?
What is working well now (related to this issue)?
What is the worst case scenario? How probable is it?
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in one year – everything (related to this issue) is exactly the way you want it to be. What does it look like?
What is holding back the ideal situation from happening?
What is at risk for you to make this happen?
Are you willing to take that risk?
What would support from the Forum look like to you?
A member showed up at a recent Forum meeting distraught over a major company reorganization and asked to present. He told the group, “I don’t want to hear your experience, just tell me what to do!” In other words, he wanted the group to violate the language protocol and give advice.
In this case, the Forum held to its normal mode and encouraged the presenter to listen to experience first. In the end, the presenter said: “That was really helpful. Thank you for not allowing me to be the victim, expecting to be rescued by all of you. You have empowered me to go address the issue myself.”
Keep in mind that in many situations, it’s a lot easier for the advice giver to give the advice, than for the person with the problem to act on it. Giving advice can actually make it harder for the person with the issue because they can feel trapped, judged, pressured to do something they are not ready or able to do yet.
In other cases, some members may feel at the end of a presentation that they were not helpful (because they shared experience, and didn’t give advice). This perception may or may not be accurate from the perspective of the presenter. Therefore, it’s always a reasonable question to ask at the end of any presentation: “Were we helpful to you?”
Alumni Forum members sometimes feel they need to hide their forum participation from their boss or others at work. In fact, the opposite is almost always the case. Forum is an investment in your personal and professional development that makes you a better employee, executive, and leader. One forum member commented:
“Forum has helped me in business in many ways. It’s been a terrific resource for those hard multi-faceted decisions that involve money and markets but also people and reputation. Forum training has also given me an additional set of communication skills around listening and getting to the core of an issue inside the company and with customers and vendors.”
For a fraction of the cost of an executive education program, corporate training program, or executive coach, Alumni Forums provide fresh perspectives in a structured, disciplined way so that you can efficiently and effectively address important business and professional issues.
If your boss wants more information, give them a copy of Mo Fathelbab’s book, “Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders,” refer them to the Alumni Forum website, or encourage them to talk to any CEO or senior executive who is already in a forum.
To maintain a trusting environment in forum, we encourage all groups to “clear the air,” raising any issues that may be getting in the way of open and honest conversation. Our Healing Conflict exercise describes one way to do this.
However, during the early meetings after a forum’s orientation, it is often the case that the participants don’t know each other or simply don’t have a significant enough history to have developed a reason for clearing air. Still it’s possible and probable that soon after a group’s formation issues will arise that require clearing.
Yet without practicing the process, members often are left ill equipped to handle these situations.
At the same time, it’s quite likely that participants have other unaddressed tensions in their personal or professional lives. The following process will not only serve to teach clearing the air but it will also serve to help participants better understand these unaddressed tensions while providing a framework to address them if they so choose.
1. After explaining the clearing the air model, give 5 minutes for participants to reflect on the following question: who are the people in my life with whom I am not clean?
2. Once everyone is ready, ask for a volunteer to begin.
3. The volunteer (person A) is to briefly describe the situation(s) and who they will address.
4. Person A addresses each person in the forum, one at a time, declaring if clean or not. If not clean, person A is to use the name of the person with whom s/he is not clean and to role play exactly what s/he would say.
5. Just as per the clearing the air model, the person being addressed are not to respond, until it’s their turn.
6. Repeat steps 3-5 with the next participant.
7. Debrief the learning. Ask participants how it felt both as a sender and the receiver of the comments.
Most forum members have been through the Lifeline exercise as part of their group’s initial orientation, but forums are always looking to deepen connections, build trust, and get to know each other better.
One simple icebreaker that can be used, either when a new member joins, or at any time with an established group is “If you really knew me….” This exercise is easily adjustable to fit the time available. Go around the room and everyone completes the sentence “If you really knew me, you would know…” The response should be something not previously shared with the group that could not be discovered from your resume, Linkedin profile, or other public source. Participants can choose to share deeply or not depending on their comfort level. If the moderator (or assistant moderator) goes first, and models the process, this can result in some significant sharing. Go around the room, once, twice, three times or even more, depending on the available time.
Consider keeping this icebreaker in your back pocket for possible use at any future meeting when you have a little extra time and want to go deeper.
My favorite movie of all time is The Godfather. One of the famous lines from The Godfather is when Michael Corleone says “It’s not personal…its strictly business”. If you’ve never seen the movie here’s a 5 second clip of that scene:
As memorable as that line is, in my opinion its an overused mantra which can sometimes be a road block to a healthy and high functioning forum. Its common within forums to categorize a presentation topic in one of two buckets – either its personal or its business – making it easy for the forum to create artificial boundaries around the presentation and allowing members to take shelter well within their personal comfort zones. In other words, once a presentation has been identified as a “business” topic, forum members often allow their hearts to take a nap thinking they will only need their heads for the next 60 minutes.
Of course, when making key business decisions one must take a hard look at the numbers, the risks, the ROI and the impact on key stakeholders. But are traditional business metrics all that should be considered during a forum presentation? Is it the role of a forum to crunch the numbers, provide strategic feedback or limit the sharing to what each of us might have done in a similar situation? While a forum might provide some clarity around these factors, the truth is that your forum mates know you much better than they will ever know your company or your industry.
There is no magic that takes place between 9 and 5 that allows us to make decisions and take action without the fears, dreams, motivations, biases, patterns, compulsions and filters that we live (and sometimes struggle) with everyday playing a role. Are we shortchanging our forum experience if we allow our hearts to be dormant during what, on the surface, seems like a straight business issue? High functioning forums have learned that if its business…its personal.
Michael Bloch, founder and CEO, Quadrinity Media, LLC and HBS Alumni Forum facilitator & trainer
For our next Forum meeting, we are going to spend time brainstorming about how to take the experience from good to great. Do either of you have experience with other groups or thoughts about how to help this have the best outcome? Where has this worked before and where has it not worked as well?
I have led brainstorming sessions before, but always looking for new ideas or suggestions.
Thanks in advance.
HBS Alumni Forum Assistant Moderator
Thank you for reaching out. I love the pursuit!
One twist on the process is to have people answer the following questions:
What is Forum at its best?
Describe in detail what was special.
What conditions enabled this to happen?
Then the group can make a statement about the desired future state.
Invariably as part of your Forum’s monthly updates, various family members are mentioned: spouses or significant others, children, parents, and siblings. Consider inviting members during one of these regular update sessions to bring a family picture. At the beginning of each individual’s update, the member holds up his or her photo, describes who is pictured, and then passes around the picture for all to see. The update is only 30 seconds longer, but the group now has a visual image of the people who are often mentioned during updates and presentations.