A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were supposed to facilitate a one day workshop for some clients in Johannesburg. It was the last session of a 7 month leadership programme and I had been asked to lead this final day using Story as a tool for reflection and planning. I was excited. Then things started to go wrong. With all the previous leadership cohorts we worked away from the organisations premises, in a guesthouse with a lovely quiet garden, but because of the current financial context they were saving on costs and so they used their own premises – a distribution hub with lorries passing outside of the windows of the facilitation room regularly. It was not the most conducive venue. The dates had been changed in January, but somehow not all the participants received the new dates until a week before the course! 5 days before we were to facilitate the day was almost cancelled because of poor attendance. Then, for some reason, they decided that we would go ahead. So we were flown to Johannesburg and on arrival at the airport, both my colleague and I had two different shuttle services come to pick us up at the airport. One organised by our administrator in Cape Town, and the other by the company! We got to the B and B, and they were not expecting us because the client had not confirmed the booking. Luckily they had rooms for us and this was sorted. Things were not looking good at all.
On the morning we were to work we got an email from the client to say that the numbers had dropped … We were now expecting 6 or so people – from a possible 14. We looked at each other and wondered what to do – cancel or facilitate? We had designed a very interactive process – time for reflection in small groups – to practice leadership skills of listening, asking incisive questions, sharing insights. This required time but with only 5 people, it would be a short day – and would the design work with 6 people?
As we ate our breakfast and planned our day the thought came to mind about honouring those who came. People had cleared their diaries, some had travelled as far as we had to be at the programme. If we cancelled because ‘there weren’t enough participants’ what were we saying to them? And how many is enough? The saying, ‘whoever is there are the right people’ (from open space technology) came to mind, and I said to my colleague, “Whoever comes, lets facilitate what we have prepared. We can tweak the exercises to suit the numbers, and we will most probably finish earlier than expected, but we would have honoured those who came.” And that is what we did.
We ended up with 5, not 6 people – all men. As we gathered to start people spoke about how angry they were with the way the course had been organised internally – and how upset they were with their own colleagues for not making the time to be there. It was not a good place to begin the course. So my colleague asked us to sit still, close our eyes, and she lead us through a visualisation which centered us and helped us to focus on the purpose of the day. We worked with the Hero’s Journey, using it to reflect on the 7 months leadership journey they had been on. And then, instead of the sharing in small groups, all 7 of us sat in a circle, and each participant shared their journey with such honesty and integrity. And then – in a very unexpected turn – each of the listeners gave the speaker feedback. I was struck by how aware they were of each person’s journey. For everyone in the room there was someone who had seen their struggles and successes within the organisation, and was able to reflect this back to their colleague. They gave statements like, “You took a job no one wanted to take. In fact we thought you were crazy, and you have worked wonders. Now everyone in the organisation is looking at you.” Or “You made a decision that made sense to your family, but could have been a career limiting move. And you have made it work for you and for the company. You are a real inspiration.” As we sat there, my colleague and I knew we had made the right decision. Here were people in leadership, in an organisation, that understood each others challenges and were supportive of each other, who were able to speak openly with each other. It was clear that these 5 people had the potential to make real differences in the organisation.
It was such a fulfilling day – all the challenges leading up to it faded away, and I realised three things:
- Whoever comes – these are the right people and one should honour the effort they made to be there.
- You have no guarantee what impact your work will have, but in being present, and giving your best to those who came – something will change.
- Story is a very powerful tool to work with. Each person told a personal story – in fact one person made it into a myth, but it was based on the organisation, and everyone recognised parts of it. Through the storytelling they were able to articulate the movement and growth of each individual, and the challenges that lay ahead in a way that they would all remember.