Raise your hand if you were alive on November 22, 1963.
I recently posed this question to a conference room of 30 senior executives and board members. We were in the opening section of a jam-packed strategic planning session, and this organization had a challenge faced by many today: How to engage more diversity in their thinking.
This was not a new challenge for this organization. They had worked at it. The room had a mix of genders, ages, races, and backgrounds recruited in recent years. But I knew from comments made to me during the pre-session interviews there was still a barrier between being invited to the table and engaging once at that table.
I had seen this before. Even with the most earnest recruitment efforts, and the best efforts to make planning sessions safe, people hold back in large strategic thinking forums. It is an intimidating environment, and unfortunately, it favors those more experienced.
The night before I tucked into my comfy hotel bed fully prepared, but still uneasy. This group had a highly admired and long-standing leadership team and an impressive board of directors. In fact, the two most senior staff members had been with the organization for 40 years. Yet surely, they would not be in their current leadership positions for another 10 years (this strategic plan time frame). My role was to help shape the strategic thinking about their future, and this discussion should be balanced with the wisdom of those that had brought the organization to this point and with the insight from those that would be leading it in the future. How do I create an environment in which the next wave of leaders in the room feel authorized to take an active role in strategy development alongside those more seasoned?
As I lay my weary head to the pillow and cajoled my brain into switching off, this question lingered. At 4 am I woke with a new strategy session exercise that might just work.
In our meeting room early the next morning, I quickly scoured the internet for an image to mark a moment in time all would know. As we started the session, before presenting my customary context-setting module on how strategic planning differs from problem-solving, I asked everyone to stand up, and I clicked to this slide.
There were groans of sad remembrance from many in the room and puzzled expressions on the faces of others. You could see a question on their faces: Was this going to be a history lesson?
With everyone standing, I asked, “By a show of hands, how many of you were alive on this date?”
A little more than half the room raised their hands. I asked all with raised hands to sit down.
I asked those still standing to look around at the others standing.
As they looked into each other’s eyes, I said, “You are the future leaders. These strategic planning meetings are about the future, about what you will be leading. Now is your time to shape your thinking about that future. Those of us seated are here to help develop this thinking and to build a plan that will be successful. But make no mistake, you will be called upon in whole or in part to lead it. Take today as an opportunity to start shaping your future leadership.”
There was silence, and then a few standing started to laugh. I said, “So, are you ready?”
The whole group broke out in laughter and applause. They were ready.
Did it work?
There were many times during that day when younger leaders took the floor to express themselves. When they did, I noticed greater attention to their words and more clarifying questions asked to deepen the understanding of the meaning behind their words. There were also a few times when the speaker was asked to provide examples so the listener could better appreciate their experience.
I also noticed the group testing a new language. When they used it incorrectly, they were gently corrected, and then celebrated when used correctly. This demonstrated active listening to new concepts or new ways of thinking and encouraged even more dialogue.
At a break, the board chair approached me to tell me she loved the exercise. It not only reinforced her goal to have an open and dynamic strategy session, but she also stated that she appreciated the message for those seated. They needed to make room for the voices of the next generation of leaders.
I am writing this post at the time of year that we look ahead to the new year and at a time when we are experiencing generational leadership changes on a global level. Bridging the gap between these generations will require each of us to embrace alternative views, learn new terms, and new ways to create connections. It will call for us to embrace new ways of building tomorrow’s strategic thinking capabilities.
At your next long-range planning meeting, invite greater diversity and then authorize their participation with an active demonstration of why they are in the room. Invite them to stand up and then take a seat so they can see themselves as tomorrow’s leaders.