A couple weeks ago, my boss and I were asked to facilitate a strategic planning session for the recently appointed Chief Information Officer and his leadership team.
We had built a well-crafted plan, if I do say so myself.
The pressure was already high, as the time frame had been short.
My boss, we’ll call him Mike, is a master facilitator. It’s like he was born to stick a bunch of people in a room, connect the dots on what they are saying, and expertly find questions and interactive ways to make two days seem like 10 minutes. In the past seven years of working together, he’s allowed me to learn as a partner. After learning from him all these years, I’ve learned to stand on my own when we’re not co-facilitating, and feel confident in my own facilitation ability.
Yet, in that two day session with the IT team, our plan went horribly off course. An unexpected point of view caused our plan to launch off course at the speed of a rocket to the moon. As the group’s discussion evolved, our two-day guardrails and map for getting the outcomes was dissolving before our eyes. It just happened to be during the first section for which I was leading the dialogue.
Mike stepped in.
When he took over, my first thought, was “What the heck. I’ve got this.” However, the tiniest part of me, the non-ego part, thought, “Thank, God.”
Now, without a solid plan, someone needed to take the lead. Co-facilitation is sort of like the dance — it’s structured, well-rehearsed, and each party knows their part. However, with our plan derailed, this was no longer facilitation…it was improvisation. It’s quite difficult to co-improvise (unless, of course, you can read minds).
In the first 10 minutes after he took over, my ego was pissed. It shouted choice words at him. It moped and pouted, feeling wronged. It felt righteous, even questioning whether it was because I was a woman. It told me I was allowing myself to be seen as a weaker facilitator in front of all these people. That others would think I had to be rescued. That he had to be the hero. That I should take the pen and take back over.
Then, I thought, “That could be true. But, what if it’s not?”
What if the best outcome for these two days required that someone take the lead on this improvisation? Like a dance, someone would need to follow. My husband and I took dance lessons once. He told me I kept trying to lead. We looked ugly. He quit after lesson #2. It wasn’t fun.
In that moment, I realized something important – the person who follows in a dance is no less important to making the dance come alive. I also realized, like many times before, I would have the chance to learn from a master in action. Rather than treat this situation as an ego-busting, anger-giving, ‘give-me-the-freaking-pen-I’ve-got-this’ moment in my career, I had the chance to sideline my ego. To avoid the mistake of making this about me, and remember what we had been enlisted to do: Bring this team to outcomes. Guide them on a journey that would ensure they have what they need to continue moving forward.
Once I stopped caring what other people might think as they watched me get benched, my ego stopped shouting so loudly in my head. And, I realized, there were a lot of pens in that room.
I picked one up.
I began recording everything that team was saying.
I saw patterns.
I did what I love doing most.
I connected the dots.
I showed them commonalities.
I grouped, highlighted, bucketed.
At the end of day two, Mike and I had worked from our strengths. He: eliciting the team’s best stories, perspectives, ideas. Me: playing back the logic and patterns of everything they had said.
They were happy. We were exhausted, but reeling from the experience of a masterful improvisation — with twists and turns every minute. Never fully sure where it would lead. Grateful to be able to trust each other to bring our best.
And, I…I noticed my ego, once I’d gotten it out of my way, didn’t mind so much. Perhaps a couple bruises still remained, but they were fading fast.