Got meetings at work that function, or meetings that people hate?
I had the most inspiring mentor back in college, and I’d like to tell you about him… because I have just done the required “mentor speech” last week at Toastmasters (TM) International, a worldwide organization of weekly public speaking clubs. Who was my mentor, and what was his lasting effect?
First, about mentoring: Some years ago, well back into the previous century, finding your individual mentor became a self-help term in the business world, as people sought help, sought to “have an edge” for their corporate climb. I take that idea with a grain of salt. Meanwhile, at work, my Chief Executive Officer mentors all of us at once with her often-expressed belief in personal growth and how “you have to hear a new thing six times before you learn it.”
Every month Toastmasters magazine (subtitled The magazine for Communicators and Leaders) includes an article on mentoring, with equal focus on the “mentor” and the “protege,” with the hope that mentoring within TM will really take off. The problem? People only want a mentor if they feel a need. A boy who pulls a sword out of a stone, and must become king at a very young age, will surely feel the need to have “advice, direction and support” from a mentor. Hence King Author had Merlin the magician. The rest of us? In Toastmasters? Not so much. So instead of speaking before my club about my toastmaster mentor, I told of when my world was young and I had a community college teacher.
My College Mentor
Gerry Bruce mentored all of us at once as he instructed us in something like “how to lead a meeting.” (Too bad college courses don’t have titles, only numbers) This class was a part of my career program in recreation, as the thinking went that someday, in a small town meeting about, say, building an arena, we might have to chair the meeting, with the townsfolk assuming that we graduates knew more than the average farmer about Robert’s Rules of Order, if only from our campus club meetings and student government. Gerry Bruce made sure we would be up to the challenge. (Meanwhile, some campus clubs—but not mine—never need Robert’s Rules as they never do anything more controversial than hold a wine and cheese party every semester)
Bruce once remarked that he didn’t need to prepare a lesson plan as we would make lots of mistakes and provide lots of “teachable moments.” He could say this only because, as our kids say, he “knew his stuff.”
I am sure Bruce could have walked into class talking, and then kept on talking right up to the bell; walked in again next class and totally talk-talk-talked all class. But he didn’t. He had us doing practical exercises, holding meetings. Now, I’m a university graduate, and I can appreciate lots of data. Head knowledge. But what Bruce knew was what Plato said in Greece thousands of years ago: “The purpose of education is action.” What Plato didn’t need to add was: “You won’t learn a new thing, not well enough to take action, until you hear it six times.” What Bruce did was decide, before the term started, what few things he would keep repeating all semester, things for us to internalize. Forget loads of data: He knew people don’t drink from a fire hose.
“You can be competent, or you can be incompetent,” Bruce often said. This concept needed to be repeated because my classmates were, many of them, “post high school,” meaning: still flaky, still irresponsible, still a liability in a student group project. At the time I was in my twenties, fresh from the army base across the road, where keeping your word was taken for granted. I was aghast when the program secretary complimented me for always returning my “overnight” materials the next morning. Turns out half the class was being irresponsible to the point where the secretary was considering a black list. You might assume, “Oh well, everybody finally shapes up when they graduate to the working world.” Then again, you might assume graduates with a business degree know how to be responsible in a workplace meeting.
Certainly Bruce was competent. He had once been a small town recreation worker, but now he owned a fixed wing aircraft and made his living across the time zone as a “municipal consultant.” Surely he had taken responsibility to become competent before he started his business.
We learned abstract things such as what to do if a group became stuck—Right now, over in Britain, a big group called “parliament” is stuck over trying to take action to decide on Brexit. They claim they are “gridlocked—” We learned practical things such as how to run a debate or a panel, and precisely why to have one in the first place. We practised standing up to speak, just like in real life: The college default, as it happens, is for students to timidly speak from their seats, which is easier, but not done in real life, not for a town hall meeting.
One morning we began the class by writing a midterm. Open book, since we would have our books in real life. After the test was over, we resumed learning. We had a low stage at one end of the room, and it was here that some of us, after the test, had to go up and role model having a meeting. I remember one of us was to be a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, as the legion is a traditional funding source for children’s sports. Others were similarly from the community. The goal of the meeting? To start up a summer camp. I forget who I was to be, I only remember I was on stage too, but not as the chairman, thank God: Our meeting got stuck.
We stayed stuck, right there in front of our classmates, as our chairman did the usual chairman things such as having only one person speak a time, on a maybe-not-so-clear topic, but stuck we were, spinning our wheels ever deeper into the sand, and stuck we stayed. Until our teacher had mercy on us, and released us to slink back to our seats.
Then our mentor raised his voice, not from hatred, not from anger, but for emphasis. “What the heck happened? You were stuck!…” We all shrank. “How could that be? You just wrote the mid term! Silence. “What should you have done?” …I’m pleased to say that I was the first person to timidly come up with something from our textbook. “Uh…” “YES!” Once I had broken the logjam, Bruce knew we would all rush to consult the textbook and our notes, our bag of tricks… So he could immediately drop the topic. But not before giving us a final concept.
Bruce stormed, “You all reverted to old behaviour patterns!” Some things, I guess, you have to hear more than six times if you are to change. As it happened, I had just learned that community organizer Saul Alinsky—later, after President Obama was in the White House, known as “Barak Obama’s mentor”—had discovered the same frustrating limitation in trying to teach his people. I put up my hand and I said so, adding, “Now I’m feeling sorry for myself, because how the heck am I supposed to ever learn to change?” Our mentor replied that we students can learn the same way he did: By keeping an open mind.
What Was My Mentor’s Lasting Effect?
In my small-picture personal life, I have served as chairman of the board of directors of an evolving for-profit company: The other directors were eager action-oriented extroverts: As I kept them in check, yet moving forward against their realistic fears, I’m sure my classroom and textbook learning showed.
For my big-picture citizen life, I have been able to see the world all the clearer… such as, during the past year, the British parliament, and the scandals of American social media. If two heads are better than one, and if their meetings were functional, then maybe Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg would not now be cravenly dodging a summons to speak in London before parliament. He knows “he done wrong.”
And maybe Google would not have been found guilty and fined so heavily by the court of the European Union, not if at a Google meeting, someone had reminded the group of their former corporate vision of “Don’t be evil.” But if social media leaders—I’m looking at you, Zuckerberg—have bad character? Then it takes not a meeting but a miracle to save them. (On a computer nerd’s blog a commenter from Google exposed the ethical gap of his company: It was not pretty)
At the agency where I work, I once went around to each senior executive and I asked. Answer? I learned we do indeed have functional meetings, both at the senior executive level, which I don’t see, and at lower levels, which I do see. The sad thing is that I will read/hear/view on the internet, again and again, that businesspeople hate their workplace meetings. Why?
I don’t know why, but I will say this: I have read several sources about “how to be a facilitator.” It seems that if you are a consultant, called into a business to facilitate a meeting or workshop, for a half day or a couple days or more, then the usual procedure is to start with a flip chart or white board and ask the seasoned, serious, work-ethic, mature businesspeople to generate a list of behaviours, “the role of the member,” for having a functional meeting. What does this list, for all to see, show?
It shows that folks in the working world, years removed from their flakey days as college students, know what to do—but they just can’t do it. Hence they need the prominent list to remind each other. For the remainder of the year, sans facilitator, they hate their meetings. Why?
Besides prominent human nature reasons… perhaps they revert to old behaviour patterns. I suppose functional groups start with a functional management. While I see no excuse for incompetent meetings, I try to be charitable towards groups and executives, as I know human nature is very prevalent.
In my current life the closest I get to facilitating is being the chairman of Friday Free Fall, a voluntary weekly group of talkative, artistic, individualistic writers. Can you spell wild horses? A no-nonsense lady there commented I was a good chairman because I have both kindness and toughness, adding she couldn’t chair because she lacked the kindness.
And now I lean back from my keyboard, look into space, and then bend over to tap these kind words:
Dear reader, I hope you may be willing to have personal growth… from hearing something six times, with an open mind… and then avoid reverting to old behaviours.
As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, everyone.”
(Wow, how did it get to be)
2019 (so fast?)
On the Great Plains
~If you want me to quietly observe your meeting, then contact me here. (I hold a Master of Facilitation through Mount Royal University Continuing Education)
~Based on Gerry’s teaching, as shown in my essay, if you do a speech at toastmasters, then you don’t have to talk all through, for the full allotted time: Less is more. Use pauses. Repeat things as needed.
~On my blog “about me” page I said I like the series by David Gerrold of the Chtorr Wars: the U.N. versus an alien nature infestation. Humanity is shown trying to “up their game,” to meet this unprecedented world challenge, through having meetings, both functional and dysfunctional.
A happy memory: I once sat with a small business owner, on the grass behind her store, because she ran meetings, here in Alberta and over in British Columbia, for (Scott Peck style) “community building.” I read aloud from Gerrold’s third book: A Day for Damnation. The composite cover showed a diseased forest on fire, a man in a flight suit, and a deadly jet fighter.
My friend, who would never have read that book herself, loved the description of a training meeting where individuals want to “cop out” but the chairman is holding them accountable to reality… (She was the mother of the boy I knew K.I.A. in Afghanistan—lest we forget)
I can’t resist saying more: Halfway through the first book a U.N. science meeting is shown being dysfunctional. Now I understand: It’s partly because a) members don’t know/won’t do their role, and b) the first string leaders, the “A team” have all been killed by a Chtorr plague. (As have all the physicians)
Also, folks are still “in denial,” and the organizers don’t realize how they may fix that denial.
~Remembering that my essay on Assimilation a fortnight ago included aboriginals:
A mentor can have an “effect” in many ways. Gerry Bruce, who lived in a small town, was quite sympathetic to indigenous, without using the phrase “white racism,” because “they had been hammered on.” Hence I silently said to myself: For our indigenous to achieve self-esteem it would be more energy-efficient, quicker, for them to switch away from trying for assimilation to trying for a “separate but equal” culture. Was I saying they should give up? Wimp out? I was saying they should make an appropriate decision as to where their energy goes. Like blacks did in the U.S. after 1969. (By the way, up here in Canada, blacks are just whites in black skin, in the eyes of indigenous)
How creative of me: Because this would have been before the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms had officially said indigenous had a separate culture, and before I had heard the idea six times. (Cultural change lags behind government decrees and new technology)
~My own “mentoring effect,” which surprised me, was a young woman at my university toastmasters club saying she was starting to read because of me.
(Not all students, with their university level I.Q., are readers; some will not read even after graduation is behind them, when they merely have a straight job, sans course-load)
It’s possible I had been unconsciously quoting books as I talked to my club, more likely I had made no secret of being an avid reader.
~I like students learning to be competent. For various comments on excellence, and the role of boards of directors, click on my label to the right for Olympics… One of the essays is called Olympics and Boards. You might also like Arete means Excellence, archived February 2014.
~In Gerry’s class, we even had to stand to tell a joke. I remember one day, just before the bell, he was seriously telling us recreation students about how people can escape life in many ways, not just through substances. For example: A man who wouldn’t crawl into the bottle, would instead leave his wife and kids at home to go jogging for miles.
I raised my hand, then stood to say, “That’s what I call, ‘running away from your problems!’”