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Leading during a Pandemic: Setting Strategy, Virtually

31 Mar 2020 9:14 AM | Brett Jeffery (Administrator)

As virtual meetings become the new norm, more associations will need to Zoom strategic discussions. Here’s how to make that process effective.

The past few weeks have given many of us a crash course in teleconferencing. We’ve set up Zoom meetings, watched our colleagues’ cats and children stray across our feeds, and most likely discovered that short virtual meetings can be effective for small groups in your office.

But what about more complicated, days-long strategic conversations with a far-flung board? As travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines remain in place, more associations will have to conduct their board meetings virtually. And getting that right will require more of organizations than making sure everybody has a Zoom link.

You have to be paying attention to who has spoken, who is engaged, and who hasn’t spoken.

Earlier this month, association leadership consultant Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, helped coordinate a day-and-a-half leadership retreat for the board of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). The rapidly changing situation around the coronavirus meant that some were able to travel to Chicago for the meeting, while some were stuck at home. It was, accidentally, a hybrid board event. Aplebaum shared a few of his insights about the experience on LinkedIn, and I wanted to hear more about what worked during the event and what challenges strategy sessions still face.

The bottom line is that the system can work: “I’m not sure there’ll be a run to embrace all virtual all the time, but I think there’ll be more latitude toward hybrid approaches,” he says. “We’ve gained experience enough in this way of functioning digitally that we can blend in-person with virtual in meaningful ways.”

Aplebaum offers a few tips for how to make the most of a virtual or hybrid board meeting:

The conversation leader needs to be free to lead. Whether it’s the board chair or the CEO directing the conversation, that person should not be expected to be the ad hoc IT staffer in addition to moderating conversations. Assign a person to handle the technical issues. “In a digital environment it’s nearly impossible to be both a facilitator and contributor,” he says. “You need a back-end person to take care of logistics and knowledge capture.”

Recognize that virtual conversations aren’t introvert-friendly. A board member who is cautious about engaging during in-person meetings may feel all the more so in a virtual environment. A mass of little video boxes can be intimidating, and as Aplebaum points out, the virtual environment repels quiet—people will talk to fill the space. So be intentional about gathering input. “You have to be paying attention to who has spoken, who is engaged, who hasn’t spoken,” he says. “It’s harder for there to be moments to pause and process. A facilitator has to be really intentional about inviting voices you haven’t heard.”

Kill oral subcommittee report-outs. Kill them dead. Extended chatter from committee chairs about finance, events, membership, and so on can be boring on a good day. In a virtual environment those reports can feel like sitting through the most tedious, slow-moving art film you can imagine. “Do you really want every group reporting out for five minutes? That’s an hour of just sitting and passively listening except for your five minutes from your group,” Aplebaum says. “Take advantage of a digital platform to have the groups report out through digital means. During a break, have the facilitator go through it and then come back to the group with overarching themes that emerged from all the groups.”

Icebreakers and opportunities to connect still matter. Overall, Aplebaum says, the CSI retreat was a success: “We heard that every person felt that they were engaged and invited and there was space for their voice.” But the experience showed that even the best-planned virtual meeting will leave some people craving opportunities for social connection. Setting up a virtual “happy hour” where people can connect over meals can help. So can group activities that encourage people to share something personal. After all, these days people have their personal lives near at hand.

“One thing that I would do next time is have everyone find their beverage and then pick one picture on their computer or phone that shows me something about your life,” he says. “Or a physical object in your home. Something that tells the story of who you are, that lends itself to personal narrative. That can build cohesion in the group.”

Whether it’s leading virtual meetings, managing staff, or coordinating with stakeholders, I want to hear how you’re putting your leadership skills to use during COVID-19. If you have a story to share, please drop me a line at brett@ausae.org.au

MARK ATHITAKIS - Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications.

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