Conversational Leadership Conference

Last week I was in Kingston, Ontario cohosting a third annual leadership conference offered by Providence Care. Providence Care does great work in the community and region of Eastern Ontario. My colleagues and friends at Providence, in particular Lauri Prest — she works with deep insight and devotion — as well as several key senior leaders (Dr. Ken LeClair, Dr. John Puxty, Sandra Carlton, Dale Kenney) are doing an amazing job of building their own internal capacity for conversational leadership as well as the capacity that is in the community.

My cohosts included Lauri, Juanita Brown, Phil Cass and Teresa Posakony. Sara Heppner-Waldston created really beautiful graphic illustrations that require deep listening skills as much as anything. Angie Wagner contributed an amazing level of beauty in print materials. Jessica Herbison was always there supporting a level of logistics in this conference. It is important for me to name this team because the depth of work in these times requires a deep holding. Just as many hold the birth of a child into the world, so it is in the birth of a new view and practice of working together.

The conference was called “Conversational Leadership: Thinking Together for a Change.” It was a weave of speakers followed by small group and cafe conversations. We offered as starting point, a definition of conversational leadership offered by cafe host and friend Carolyn Baldwin. We tweaked it a bit for this group: “The intentional use of conversation as a core strategic process to cultivate collective intelligence to create business and soical value.”

The Honorable Ray Romanow, Former Premier of Saskatchewan and Commissioner on the Future of Health Care in Canada opened the conference. He is an inspiring speaker with much experience behind him. He is also a key figure in accellerating the impact of the Canadian Index for Well-being.

Teresa and I followed him, the beginning of several conversations during the day where she and I would have attendees turn to each other to learn. Teresa is beautiful to host with in her deep intuition and ability to see what is happening in the room. The conversation we invited of the small groups was simple — “How does what Mr. Romanow shared connect to you personally and to what is important to you now?”

Juanita Brown was a next speaker. Juanita is a beautiful mix of commitement to core strategy / results and enormuous heart. Through what she is learning through The World Cafe, she offered a really helpful framing on organizations as networks of conversations and then the importance of key questions, involving stakeholders, and simple process steps that shift dialogue from just talk to strategic process. Juanita is all about invitation and engagement — musts for conversational leadership. In the midst of this we offered small group conversations: “If organizations are networks of conversation what shifts for me / us in my work / community?” It was an invitation to put on the glasses and see through a new lense. And in another small group, “From that view, what possibilities and questions are most exciting to you?” We harvested these on postit notes so that they could be visible in the room.

After lunch, Phil Cass spoke. He told heartful story including his journey from being a driven command and control CEO to a leader that convenes. Meg Wheatley speaks this as the shift from “leader as hero” to “leader as host.” Phil is one of the best people I know in this work. His heart is enormous. His ability is extraordinary. His presence is simply honest and authentic. He speaks with clarity. And he sparks a sense of possibility in the group because of his story, both personal and from his perspective as CEO of a medical foundation. I love the way Phil didn’t speak from the stage. He came out onto the floor, the shift that all of us as hosts were deliberate to do during the day. It is a deliberate physical step to reframe the environment to one of learning together.

People were now seated in affinity groups: Physicans, Clinical Leaders, Sr. Leadership, HR Professionals, Internal and External OD Practitioners and more. The invitation at this point was to shift into another kind of practical. “What are the practial applications for your work?” It was an invitation for people to notice what they might be surprised by, and what they might need to let go of. Two rounds of this followed by some call-outs into the room.

After another break, we had people sit quietly. It was time to invite another kind of learning, another kind of settling into the day. With a framing assist from the poet David Whyte — “sometimes the truth depends on a walk around the lake” — we invited people to journal what they were beginning to see as important questions, key stakeholders that can help engage those questions, and first next steps of process. We gave them 10 minutes for this and then invited them to sit with a partner to share what they had noticed. I like this kind of exercise. Granted, it was short, but it still offers a way for people to notice their clarity and then be able to witness it or sharpen it with a partner. A good wave of words reported out after this as the mic travelled through the room (like creating a circle where you know the talking piece is coming) — commitment, passion, balance, excitement, engagement, authentic, collaboration. Much was spoken then. And even though they were just single words, my sense is that it was important for the group to witness some of what had arisen and been experienced in the whole of the day. That group hearing is part of the clarifying that people take out of the room.

We closed with a few reflections on the gift of being together. Providence Board Chair Jim Barton offered a few closing remarks — he is a retired senior leader from Dupont that you can’t help but appreciate for his passion and gentle ways. His living of the values of Providence Care is clearly apparent. He is compassionate, and so committed to learning and action. Appreciations to Lauri, who is already three steps ahead in next offerings (Leadership Development Program, Customized Art of Hosting) — she sees the big picture clearly — and Providence Care for offering the leadership to strengthen Providence and the regional community of people committed to wellness.

The day was beautiful. There were about 200 participants. It was another courageous step in helping transform the identity of those who work in health care. As Phil says, “a shift from treating illness to promoting wellness.” It was another courageous step to invite the community to create an identity together that is the next level of helpfulness in the community. And that shift in identity, as I’ve learned through Meg Wheatley’s teachings on self-organizing sytems, is what changes behavior into the possibilities of a community that we all yearn for.

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