Thursday September 23rd. The first meeting of a new Alternative Board. Five complete strangers in a room. Effectively I’m saying to each one of them, “Here are four people you’ve never met before. Shake hands, make two minutes of meaningless small talk over a cup of weak coffee and then tell them the innermost secrets of your business.”
For me, this is what being a TAB facilitator is all about. This is crossing the white line at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. This is the most worrying moment of my job – and by some stretch, it’s the most exciting as well.
Have these people anything in common? Will they gel? Above all, will there be some magic? Will 1+1+1+1+1 equal a lot more than 5?
Obviously, the group isn’t entirely random. I know all the board members, and in my best impression of Simon Cowell putting a boy band together, I think it’ll work. I’m not going to put two people on a board who might not get on: I’m certainly not to have two competing businesses on the same board. And yes, there’s a self-selecting element as well. If the potential members weren’t prepared to contribute, they wouldn’t be here.
But like every blind date, there’s a risk. Will the new board’s discussions sit safely on the surface, skirting round the issues they really care about? Or will it go deeper? Because if it doesn’t, they’re going to waste the next three hours.
As the facilitator, the answer is ‘you don’t know.’ In football-commentator-speak, “it’s a big ask.” Please tell these people you’ve just met what really concerns you about your business, tell them where you want the business to go – or tell them (and this takes some courage) that you don’t have a clue where it’s going.
So the meeting kicked off – with a very slick presentation. A couple of members looked dismayed, on the grounds that they hadn’t prepared anything and were going to ad-lib. Not to worry, they were fine. We went through the necessary introductions and overviews, and then we came to the main event: challenges and opportunities. This is the central point of any TAB meeting. What problems or challenges are you currently facing in your business? What opportunities have suddenly opened up?
Board members have to describe these, ask the other members for advice – and then keep quiet. There’s always a time limit – usually it’s about thirty minutes per member – but it’s always shorter at the first meeting. So as we sat round the table last Thursday everyone was faced with summarising their position and getting feedback in ten minutes.
But remember what George Bernard Shaw once said, “I’m sorry this is such a long letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Sometimes less is more. Only having ten minutes forced the board members to cut right to the heart of their business. They had to make the best use of the time available. And then they had to listen, effectively. (A seriously underrated skill in business.)
Judging by the comments and the e-mails afterwards, the meeting was a success. And hopefully there’ll be some positive results. We’ve three more meetings planned before Christmas. I’m looking forward to someone standing up in December and saying: ‘Before I tell you about this month’s challenge, something good has happened. And it wouldn’t have happened without the help you four have given me.’
Stay tuned. I’ll let you know…