Seventeen years ago, I became CEO of ITC (Independent Theatre Council) – a brilliant job which I still love doing to this day! When I took on the role, I quickly realised that I needed to gear up to the new set of leadership responsibilities, find somewhere to develop my strategic thinking and get some practical and emotional support.
I was lucky enough to find Ruth Cook and to join one of her excellent action learning sets. Our Set of voluntary sector leaders continued for the best part of eight years and it was both a life-changer and a life-saver for me.
Action-learning is profoundly powerful in its simplicity and I found it the perfect tool to build my confidence, sharpen my problem-solving powers and use reflective space constructively. Having discovered such a powerful tool, I naturally started thinking about how it could be applied in other settings.
An environment of trust
Being a membership organisation ITC has a large board (15) and we take them away every couple of years for a retreat. ITC is very fortunate in attracting excellent arts managers and leaders to join our board, but we still need to work hard and effectively to get the best out of them.
Enabling people to listen to each other properly, to trust each other, to feel that their voices are heard, to deepen their understanding of the issues facing the organisation, are common challenges especially for a large board. I wondered whether action learning would help and decided to try the experiment at the next retreat.
A discipline for effective board meetings
Fortunately, we had a couple of board members who had experienced action-learning and who were willing to help me facilitate the experiment. I decided to take on the first presentation myself, partly because I genuinely had a major organisational issue that I wanted them to help me solve and partly because I thought it would be a good way to model the process.
Obviously with 15 it was a big group, but the simple action-learning discipline made it work: no interruptions, active listening, open questions, no advice (unless requested), no come-back, single reflection feedback and presenter’s final reflection – that simple!
The powerful experience of active listening
I was pleasantly surprised how willing people were to adopt the discipline whole-heartedly. Strangely enough the board members I expected most resistance from were the ones who embraced it most fully. The real magic is in the active listening. It is so unusual for people to experience that quality of listening in everyday communication and the novelty secures people’s attention.
I managed to solve the problem I presented through the excellent questions my board asked and the (almost overwhelming) experience of having them really listen to me, and to one another. I think they discovered a whole new level of understanding too. We have used the technique formally on several occasions since that first experiment, but, more importantly, it unlocked a new way of being for the board. We found that the quality of our questioning and listening at board meetings improved significantly.
A formula for problem solving
Since the ITC Board experiment, I have had many opportunities to use action learning with the boards of our member companies. Whether it’s a short session built into a board retreat, a focused problem-solving meeting or a whole day of action learning with presentations from CEO, Artistic Director and Chair – the effect is the same. Light bulb moments, deepened understanding and increased trust all emerge.
Most board members respond well to the discipline and the clear boundaries offered by the formula. With Chief Executives it’s usually the suggestion of ‘no interruptions and no advice unless requested’ that sparks their interest. It is a relief for all concerned to take a break from the, sometimes dysfunctional, habits of board/CEO interaction.
As a CEO with a real problem to solve at my first ITC Board action-learning experiment I can testify that the most powerful thing about the experience was the opportunity to ‘just say it’. The honesty, simplicity and directness that active listening and open questions encourage is liberating. In the end ‘the truth shall set you free’. It’s a powerful message.