Bringing people to the party

Posted by on Aug 14, 2013 in Continuous Improvement, Leadership, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

Bringing people to the party


Recently I worked with a non-profit organization that is navigating a major change.  They have a 2-5 year ideal end state or vision defined, and they are currently designing a plan to get there,  including hiring a new executive leader.  They asked me to help facilitate the process.  As is the case with many non-profit organizations the leadership team is almost entirely volunteers, and though they have lots of motivation to do the right thing and a great vision for where they want to go, they do not have a lot of experience with defining, planning and leading organization change.
As I contemplated their challenge, I found myself thinking about party planning, of all random things.  I decided to set it up as an analogy to help give them some context to the task at hand.  This post is what emerged from that train of thought.
Though I had never really thought of it before, as I developed the idea I realized great organizational leadership really is like bringing people to a party.  What do you think?   What do great parties and successful change have in common?
So that future state of everything we want to happen – the vision we laid out last week?  Let’s say that is a party.  You (the Leadership team) are the hosts of the party.  It’s happening.  The party is ON.  The definition work we are doing now is party planning.  You are now putting in the work of choosing a theme and a venue, activities and talking up the party to your guests (the members).
Soon you’ll create and send invitations, contact vendors etc.  You’ll make a plan and execute on it to make the party a reality.  For now, as good hosts you will most certainly consult your guests to see what kind of party they are interested in attending, and do your best to make sure there is food they’d like to eat there, music they’ll enjoy etc so they will stay.  You will accommodate their wishes as much as possible, within reason.  You want the guests of the party to feel welcome, be really excited to come, to have a great time and to bring friends!
Of course, not all the guests will want the same things.  Some may not be willing to make the drive.  Others may hate every music choice you offer, or not want to eat anything!  Appeasing them with small adjustments is great – provided the party as a whole is still within what you as hosts have to offer.  You don’t want to spend all your energy on buying every single thing that every single person wants – or on making sure that the pickiest guests get everything they want at your party.  You want to find out what they really want (beyond the details) and find a way to deliver that.  Many people that appear extremely picky and demanding need to be listened to – more than they actually need what they are asking for.
However if they truly don’t like the party you are wanting to host, they may need to stay home.  This is a tough truth of leadership, and I know it will may raise some difficult conversations since there are strong bonds of friendship within the group.  Letting go of those who do not want what you are offering is the cost of moving forward.   All organizational leaders face it when they lead people.  Looking at any case study of successful change, it starts with a strong vision and direction from the top, followed by a voluntary exodus of the people who don’t like that direction.
This leaves your energy free to focus on the guests that *do* love the party you’re throwing, those who share your vision that you DON’T have to work hard to convince, or run your butt off to accommodate.  Instead they will be the life of the party.  They will thrive and bring more people like them – people that love what you’re hosting.  Your job as host will be WAY easier, and your costs – emotional and financial – will be much lower. The atmosphere at the party will be better.  That party will be as you envisioned it, because you had the courage to make it that way rather than trying to please everyone.  And those who leave the party will be happier for it, because they will go find something that aligns better with them.  You can still be friends.
Now, before you say ‘But Erica!  How can you be so tough and heartless?  We do have to include and listen to everyone!’  Include and listen yes.  Accommodate not necessarily.  Trying to please guests who actually want to attend a different party than the one you’re hosting is a recipe for frustration, conflict and moving in circles.   Of course, you can also opt not to plan a party at all – but just let things happen.  We could opt not to lead or make a plan really.  Then by definition, everyone will be *kind of* happy, but you definitely won’t get the great results that you dreamed of achieving.
From the enthusiasm and the energy I felt in the room last week, I don’t think we are willing to let that happen.  I felt a strong level of resolve and commitment from the Leadership team to make concrete forward progress toward that amazing state we can all see in the future.  Know that your resolve and energy for this party planning and hosting process may need to be replenished.  It’s important to recharge on inspiration and energy occasionally.  Support yourselves and each other.  Change is almost always really tough.  That actually means you’re doing it right.  🙂
But here’s what can make it easier:  as a savvy party host, you don’t approach party planning with a “my way or the highway” attitude.  You listen, you discuss and you rally enthusiasm for what you want to do.  Put another way, you sell.  Sell the vision.  Sell the party you want to host.  You light up when you talk about what you want to accomplish, and how great the party is going to be, and how much you hope they will be there.  Rather than trying to capture and accommodate everyone’s preferences, you win them over with your individual enthusiasm.
You can also impress them with how well-unified the hosts’ ideas are.  All the hosts are describing the same party, and painting such a consistent picture of how awesome that party will be, they realize that even more than what they thought they wanted, they want to be at YOUR party.  Then when they show up, you make them feel so welcome and special that they feel right at home.  They become so excited about the party that they forget it’s not theirs!  That’s when they start helping out, and start inviting friends.  That’s when the magic really begins to happen.  That’s great leadership.

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