How to make sure that your dinner parties don’t suck

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A modern playbook for the art of conversation

Everyone hates meetings. Most of us concede that they are a waste of time and an opportunity for the preening and posturing of only the most powerful and obnoxious.  From walking meetings to virtual meetings, agendas and catering, corporations are hungry for good strategies and creative ideas for making meetings less mind-numbingly boring.  

In a generation where few have heard of Emily Post, teaching the art of hosting, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review ran a piece called “Why your meetings stink and what to do about it?” Author Stephen G. Rogelberg says that “the goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain.”

The challenge of course when it comes to any gathering which involves human dynamics, is how best to do this. “It’s easy to simply show up and default to the usual way of doing things. But when you’re a steward of others’ time, you owe it to them to make some modest upfront investment.” says Rogelberg.

While the number of books on how to run better meetings and host richer conversations at work continues to grow in number and in quality, they are a mere hors d’ouvre when compared with the smorgasboard of offerings around anything to do with the culinary arts.  We’ve come a long way since Julia Child was the last word on cooking. From Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, MasterChef to Chef’s Table we are spoilt for choice. Game of Scones is the recreational choice for the meeting-weary when weekend strikes.

Strangely though, it’s in the sanctity of home and hearth that little has changed in the way we run our dinner parties.  There’s still a chasm between how we set our tables and the kinds of conversations that occur around them. The food might be delicious and the table settings sublime.  But it’s unusual for any but the most unusual host or hostess to remember the kind of conversational decorum that is in fact a whole lot more common in the boardroom than it is around our dining room tables.

The big difference between meetings and dinner parties is that we know the former are boring but dinner parties are meant to be fun.

Priya Parker the author of the Art of Gathering says

“I like to tell people that Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen. One of the documents I found that illustrated this for me was a party-planning guide on Stewart’s website. It’s a 29-item checklist and only three of the items focused on people.”

A great dinner party isn’t just about good food and wine. Usually tables are full and conversations are empty. But what we are really craving, is meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting interesting friends of friends who expand our worlds.

It’s bad enough not meeting anyone new (At what age do we decide: “This is it. I’ve met all the people I need to know, the cart is closed”?)

What’s eminently worse is having to listen to the same voices who continue to dominate while displaying no curiosity about new opinions, views and voices.

Often, the most interesting dinner parties are the ones where no-one knows each other or at the very least where not everyone belongs to the same social circle. Awkwardness can dissolve into lively discussion.  Learning to listen can result in new learnings and surprise connections.  

It requires effort to step out of one’s social comfort zone, but in the same way that organisations benefit from diversity, so do our communities. Something special happens when people can’t get stuck on small talk, work, school and holidays.  

So even though the next dinner party you host doesn’t need to have an agenda, a chair and a stopwatch, perhaps the next time you decide to invite people over it’s time to borrow some of the pre-planning discipline from the corporate world.

Focus first on purpose before getting overwhelmed with logistics and details. Ask yourself “Why am I hosting this gathering? Who should be part of it? What do I want to achieve? “

Make a point of introducing everyone to each other and seating your guests thoughtfully.  Ask questions which encourage personal stories rather than opinions.

Sometimes generosity of spirit is even more important than generosity of food and drink.  It’s time to shift our focus away from recipe books and table settings and focus instead on the timeless ingredients that create magic between people.

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Inclusive leadership is natural for women

It’s tempting to talk about how far women’s leadership has come over the last few decades. After all a record breaking six women are running for President in the US. More women are running organisations and governments around the world and the  #Metoo campaign highlighted the reality and scale of sexual harassment for everywoman.

However as Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka reminded us at the recent G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality and women’s empowerment: “No country in the world has achieved gender equality. No country. And this is nearly 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”

Progress aside, the fight for gender equality still has to be won on many fronts.  Women’s leadership is important because it is only when there is more equality in who leads, that gender issues like educational injustice, weaponised rape and child marriage will receive the attention they deserve.

Feminism (still a surprisingly fraught and misunderstood term) simply means that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. And one of the best ways we can accelerate this process is to get more women into positions of power.

Not surprisingly, as the late Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai noted “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

Some advocates of change like Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook believe in what has been referred to as the DIY model of empowerment. Women should “lean in” more and be more assertive in order to increase their leadership potential

Sandberg’s critics include Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist and the author of Unfinished Business (OneWorld) who believes that much broader social, political and cultural change is necessary to change the system.

I believe both. The broader system and the values it represents certainly needs to change but for many of us who aren’t able to influence change on a structural level, we still need to find a way to make changes where we can. I’d like to suggest two strategies for making a difference that are accessible for most of us.

The first is that we broaden our definition of what leadership is.  And the second is that we focus on some of the skills that come naturally to many women.

Even though there is more recognition of different kinds and styles of leaders, we still tend to default to the style of leadership which is more traditional and patriarchal. (I lead and you all follow)

After all which names come to mind when we think of who is at the helm of countries and organisations and even who we should invite to give the keynote address at a conference?  It’s still easier to give lists of high profile male leaders.

Years of being socialized into a way of being in the world means that many of us are more comfortable to be in the wings than to take centre stage. It’s not that there’s a shortage of talented women. Rather it’s a sign of how reluctant women often are about taking a seat at the table.

However, when we use a different, more inclusive definition of leadership it’s easier to think of more women who fall into this category.  We are more inclined to include ourselves as legitimate candidates for leadership.  And most important of all, we can become more ambitious around what leadership is able to achieve in the world.

Leadership author Margaret Wheatley’s definition is helpful.

“A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation”

When this is our definition of leadership a leader might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school or a colleague who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in her workplace or a neighbour who rallies others around saving trees in the suburb.

When we expand our notion of what leadership is, we encourage people to step forward and make a small difference in their communities. It’s also the kind of definition that is naturally more appealing to a wider range of women leaders.

In the same way that research into the world of micro-financing reveals how women who accept loans are more inclined to invest back into their families and communities, women are more inclined to expose themselves to the risk of leadership when there is a greater cause at stake.

When we think of leadership as a call to make a contribution rather than a more individualistic instinct to put ourselves in charge, we tap into a feminine ease with supporting others, speaking up for the voiceless and making a difference to many.

The second strategy is to harness a set of skills which comes especially easily to women . This is the cluster of skills which I and others in leadership describe as the art of conversation.

The dark side of this ability is when girls exclude others socially. Most women  have at least a memory of what it feels like to be an outsider. Often it’s as a result of these social scars that women reinforce the narrative that women are inclined to bring other women down rather than build them up.

But the flipside is a natural ability women have around creating conversations, safe spaces and making others feel welcome. Like good listening skills, the idea of inclusion is becoming core to good leadership. Inclusion simply means making sure that an organization is welcoming at every level to every individual. Inclusion is about diversity of thought and individuality regardless of race, heritage, or gender. It’s becoming the new normal and at its heart is a skill that is second nature to little girls all over the world.

Teaching the art of hosting conversations, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Women from different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds have been raised to welcome others into their homes, make them feel comfortable, introduce them to people they might not have met before and offer them food and drink. The limitation is that we have been raised to think of these skills as the skills of home economics rather than as the elements of leadership. These are skills that we don’t need to go to business school to finesse.  They are abilities that have been relegated to the catering committee of our communities rather than into boardrooms or peace talks where they belong.

In an age where we have too many connections but feel less connected than ever before, we crave meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting diverse voices who expand our worlds.

These are the kinds of leadership skills that the world needs now. Not because they come naturally to women but because they create and encourage essential human values.

It’s time we took them out of the domestic realm and put them into the world.

This article first appeared as an Op Ed in The SA Jewish Report. Sajr.co.za

Fairies and Custard – why radical creativity beats chocolate

fairiesandcustard

My grandmother was quite convinced that she saw a fairy once.

So it’s not surprising that fairies and fairytales were central to my childhood. My mother filled our heads with magic and other whimsical creatures  and I formed my own code for what was good and bad in the world

Fairies were a metaphor for anything happy, hopeful and filled with possibility. Holidays, surprise parcels, exciting emails still fall into the fairy category.

On the other extreme were custards. (How I loathed the lumpy stuff especially when it formed a skin)

So a fight with a friend, a piano lesson when I hadn’t practised my scales, a dentist visit   – custards.

I still find myself scanning my day, my week and my life to see the ratio of fairies and custards at any given time. I have even hosted a Good Fairy Week and Wonderful Wizard Week to encourage those of us jaded by work, bills and responsibilities to get back in touch with magic and the joy of paying it forward.

Whenever I feel myself getting sucked back into lumpy custard territory (and yes, there have been times when my Doc Martens have felt a little soggy of late) it’s time to recommit to fairies once again.

How we do so is the key question.

Too often when we want to get the magic back we turn to addictive behaviour like sugar, facebook or shopping when what we are really craving is something far more nourishing and far more radical.

When I scan the last 25 years of my working life, my favourite projects and those I’m still most proud of – are those I created with attention to curiosity, creativity and a fair dash of risk. All the elements which make for grown up magic.

It’s the kind of work that makes me feel most alive. I believe too that it’s the work that makes the most difference in the world. Work that brings surprise, courage  and magic into a world that needs it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always fun. And it always includes wonderful people and great conversation.

Wishing you an abundance of fairies and no lumpy custard in your favourite shoes

with love and a renewed commitment to radical creativity

Debby

QUAL 15

With my own Wonderful Wizard at a Good Fairy Week celebration

 

Book Summary: Love is the Killer App

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We had a great #welead chat on twitter last night. Our topic: Networking – How to do it better, more generously and more effectively. (Join us via @womenleadsa on Wednesday nights at 19h30 GMT+2 where we discuss important and emerging leadership themes under the #welead hashtag)

In addition to some great insights, it was also a dialogue between the idealists and the more cynical  about what networking is, why it exists and what realistic expectations might be from the relationships we forge for business,

Generosity and abundance are areas of great interest for me so this probably isn’t the last I’m going to say on the topic 🙂 But I did promise to post a book summary I wrote some time ago on a book by Tim Sanders which I think gives some great insights on the topic as the sharing of knowledge becomes increasingly important.  Enjoy

Tim Sanders’ Love is the Killer App (Hodder & Stoughton)

This book is not hot off the press but worth a read if you haven’t got to it yet. The title is catchy but deceiving because although love in business is a theme, by far the most comprehensive and practical part of the book is the way the author expounds on the value of knowledge as a business tool and powerful networking advantage. 

Important definitions in the book

Sanders defines love as the “selfless promotion of the growth of others”. When you help people be the best they can be, you are being loving. 

A killer app is an excellent new idea that either supersedes an existing idea or establishes a new category in its field. It soon becomes so popular that it devastates the original business model.

Love business is the act of intelligently and sensibly sharing your intangibles with the people in your worklife

Sanders says that the “good guys” can win at the business game, and proposes that the way to do it is to be a “lovecat”. This means giving generously of your intangibles. Your intangibles are knowledge, your network and compassion:

  1. Knowledge:
  2. Network
  • Reading is a source of potency so manage it like an asset. Become a walking encyclopaedia of answers for anyone who has questions
  • Books should be your diet staple – magazines articles are between meal snacks. For the most part, magazine articles are commercial vehicles – publishers use them to position their advertising. They don’t build your knowledge stronghold. So spend 80% of your time on books and 20% on magazines and articles
  • Find sources of reading referrals you can trust: editors, colleagues and reading circles which you create yourself
  • Read actively and interactively. This part is hard to get over if like me, you were raised on the ‘never write in your books’ school of thought. But since reading this book my guilt is allayed as I highlight and make notes to myself throughout. Sanders recommends writing notes on the first blank white page inside the book – just a simple one-line  summary that helps to reconnect with each of the book’s ideas, definitions and data points.
  • Stock your library with extra copies of your favourite books. It’s hard to beat the gift of a book, especially right after a meeting
  • Don’t wait until a book has hit the best-seller list to pick it up. You have to be ahead of the curve to leverage the knowledge master advantage. 


Despite the apparent new-age packaging of the title, the Sanders approach to networking is certainly not about pure abundance. But I do like his candour:

  • Eventually all the people to whom you are connected become maintenance-free reserves. These contacts lie in wait with the potential to repair a looming crisis
  • Even though you don’t exact a fixed price for putting them in your network, they may well feel they’d like to do something for you in return. (I think he should add that often it’s good to help just because you can and it’s the decent thing to do!)
  • Collect, connect and dissappear
    • Collect: Make sure you have a system for organising your contacts 
    • Connect: You only need a small number of contacts and some thought to start connecting. But don’t procrasinate once the connection forges in your mind. Sanders says that because of the pace of technological change, on several occasions in the past when he didn’t move with speed, one no longer had the need and the other no longer had the solution
    • Disappear: Get out of the connection as soon as it has fused.
  • Don’t ever expect a ‘broker’s fee’ for forging the connection. Otherwise people will start factoring the cost of working with you into the equation when they see you coming. Not only will they stop acting on your suggestions, they’ll start filtering you out and your network will shrink. It’s also far more time-consuming to broker a deal than to create a relationship.
  • Lovecats revel in the element of surprise and delight they can bring to the table and thrive in their ever-expanding network

Caveat: you do run the risk that some people may rub their hands together in glee like Ebenezer Scrooge after they’ve profited from the connection and leave you out in the cold. But think about it this way: your cost is zero and your loss is also zero. So even if you get scrooged four out of five times, that one time that people reward you for your generosity is nothing but upside for you. 

  1. Compassion

The new killer-app says Sanders is that nice, smart people can succeed. So don’t be afraid to get emotionally involved and to be a warm human being at work. But being a lovecat is not just about being nice. There’s so point in playing by these rules if you’re not smart too. (In other words, strike a balance between being nice and being a sucker!)

 Sanders says that his career only took off once he was able to get a handle on these intangibles. He has helped many people deal with some of the fears that permeate the business world (like becoming irrelevant because business is evolving all the time, being “downsized” due to profit pressures and so on), by reading, networking and reaching out to people. In this way, he believes you become relevant and business opportunities flow. 

How to have coffee with an influencer (or me)

The “law of meeting karma” (a Debbyism) is very top of mind for me at the moment as we plan our 9th Annual Women’s leadership conference. So I’m reposting this:-)

Debby Edelstein

I don’t much like the term influencer. Partly because it’s the kind of label that many people seem to attach to themselves in their twitter bios, not unlike guru and thought-leader.

Still, as sure as I love sour jelly beans there will always be people we want to get to see because of their perceived value to us. But by the law of meeting karma there are always people who want to see us too.

In the democratic world of the social media universe you see, we are all influencers and schmoozers to a greater or lesser degree.

So take comfort dear coffee-hunter in the knowledge that whoever you are chasing, they are chasing someone too. That’s the law of meeting karma. (just check out anyone’s twitter feed for proof)

Considering I have insight from both sides – as hunter and hunted, as influencer and as schmoozer – here are…

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My name is Debby and I’m a conference addict


When we launched our latest offering “The Inspired Teachers Conference“, which is just around the corner, a friend asked me how many more conferences I was planning to create. The truth is, I honestly don’t know. But I will probably continue for a while because I’m addicted to the thrill of learning and discovering together.

I’m not sure exactly when the habit started but over the years, whenever I’ve been faced with a problem I can’t solve by myself, I host a conference.

In the process I’ve met fascinating people from a variety of different fields, but perhaps most significant of all, I’ve learnt something very important about how we learn. We learn better together, in conversation.

I often quote the findings of Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology, who researched what it is that people enjoy most about conferences. The answer? The coffee breaks.

So, over the years, we’ve worked with the tension between attracting a star-studded cast and making sure that there is enough time for delegates to spend as much time as possible talking among themselves… because these are the conversations that are remembered years later, long after the logos on the goody bags have faded.

Like most lessons that stick, the only way I’ve learnt this lesson is through personal experience. I remember the first time I experienced working with a syndicate group when I was at Wits Business School many years ago. It was hell. Dunne, who had already completed his MBA and was far more experienced in the political dynamics of the syndicate, was amused as I tossed and turned at night, trying to come up with ways to get my all-male syndicate members to give me air time the next day.

Sleepless nights notwithstanding, some of the insights I learnt through that experience (most of them about myself) have stayed with me far longer than the finance notes I wrote down and tried to learn by heart.

The interactive experience of the syndicate group used by business schools is a valuable one, but it’s not nearly enough.

Etienne Wenger coined the term “Communities of practice” to describe the age-old phenomenon where people engage in a process of collective learning towards a common goal. His work has influenced educators ever since.

But collaboration in learning is now becoming even more prominent as we all get thrown together by the big melting pot of the digital economy. In fact, as gaming expert Jane McGonigal told World Economic Forum delegates recently, the 10 000 hours of gaming that the average young person will spend by the age of 21, will be spent honing the mastery of collaboration.

That’s why business, leadership and education is looking to the world of gaming for some insights. Young people might be obsessed with an online world that scares the living daylights out of us as parents, but they are also mastering skills we don’t know nearly enough about.

We know that the ability to work together across boundaries and across cultures is going to be one of the most essential leadership skills for our economic survival into the future. But many of us haven’t even mastered the basic art of listening, never mind the more advanced skill of working together.

I’m reminded of the importance of these skills every time I host a conference and learn as much from the delegates as from the speakers. Now that I’ve discovered this truth for myself there are all sorts of theories I can find to back up what I’ve already tested out more times than I can count – the best learning is learning together. And that’s why I keep creating conferences.

PS This also doubled up as my editorial for the February issue of The QualityLife Journal. If you’d like to subscribe (which would make me very happy) send an email to join-WLJ@quallife.co.za


How to have coffee with an influencer (or me)

I don’t much like the term influencer. Partly because it’s the kind of label that many people seem to attach to themselves in their twitter bios, not unlike guru and thought-leader.

Still, as sure as I love sour jelly beans there will always be people we want to get to see because of their perceived value to us. But by the law of meeting karma there are always people who want to see us too.

In the democratic world of the social media universe you see, we are all influencers and schmoozers to a greater or lesser degree.

So take comfort dear coffee-hunter in the knowledge that whoever you are chasing, they are chasing someone too. That’s the law of meeting karma. (just check out anyone’s twitter feed for proof)

Considering I have insight from both sides – as hunter and hunted, as influencer and as schmoozer – here are my Seven Strategies for having coffee with someone you really want to meet

1. In fact people are particularly protective of their coffee times. I have mine in bed in the morning when intelligent conversation is not yet a high priority.

After that I choose to have coffee with a few close friends I don’t see nearly enough. So if we’ve never met, unless you’re suggesting something that can change my life (in a good way) please don’t suggest that we grab a cup of coffee.

2. You could however start with an enticing and relevant personal tweet – everyone likes a mention on twitter– or an interesting email that gives a lot of juicy details. Our inboxes have become our to-do lists (Voicemail not so much.) So make sure your information is compelling enough to stand out.

3. Better too not to tell me that you want to pick my brains. Especially if you’ve never visited my website or attended any of my workshops. Sorry but there’s a fragile ego beneath this tough exterior. Rather suggest a conversation that you think I would find so valuable that I can’t resist spending time with you. (but don’t forget point 1.)

We teach what we most need to learn: About a week ago I sent a rather silly facebook message to an editor I thought would love to meet me because we have so many friends in common. (Erm wrong) Cardinal error: I also added that I wanted to pick her brains. And surprise surprise: she’s under far too much work pressure to see me. No-one I’ve met yet finds the prospect of having their brains picked irresistible!

4. Collaborate and learn more about anyone’s work via facebook or twitter or comment on their blog posts. I’m far more inclined to meet with potential facilitators (many of the people who want to see me want to lecture for QualityLife Company) if we’ve had an interesting interaction on social media for a while before getting an email out of the blue

5. If you’ve been to one of our conferences or workshops, please mention which one. I’m afraid I do (fragile ego again) give greater priority to people who are familiar with our work and our particular brand of facilitation and teaching. By the same token if someone has written a book and I want a meeting with her, I make a point of reading the book first before I write the email. “I haven’t read your book yet but..” has never cracked it as a killer opening line

6. Add value. Mention them in a blog post. Send them a copy of your new book or article (with no strings attached) Mention them on twitter or facebook. But whatever you do don’t lay guilt trips. Sometimes a short, no-need to respond email is the best way to go. Countless follow-ups asking if someone received your email is a sure way to turn someone off and chase them into a reclusive guilt-trip. (trust me I spend a fair amount of time there)

7. Finally, remember that the law of meeting karma is not personal. We all lead fast-paced lives and patience is still a virtue. I’m regularly humbled by the inspiring leaders who agree to meet me but of course there are those who let me know that now is not the time and I hope I take it graciously.

Because if I don’t sulk there’s a chance we might still have coffee one day.  And for those of you who’ve read this far, I like mine skinny and strong