Sunday, April 20, 2008

Brown Bag Leadership

One of the methods that I am using to enhance communication with my teammates is to hold a monthly "brown bag lunch (BBL)." I have found them to be great ways to listen, to generate new ideas, and to spend time just "breaking bread together."

BBLs can be a powerful component of your communication portfolio. I use them along with emails to the workforce, my company intranet and work blog, video messages, townhall discussions, and other meetings to help inform people of new initiatives, identify problems and solutions, and to stay connected.

I am still working on how to make BBLs more productive. I know that the more we have them, the better they will become. Until then, here are 10 key lessons learned on "Brown Bag Leadership:"

1. Invite different groups. I have used BBLs to pull different groupings of people together to see what is on their mind. Recently I heard from interns, students, African-Americans (during Black History Month), Admin Assistants (during Admin Professionals Week), and engineers (during Engineer Week). Each of them have something different on their mind. And the group dynamics often present issues in unique ways that I might not otherwise discover.

2. Give people sufficient advance notice. If you want people to show up, give them a little head's up. Send out the notice, post flyers on the company bulletin board, etc. This allows people to prepare some issues for discussion as well as insuring that they will clear their own calendars and show up.

3. Have an agenda. Give advance notice of what you might be able to discuss. Identify some hot topics to generate some thought before the lunch and add them to the invitation. The alternative approach is uncomfortable and unproductive for all: "So...what do you want to talk about?" Crickets....

4. Listen. Don't dominate the conversation. This is enabled by points #2 and 3 above. If you give people advance notice and provide some things to think about, people will generally come loaded to bear. You sit down and they will start firing away. Ask leading questions. Don't turn these sessions into a lecture series. Yes, they may want to hear from you. But more need to hear from them.

5. Take notes and follow-up. Ensure that you come prepared to take action on the things you hear. Write down the issues and concerns from the team. Demonstrate your willingness to look into things that are important to your teammates. Send a note to your leaders (cc or bcc those who attended the lunch) and let them know what you have heard -- and how you want to assign the taskers. This truly gives a feeling of empowerment to those who might not otherwise feel like they have a voice.

6. Encourage everyone to speak. Get everyone involved. Many will come just to listen. Draw them into the conversation and see what is happening in their piece of the company. Letting even the lowest ranking in the group know that their input is valued will resonate throughout the workforce.

7. Bring problems and see how different groups might solve them. BBLs are a great forum to generate potential solutions to some ongoing challenges. Let people know what issues you are dealing with and see what they think. Roll out new initiatives and get some feedback.

8. Don't solve problems that should be addressed by the chain of command. Some people will come to gripe about their boss. Others will want their personal problems solved. To the extent possible, try to deflect these back to the level at which they should be addressed -- with their supervisor. These forums are for discussing issues which interest the entire group, not just one person.

9. Share your vision. Don't miss an opportunity to weave in key messages and strategic directions. Put your answers in the context of the big picture. Talk about your telework policy in the context of how you are encouraging empowerment. Discuss equipment purchases while ensuring people see how it will increase productivity. Answer questions about benefits in the context of the company bottom line. Make sure people leave lunch with a good understanding of where you are going.

10. Eat and fellowship. Many people come to the BBL just to see the boss in a different setting. Seeing a supervisor with a little dab of mustard on their chin sure has a way of breaking down barriers to communication! Have fun. Be human. Enjoy the company of your team and the opportunity to enhance your leadership (and theirs) during this casual setting. The benefits can be tremendous.

Bon appetit everyone! That's Leader Business.


Anonymous said...

I have also used these settings to encourage learning the skills that many feel they need to work better together. One we just did recently worked on the skill of communication and was a hit to all that attended. What is perfect is that the company offers the program on-demand so we schedule them at our convenience

J. Loewen said...

A useful list to go through and to use as a reminder to act on each point. I think the one about gripes is tough and very important to manage in a constructive manner. People will complain if they see there is an opening and it will be distructive for division head's moral.