Hosting a Leadership Development Cohort: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

Dave Dorman


Upon completing The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) training, I was excited to apply what I experienced to my work with leadership development. The use of powerful questions and slowing down to allow for deep reflection seemed well-suited to helping people further their leadership journey. In a leadership development cohort where relationship-building is so critical, I saw great potential for using Art of Hosting methodologies and core principles with their ties to participatory and collaborative leadership.

Developing Leaders through a Cohort-based Experience

From 2001 to 2012, PEL was an acronym for the President’s Emerging Leaders Cohort program. After a long run, the time had come to evaluate PEL and the decision was made to programmatically align it with the operational excellence (op-ex) efforts that grew out of stakeholder listening sessions held by President Kaler. A name change was called for so we re-branded as the President’s Excellence in Leadership program. There are 26 participants in the 2013 cohort including staff from the Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Twin Cities campuses with half from administrative units and half from colleges and schools.

Changing Institutional Culture through Operational Excellence

Operational Excellence is a long-term commitment to working smarter, reducing costs, enhancing services, and increasing revenues throughout the University. It includes a variety of integrated activities with the collective goal of:

  • Mitigating the impact of state budget reductions and keeping tuition increases low by reducing the University’s operational costs;
  • Improving operations and processes, resulting in a more efficient, better run, less redundant organization;
  • Promoting entrepreneurship, intelligent risk-taking, cooperation, and engagement across our campuses and in our interactions with business and community partners; and
  • Freeing up dollars to be reinvested into the core academic enterprise.

Jumpstarting the Building of Relationships and Trust

In the interest of efficiency—one of the guiding op-ex principles—the PEL program was shortened to eight months from 12–14 months. For me one of the key components of a cohort program is the opportunity to connect and converse cross-functionally with staff from a broad range of colleges, units, and system campuses. How would cohort-building occur given the reduced timeframe?

In designing the seminar calendar for the 2013 PEL cohort, it struck me that I would need to jumpstart the bonding and collective sense of cohort for the participants. We needed to build a foundation of trust for meaningful conversation in a very short time. Different from other first days with the PEL cohort, our kickoff day in April was devoted solely to learning about Art of Hosting strategies and principles, and using them to engage in meaningful conversation.


Investing in Visual Aesthetics to Support Meaningful Conversation

One aspect that struck me most significantly at my initial exposure to Art of Hosting—and that I wanted to explore for the PEL kickoff—was the attention given to the visual aesthetics of the room. From the colorful agenda landscape to the large group Circle with its lovely cloths and artifacts holding the center to the myriad other touches, it was obvious to me that the hosting team was dedicated to pulling out all of the stops to create the container for meaningful conversation. As someone who had not spent much time thinking about the impact that physical surroundings can have on the quality of learning and dialogue, I was immediately hooked.

My personal goal became to invest in environmental space and beauty as frequently as possible whenever I was hosting groups for conversation. My thinking regarding seminar design has also evolved into using conversation as a way to tap into collective wisdom for co-learning more often than in the past when I might have chosen a guest to share thoughts on a particular topic.

Floor discussion.resized

Hosting with Purpose

In February, I convened others from the University’s Art of Hosting Community to meet weekly to participate as co-designers for the kickoff. It was important to us to host ourselves and each other using Art of Hosting practices while doing the design work.

My initial desired results for the kickoff were to have the PEL participants leave the kickoff:

  • With ideas about how to optimize the PEL program to continue their leadership journey
  • With a sense of the cohort
  • Knowing some individual cohort mates better
  • Having contributed to a participatory leadership experience

In addition, I challenged the hosting team to design a kickoff that would convey the message “We are not in Kansas anymore.” I wanted participants to have the sense that this was something new and full of possibilities.

Designing the Kickoff

The design team had many deep conversations considering the audience and the new direction for the PEL program. We carefully looked at how the PEL experience could be tied to operational excellence. We reviewed the projects that the PEL participants would be working on in their home units and how the operational excellence principle of change management could be brought to bear on the projects.

It was important for the hosting team to develop a statement of intention to ground ourselves in the work we were doing. We considered questions like:

  • What’s at stake?
  • Who’s the client?
  • Who is being served: the participant? the sponsoring unit? the University?
  • How will the kickoff set the tone for the program?

Over time, the team developed this statement that we would use internally:

To host PEL participants at the beginning of their experience in a relevant and significant manner, using Art of Hosting as a mechanism to create a container to build authentic human connections and model participatory leadership.

The purpose statement we developed to share with participants expressed our hopes for what we intended the kickoff to be for them, and to relate the day’s activities to what would come in later seminars.PEL Kickoff landscapeEngaging a community of leaders as a cohort, preparing to make relevant and significant advancements at the university by cultivating an operational excellence culture.

Creating learner objectives had been part of my experience in developing seminars, but this was my first experience with investing so much thinking into developing a purpose statement for a seminar. The clarity provided by the statement made the work of the hosting team so transparent and allowed us to select the activities that would best serve our purpose. I’m committed to translating learner objectives into purpose statements in the future.

Hosting the Kickoff

The primary components of the day included:

  • An opening Circle exercise asking participants to describe themselves as a leader using nine words or fewer
  • A World Café with two rounds of questions
    • Round One: What is the University community calling for right now?
    • Round Two: What are your leadership challenges and opportunities? What is being asked of leaders at the University?
    • An Open Space Technology process following up on the World Café question, “What is the university community calling for right now?” Topics included:
      • Investment in Capacity-building
      • Working Better Together
      • Ideas and thoughts on Increasing Efficiency
      • What is our message?
      • Grassroots or top-down?
      • Which community?
      • Reflective Listening exercise
      • A closing Circle creating a group consensus of the individual leadership traits created in the opening Circle
      • Brief content sessions explaining the Divergence/Convergence model and the Four-Fold Practice

Listening Reflectively

The Reflective Listening exercise helped us quickly gain a cohort conversational comfort level. The attention to a comfortable yet stimulating environment, the World Café and Open Space Technology conversations, and the brief teaching on content all played a part, but it was that capstone listening exercise that solidified the day’s activities.

After a ten-minute description of the technique, the cohort was grouped in threes. The assignment was to have each person tell a story related to his/her leadership. One member of the trio then listened for facts while the other listened for feelings and values. Each participant had the opportunity to assume each role. If there are four people in the group, listening for feelings and values can be separated.

Table discussion.resizedI had been doing this kind of work for 30 years and had never experienced this exercise until I participated in the Art of Hosting training. It is an understatement to say that this is powerful. To this day, I can easily recall the participants in my foursome and the stories they told. I believe such was the case for the PEL participants.

My advice to anyone coordinating the activities of a learning cohort is to start out the experience with this exercise. This intentional listening paired with the opportunity for vulnerability and feeling heard sets a foundational tone that can carry throughout the cohort experience.

Evaluating the Kickoff Experience

Were my desired results accomplished? Based on my previous experience with cohort groups, this 2013 PEL cohort reached a depth of conversation based in trust in a shorter time than I had ever seen before. Sample evaluation comments were: “I enjoyed diverse conversation and sharing modalities,” “I really enjoyed the sense of being equal—we are all here for the same purpose regardless of where we are from or what our title is,” “I enjoyed meeting and getting to know colleagues; glad we weren’t ever put on the spot; great conversations; good pacing,” “I very much enjoyed the listening exercise. It was instructive and allowed for good connection with some of the other PEL participants.” Deep conversations have continued at the May, June, and July seminars.

As for the “not in Kansas” challenge, I have done a lot of training in our primary training rooms and for the most part the rooms reflect a “sea of taupe.” The hosting teams’ attention to room aesthetics, the consideration of the activities chosen, and the heartfelt hosting by the team truly transported the cohort to that colorful place where personal growth and ideas can emerge. The harvest document conveys this “not in Kansas’ experience.

Applying Art of Hosting throughout the Cohort Experience

I’d also like to acknowledge another Art of Hosting strategy that has been successfully implemented for this year’s PEL. Knowledge camps are used during Art of Hosting trainings to convey information about mental models and core practices in a short amount of time. For the May PEL change management seminars, guests were invited to share brief overviews about change management models during twelve knowledge camps (three rounds with four camps per round). PEL participants were able to select one camp to attend for each round and all of the camps were video recorded using iPads so that they could be accessed at any time.

A hybrid of knowledge camps and a software tool expo hosted by the Project and Change Management Collaborators group was used to share change management tools. There were two one-hour rounds with eight stations per round, each staffed by guests who described their tool in 5–7 minute segments. PEL participants stopped by the tool stations of interest with most learning about six tools per round. The energy during the tool expo was palpable, with so much knowledge passed in quick bursts.

Visual considerations have continued for the PEL program. Each seminar includes a hand-drawn agenda landscape mirroring a style first developed by David Sibbet. In addition, much attention continues to be paid to the physical space and using artifacts in the middle of Circles to provide a focus for the center of conversations. The original harvest landscape made up of the individual leadership traits from the opening Circle activity at the kickoff will be brought out periodically and at the end to provide context for where the participants’ leadership journey began.

We are only a third of the way through the 2013 cohort year and it will be interesting to see how this attention to conversations that matter will continue to benefit the participants. I am especially looking forward to how World Café and Open Space Technology might be applied to the end of the cohort year reflection time to unleash the deep co-learning that will hopefully emerge.