Leadership Journeys Lead to Hosting IT Community

Jen Bentrim and Jen Mein


Our story is about how we—two technology professionals at the University of Minnesota—found deeper meaning in our work, began seeing “community” in a new way, and developed an appreciation for self-organizing human systems after we were introduced to The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”). With some courageous first steps, we began to incorporate Art of Hosting techniques in meetings with our own teams and, after a while, we began hosting the broader Information Technology community. We are both active members of the University of Minnesota Art of Hosting Community of Practitioners and multiple IT Communities of Practice. Art of Hosting has shaped our leadership and perspective of community and we carry the Art of Hosting frameworks with us as we work within the IT@UMN community. We believe that the passion and leadership of individuals like us has caused a ripple effect that is seen and felt broadly among the nearly 1,400 IT professionals and beyond. In this chapter, we will share some of the steps we took in our leadership journeys that led us to host the IT community.

About IT Communities of Practice

Jen Bentrim is the current leader of the IT@UMN Community Task Force stewarding the whole IT community. Jen Mein is a host/facilitator providing support to the ITcommunities of practice to ensure gatherings are engaging and productive.

At the University, there is a massive push for operational excellence in a decentralized IT environment. In this context, there is a significant effort to build community among IT professionals to support greater alignment among our many distributed units. The spirit of openness and authentic engagement is palpable. Staff from across the system are connecting, building relationships, and working together to advance key strategies for the institution. This is the outcome of an open, inclusive community of practice approach to leading change. In place of traditional committees and advisory boards where a small group of individuals represent their units, everyone is invited to contribute their unique perspective within a “culture of we.” Some communities of practice are seeded to implement IT strategic initiatives and others are more grassroots-oriented, peer networks self organizing around various IT functions, such as web technology, help desk support, and academic technologies tools. Each community has a stated purpose. For example, the community of practice focused on IT Leadership has the purpose “to engage the entire information technology community in learning, relationship building, and purposeful work so we can mobilize around strategies that advance higher education and the University of Minnesota.” A typical community of practice convenes its members once a month, drawing 30–80 people in a physical space and more in a synchronous online environment. They also self-organize into small working groups that meet between community meetings, creating opportunities for staff to step into leadership roles, and contribute toward a collective outcome that moves initiatives forward.

Jen Mein’s Story

From Associate IT Director in the College of Liberal Arts to Host for the IT community at the University of Minnesota, this has been a journey of personal transformation and authentic leadership in action. The catalyst for this career transition was a combination of having a significant change occur within my collegiate IT organization and my participation in the 2011–12 MOR Associates IT Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota. My supervisor of fifteen years had accepted a position at another institution, prompting me to ask myself if I was interested in climbing the IT leadership ladder and pursuing an IT Director/Chief Information Officer (CIO) position. The question of what I wanted to do and whom I wanted to be going forward was one I grappled with for a few weeks before coming to the conclusion that I did not want to pursue the CIO career path. Thus, I ventured out to discover, “If not that… then what?”

I have often struggled with confidence issues and finding my own voice, but have been very comfortable playing a supportive leadership role behind the scenes. When it came to standing up or speaking in front of people, I was often a ball of quivering nerves. So when it came time for me to write out professional development goals during my leadership development program experience, I created goals around finding my voice, building confidence in myself, and generating a stronger presence. I went to the 360-degree feedback evaluations I had received during the previous decade, noting that listening, relationship building, and fostering trust were among my top perceived leadership strengths. I wondered how I could leverage those strengths to help push myself to stand up and speak up more. I was fortunate to be in this moment of inquiry just as an announcement came across a university listserv about an Art of Hosting training opportunity offered by the Center for Integrative Leadership. Seeing facilitation as a skill set that would build upon my natural abilities and help me grow in the areas I wanted to develop, I signed up. That one step opened a door to a whole new me. It sounds cliché to say but my Art of Hosting learning experience truly was a catalyst for personal transformation.

I remember after the first day of the training, I had a call with my coach from the leadership program and described the training as a little different and strange, but I liked it. I liked it a lot! I went into the experience with no expectations and left with so much, including wonderful bonds of friendship and a real deep sense of yearning for purpose and meaning in my work. I was so inspired by stories of those who attended the training with me because many of them were hosting a diverse array of communities in really meaningful ways—empowering immigrant populations, inspiring youth, and creating space for people to grow into their full potential. I left thinking, “I want to do that. I want to find a way to make a difference in people’s lives in real ways.” I confess my first thought was that was only possible outside my current position and career in IT, but that was fleeting. I quickly resolved to approach my work as an IT leader as if I were a community developer/organizer. Having worked within the College of Liberal Arts Office of Information Technology (CLA-OIT) for 15 years, that was my home away from home, rich with meaningful relationships. I cared deeply about my colleagues working in IT and I wanted our community as a whole to achieve its fullest potential. I left my Art of Hosting training experience with an intention to host my organization and the broader university community in a way that invites others to connect on a human level, and find meaning and purpose in their work too.

I developed an unquenchable thirst to learn, filling up a small bookshelf with books about community, participatory decision making, visual meetings, emotional intelligence, integrative leadership and more. I took advantage of local training opportunities to deepen my Art of Hosting knowledge in Harvesting and storytelling, attended Technology of Participation (Institute of Cultural Affairs) training sessions to learn more facilitation methods, intentionally sought out coaches/mentors, and actively engaged in a community of hosting practitioners. I benefited greatly from being in an environment that allowed my intention to host my organization to take root, where I had support to begin my practice of applying what I was learning; in that practice, I grew and transformed myself and invited others to step into a new way of working. I spoke up more and spoke from the heart, even when I was trembling on the inside. I was vulnerable with my peers and my staff, disclosing my hopes and fears, as I tried leading differently. It did not take long before our meetings in CLA-OIT started to change.

In the summer of 2011, I designed and facilitated a dozen sessions that brought small groups of CLA-OIT staff together to review trends and forces impacting higher education, and explore strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats. That was followed by a larger group session that explored specific actions we needed to take to best position our organization to meet the needs of our college. Then, teams within the organization worked on developing short-term and long-term goals. Finally, everyone was brought together in a large active learning classroom along with special guests from around the college and broader university community. The atmosphere of that gathering was fun, energizing, and informative. Each team presented (creatively, I might add) their goals and then people engaged in meaningful conversations around key organizational-wide strategic themes. I shared what we were doing in CLA with colleagues in other IT organizations on campus, and soon I was accepting offers to come and help teams in the College of Science and Engineering, College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources, and Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Eventually, I was also playing a supportive role in gatherings of the IT Leadership Community of Practice.

One of my fondest memories of practicing Art of Hosting was when two team leads and I co-hosted a breakfast and Reflective Listening session with a dozen staff who were in roles that were shifting away from fixing problems to roles focused on managing relationships, providing proactive support, and partnering with others to understand complex situations. In groups of four, they went off to private spaces and each person took a turn sharing a personal story, listening for facts, listening for emotions, and listening for values. During the Reflective Listening activity, the listeners say nothing while the storyteller is sharing a story; instead, they only reflect back what they heard after the story had concluded. After a while, we all gathered together and debriefed the experience and discussed what it was like to listen in this way and how listening can help them in their new roles. The result was greater awareness of listening strengths and preferences; relationships among the staff were also strengthened. Our morning concluded with me giving each person in the room $5 of my own money with an invitation for them to invite someone in the room whom they would like to get to know better out for coffee to have a meaningful conversation and continue to building upon their working relationships.

Since the summer of 2011, I have continued to deepen my practice as an Art of Hosting practitioner and it is starting to settle into my bones, integrated into the way I see and interact in the world. I continue to host myself, reflecting on who I am, what gifts I have to offer, and how I can serve the great work to be done in community at the University. I show up more and I show up differently, when I am being hosted in conversation. I ask questions and am intentional about setting conditions for people to show up in their own way and engage in important work. I contribute and foster communities of practice that foster relationships, meaningful work, and learning. Every moment is an opportunity to practice the Art of Hosting.

I recently made a big leap. I left my career in information technology as an Associate IT Director position and stepped into a new career in organizational development, serving the broader IT community. My daily work involves designing and facilitating meetings, retreats, workshops, and providing support to individuals and teams that are living in a time of great change. My life has been enriched by what I have learned, by the many opportunities I have had to practice, and by my participation in a wonderful community of Art of Hosting practitioners, both at the University of Minnesota and globally.

Jen Bentrim’s Story

Communication. It is a challenge for many, if not most, IT professionals. Though I pride myself on my ability to translate technical speak into basic English, I have been working on improving my communication effectiveness to provide exceptional customer service. My introduction to the Art of Hosting began in the fall of 2011 while I was participating in the 2011–12 President’s Emerging Leaders Cohort (PEL) at the University of Minnesota. My eyes were opened to new leadership styles and methods. My own preference for engaging people in decision-making and being a participatory leader was validated. It was refreshing to be apart of a leadership cohort that was very open to doing things differently.

Throughout my PEL experience, our small group meetings began and ended using the Circle Process, we captured photos of our visual notes, having learned and worked to enhance our visual facilitation skills, attended consensus workshops with sponsors, and engaged key stakeholders in conversations to ensure that the product we were working to provide would meet a relevant need. After PEL, I participated in a University of Minnesota Art of Hosting training offered by the Center for Integrative Leadership. It was an enriching experience. The opportunity to collaborate with so many people across the University was phenomenal. I truly enjoyed every moment of the three-day training, expanding my awareness of other areas of the University and being provided with tools for hosting others in conversations. I especially appreciated learning about Harvesting and how allowing one’s self time to reflect on meetings is essential. Having tools to affirm some of what I was doing in my work areas already enticed me to want to learn and incorporate more of these methodologies.

Upon completing the Art of Hosting training, I incorporated some of the tools and techniques into my day-to-day existence. I began to host myself so I could be more present—blocking out distractions when staff or clients stop in to see me in my office and contributing more during meetings. I have found that I am more focused and I have made a concentrated effort to incorporate Appreciative Inquiry into conversations. Instead of just listening to my staff talk about interpersonal issues that they were having with colleagues or finding a solution to a complex system, I began to ask questions—to find out whether there were experiences in the past where communications were better or where they had run into any similar systems issue—helping them more readily focus on positive outcomes.

Meanwhile, there has been a great increase in efforts to engage IT staff in conversations in efforts to build community and to advance IT objectives. Myself and others within the IT community have facilitated conversations mostly using portions of the Proaction Café methodology. There is greater attention to harvesting the ideas that have been generated to move us forward toward our next steps. World Café and Open Space Technology have also been used with larger groups. Specifically, an IT@UMN event designed with Open Space Technology principles attracted more than 600 people across two campuses to organize around topics suggested by community members, ranging from videogames to MOOCs (massive open online courses) to server virtualization. It has been inspiring to witness many IT professionals who have been learning Art of Hosting and other participatory methods leading and participating in meetings differently. Little by little, we all have begun to “host” more meetings, rather than “run” meetings. The way IT staff are communicating with each other is changing. We seem to be connecting with each other rather than just talking at each other. We are engaging in respectful conversations, actively making an effort to hear each other and listen rather than make assumptions.

This journey of discovery has been interesting. I have been given new tools for communicating with people and yet I have also found that I was practicing some aspects of Art of Hosting all along. Knowing the terminology and techniques has helped me be more cognizant of how I engage with and listen to others. I am reminded that my perceptions are only one of many. Bringing these methods for engagement into the IT Communities of Practice, being more present in conversations that I participate in and more intentional in the conversations that I host, has been very fulfilling. I believe that the overarching theme of the Art of Hosting is respectful communication. It is a mindset with terminology and methodology that allows a respectful space for people to share ideas freely without fear and more easily move a shared vision forward to a common end. I am still new to it and am looking forward to more opportunities to practice what I am learning from the group of wonderful people who make up this community.


Dozens of IT professionals at the University of Minnesota have participated in Art of Hosting trainings and through various engagements, and hundreds have experienced being hosted in meaningful conversations. During a time of significant, fast-paced change with external pressures to be more efficient, it has also been a time of coming together for the IT community at the University. We are fostering a culture where IT professionals feel connected to something bigger and feel empowered to contribute to the co-creation of a shared future. Individuals like us are stepping up with courage and creativity to host meaningful conversations. Like a raindrop upon the ocean, we have created a little ripple of change that is moving across our IT community and into other communities within our institution. For us, our journeys have only just begun. Each day brings opportunities to practice hosting ourselves, sharing ideas, creating space for authentic engagement, and creating a community that co-creates solutions to complex issues facing our institution.