On Facilitation and Cohorts

People are hard; groups of people are harder. After teaching 22 cohorts of new managers, here’s what I’ve learned…

Cohort 018 last fall. CLASS ACTS, EVERY ONE!

Since launching So Now You’re a Manager in 2017, I’ve taught 300+ new managers how to step into their new identities, how to own power and how to perform foundational skills like listening and building trust. These attendees have been spread across 22 cohorts, exactly half of which were in-person and half over Zoom.

Watching cohorts come together is an endless source of curiosity for me. If the curriculum is (largely) the same, if I am (largely) the same, what makes a group coalesce — or not?

If you facilitate groups in a learning capacity, I’ve gathered some thoughts to normalize and guide your experience. People are hard; groups of people are harder. Talk to me in another two years and I’ll have even smarter insights but here’s what I’ve come to believe so far:

Every group needs a few vibrant personalities.

By the end of hour one, I know who these folks are going to be. They are honest, vulnerable, they can laugh at themselves and they are generous with their listening. They are also present. (That means they’re not secretly working on a second screen…)

I need these attendees to start us off because no one only wants to learn from the teacher-lady. The deep experience that’s possible with the SNYAM curriculum comes from the stories, hilarious experiences and heartbreak that my attendees share with each other. When a few vibrant folks kick things off on day 1, more tentative attendees often step into sharing on days 2 and 3.

Facilitator note: there can be a fine line between empowering and self-trumpeting… for a variety of not-always-bad reasons, some leaders arrive loudly. It’s my job to make sure we stay balanced in our cohort and I take that job pretty seriously. If you’re leading a group with folks who take all the air in the room, make note and contain them.

Same-same sucks.

At some point I toyed with theming cohorts, like “all eng managers” or “all design leaders” or “all customer success folks.” I’ve seen this work in other professional development experiences but, geez, I have not found this to be a winning deal. When everyone has the same job, there’s a lot of “I’ve heard this before” assumptions and people check out. The groups who stick together long after our course is over are filled with a wide range of roles.

This is tricky to screen for and so far I’ve crossed my fingers and let cohorts organically happen based on ticket sales. I have debated making SNYAM an application-based program so we can shape the groups more diversely with regard to roles but so far I haven’t invested time or research towards this evolution.

On a related note, SNYAM’s equity scholarship has assured folks from underrepresented minority groups in every cohort. I’ve appreciated this dimension of our program and think we’re better for it.

Cohort 10 in Austin, TX!

Assigned attendance weakens motivation.

Think about the energetic difference here:

Option A: you have control over your professional development budget and you decide to attend SNYAM because it sounds like a good fit.

Option B: your boss gets you a ticket and tells you to clear your schedule.

Though obviously I appreciate bosses who suggest SNYAM to their employees, attendees are way more motivated and helpful in a group when they, themselves, have opted in. These attendees arrive with contagious enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

On the other hand, I really don’t want you to come with the vibe that you’ve been sent to the Principal’s office. Assigned attendance plays out in the way folks pay attention, the kind of partner they are in small group activities and their waning level of effort. (This is why I almost never do in-house trainings anymore… it’s great money but a real uphill slog to facilitate if no one wants to be there).

There are obvious exceptions. I work hard to turn everyone around and motivate the hell out of them. I do a lot of invisible facilitating during the weeks over Slack to gauge how folks are liking the program and any feedback they’ve got so far. But by and large, this point stands.

Once I taught SNYAM in slippers because it snowed and I had no boots. #WINNING

Not every participant will like it.

Attendees always receive a feedback form after we wrap the cohort. At this point in my career, I don’t read feedback until weeks later, when I’ve gathered a big cup of coffee + cookie and I’m sitting quietly at my computer. Often the feedback is complementary and enthusiastic. Every once in a while though, I get a zinger.

A while back, an attendee wrote something like this: “I thought I was coming to hear an expert speak about management. This wasn’t the case. Instead I heard from other new managers, who didn’t know what they were doing.”

(Hang on, I have to go get a cookie and do some deep breathing. BRB.)

Listen facilitators, sometimes it just doesn’t work. I suppose it could be true that you’re putting bad shit out in the world and barely showing up. But I don’t know many facilitators who stay in business by doing very poor work.

Sometimes it doesn’t work because members of your group are resistant, afraid, stressed, in a pandemic, jealous, ambitious, angry or tired. That’s alright; you can’t get them all. In 300+ attendees, there are luckily only a true handful of times when I’ve felt like an attendee didn’t click. It’s been slightly more often that a whole cohort didn’t click, but, especially in a virtual learning environment, you won’t win them all.

It’s only because of time and experience that I don’t let these losses sink my confidence. Take it from me: sometimes it’s not you. Get a cookie. Shoot me a note and we’ll laugh about it.

One of the most important things we learn in SNYAM is this: management is a creative practice. There is not One Book of Rules to memorize and there sure isn’t a MBA program that will make you a perfect manager. Human beings are changing, interesting, evolving stories. Enjoying management means learning to surf, build a solid core and laugh. A lot.

Facilitating is a creative practice, too. That’s why it’s scary! You create a structure, show up and ride the wave of personalities in the room. I love thawing a room, pouncing on new inside jokes and watching everyone slowly introduce themselves to the group. I am charmed every time.

Holding the room for this kind of evolution is special, special work. Be it via People Operations, Learning & Development, Consulting or even leading teams, you, too, are herding wild cats.

If you’re doing this work in the world, I see you and here’s an earnest thank you. It’s because of people like you that, somehow, despite all odds, we stay connected.

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