6 ideas for designing a successful leadership seminar

The arts and cultural institutions are experiencing challenging times trying to ensure high quality and innovate their content and offerings while public funding is decreasing year by year. The museums, theatres, creative schools and other public cultural organizations in Denmark have to look for new collaborations and sources of inspiration and income to prosper. 

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For the second time, the Stagis team and I have had the pleasure of designing, planning and facilitating the annual 24-hour leadership seminar for the Danish arts- and culture institutions in collaboration with a steering committee appointed by the Danish Cultural Ministry. The cultural institutions have been meeting once a year for 15 consecutive years to get inspiration, share ideas and get the latest thoughts from the Danish Cultural Minister and the Head of Department. This year the theme circled “Co-creation and loss of control” – two things that may at times be interconnected. 

Create experiences rather than talks

To open the discussion about losing control of the type that we usually consider managers to have, we had displaced the first three hours of the seminar in a collaborative setting, being the social workspace Klub in central Copenhagen, which is a membership space where free agents, consultants, entrepreneurs, and leaders do some of their work, meetings and meet in a different setting. As our 55 culture and art directors were expecting to start a workshop discussing their most significant strategic challenges, we surprised them by giving each institution an unannounced sparring partner. In the door came 22 energetic Klub-members who were donating their time to give advice and discuss current issues with each institution. Not expecting outside advice, the directors and executives seemed to find it both surprising and inspiring. Rather than talking about the shift of leadership direction and control, we demonstrated in a microcosmos the inherent challenges and possibilities of bringing in the users or citizens as co-creators.

Culture and art directors discussing strategic challenges with members of Klub.

Introduced to Klub by founder and serial entrepreneur Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, who was challenging the strains of heritage and proposing to consider formats, technology and a reformulation of purpose, the Danish Cultural Minister, Mette Bock entered to discuss current developments.

Thinking wild with Rane Willerslev

After a change of context from city to countryside (including a collective bus ride), I interviewed the new director of the Danish National Museum, professor and social anthropologist Rane Willerslev who was appointed less than a year ago. He is the author of a book called “Think Wild – Failing is Divine” (Tænk vildt, det er guddommeligt a fejle) and has recently found himself famous in Denmark in a new role as the brilliant and somewhat nutty director of the National Museum in a television documentary series broadcast in the fall. He talked about the mission he is on, trying to renew the experiences and the perceived image of the National Museum. Rane Willerslev has brought all of his personal enthusiasm and energy into this mission and inspires a different perception of a leader of a public institution. He delegates, challenges, changes and walks in front of his mission headstrong. Getting to know a new colleague, hearing his thoughts on transformation in challenging times seems forever relevant.

The illusion of managerial control

Organizational psychologist and professor Jan Molin from Copenhagen Business School is forever dedicated to deliver and provoke new perspectives, viewing the managerial role from several sides to try to broaden the repertoire of possible actions a leader can take. I had asked him to explore and challenge what control is. Do leaders even have the type of control they imagine? And if management and control is basically an illusion, what type of leadership will then make sense in order to best serve the purpose of the organization? I think he succeeded in creating a dialogue about leadership perceptions rather than a lecture – thought provoking, informing and a segment of our 24-hour seminar that is hard to get by without reconsidering the role of the leader.

Vinca Wiedemann, Principal of the National Film School of Denmark, engages in the discussion about leadership perceptions.

Retelling the story through freestyle rap

Sometimes intense discussions and numerous talks lead to information overload and exhaustion more than insight. Halfway through the 24-hour program, we had arranged Danish freestyle rapper Per Vers to join us to retell and reinterpret the topics of the day. As the linguistic equilibrist Per Vers is, he received complex words and phrases from public sector management lingo and turned them into amusing rhymes, leaving everyone in the room laughing their head off.

Danish freestyle rapper Per Vers improvises raps by reading small phrases, that the culture and art directors had written and put into a bowl earlier.

Finding a way of connecting the serious with fun isn’t always easy but highly enriching if everyone can have a laugh about themselves, the issues at hand and the (professional) world that is being dealt with.

Entertainment or leadership effect

Followed by brief 20 minute talks and demonstrations by professor Eva Sørensen from Roskilde University, Merethe Røll Lærke from Red Cross Youth, Niels Peter Fredslund from Ministry of Commerce and Dick van Dijk from Waag Society in the Netherlands, we arrived at a talk by Head of Department Marie Hansen giving her view of the times ahead for Danish arts and culture, which is always interesting for any group of managers in the public sphere. The 27-hour program designed to inspire, provoke and infuse ideas and new meaning to the top management of the cultural institutions had been delivered and executed. But then what?

I think lots of managers have participated in seminars and conferences that were at best entertaining but primarily a waste of time. In the aftermath, the food and the company may have been good but the actual impact disappears in thin air. What signifies actual value is the actions taken by the participants once they arrive in their local leadership context. Will they change anything? Redefine purpose? Kick-off new experiments? Make a call they would otherwise not have made?

Even if parts of a strategy seminar or leadership conference seem to challenge conventions (Can you do that? Will they like it? We didn’t do that last year…), I would always prefer to be involved in a program that set out to bring something new to the table and challenge my perceptions – in its form, content, mission or composition. As we evaluate this year’s leadership seminar in the Danish world of arts and culture, we are setting up a new “Culture Club” as a consequence of our experiment with bringing in “strange citizens” from Klub. We will try to make that a new arena for exchanging ideas and inspiration that can improve Danish culture.

Six pieces of advice on developing your leadership development seminar

Developing and facilitating a day or 24 hours of inspiration for a group of managers isn’t always easy. You want to both bring new knowledge to the table, inspire and provoke – and give your participants the possibility to interact socially. Here are some pieces of advice to consider:

  1. Develop a theme that is both focused and widely applicable – the headline of your seminar or conference must be specific enough to stand out from all the other conferences but must cover several perspectives in order to create value and fit different interests among your audience.
  2. Chose content and a theme that resonates with the audience as well as the outside world – it’s not enough that the participants think it’s important (especially if they are all from the same organization), it has to bring in the perspective of what’s going on in society right now (or in a relevant future scenario that may cause change for your participants).
  3. Don’t over-control content from speakers, but be careful that their field of work, professional focus, and experience as presenter fits into your theme and the needs of your participants. We spent lots of time on research and selected from a long list of speakers to ensure quality (the first idea for a talk isn’t necessarily the right idea) and when you have high-quality speakers you don’t need to control much.
  4. Design your program with different types of content. Different types of interaction and learning is necessary in order to create a dynamic program and to accommodate different learning styles. Find types of content that are different from each other but will also support the desired learning points of your program. Examples of segments could be classic keynote talks, plenary debate, group workshops based on your questions, bringing in other participants, sending off your participants in pairs to discuss, using different spaces and activating different sorts of gamified interaction or demonstrations.
  5. Plan and know your timeline in detail (our run sheets are down to three-minute segments), in order to navigate freely and be able to let things run a bit over time. A good discussion or participant input is more important than keeping time. Make sure you can change the program a bit in case you catch a good flow of discussion – those 15 to 30 minutes may end up being the most valuable of all.
  6. Evaluate what you want to evaluate. According to research on learning, evaluating the learning value of your seminar is not necessarily the same as participants saying it was a pleasant experience. As you can imagine you could have a pleasant experience, but learn nothing – and you may also have gotten some of your most valuable learnings under challenging conditions. In other words, consider the aim of learning (ie. new insights or capabilities) vs. how participants liked the program or place.

If you need more inspiration or a facilitator for your next seminar or workshop, write to Nikolaj Stagis to get more information.

23. May 2018 comment(s)

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