I was privileged to serve as facilitator of a tremendously productive and thoroughly enjoyable “Strategic Work Session” that the Bristol, Virginia City Council and Manager held on January 28 and 29. The Bristol leadership team acted on one of the key leadership principles in my and Virginia Jacko’s book The Blind Visionary – “Reach Out Aggressively” – by inviting a number of key community stakeholder representatives to participate in this two-day retreat. Active stakeholder participants included, for example, Dr. Clorisa Phillips, president of Virginia Intermont College, Dr. Mark Lineburg, superintendent of the Bristol, Virginia school district, Margaret Feierabend, mayor of the neighboring City of Bristol, Tennessee, and Lisa Meadows, president & CEO of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, among others.
What did the Bristol, VA leadership team hope to accomplish by reaching out so aggressively and opening their very important planning session to so many “outsiders”? For one thing, they realized after giving the matter some serious thought that spicing up the “strategic stew” would make for the generation of richer strategic planning content. As it turned out, the process of brainstorming the city government’s values and vision for the future and identifying and analyzing strategic issues facing the city benefitted tremendously from the diverse knowledge, expertise, experience, and community contacts that these stakeholder representatives brought to the table. The leadership team also recognized that their Strategic Work Session could be an occasion for making friends and laying the foundation for future collaboration in dealing with strategic issues. There’s no question that by the end of the session on January 29, the stakeholder representatives were much more knowledgeable about issues facing the City of Bristol, VA, and City leaders had become much better acquainted with their outside guests. They well knew that the old saw about familiarity breeding contempt didn’t apply in this case. Indeed, they recognized that the opposite was true: closer acquaintance builds the foundation for future partnerships.
Some of you reading this might think the Bristol, VA leadership team was taking a serious risk by opening up their two-day planning session to outside stakeholders. What if this very important session came unraveled in front of key stakeholders, actually damaging the City’s image in the process? And what if some very effective stakeholder advocates were able to convince participants to make decisions that subsequently turned out to be bad for the City? These were valid concerns, but we reduced the risk to virtually zero by: (1) designing the work session structure and agenda so carefully that it couldn’t easily far apart; (2) ensuring strong facilitation for the two days; and (3) providing that no formal consensus would be reached or formal decisions made during the two days together. Decision-making was the City Council’s prerogative – subsequent to January 29 – drawing on input from the session.
Reaching out aggressively served the City of Bristol, VA leadership team well. What has your experience been?