Don’t be the piñata: 5 lessons learned as a workgroup facilitator

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I recently attended a child’s birthday party in a beautiful city park, and it involved a piñata.

After joking with another parent about why we love this tradition — where kids beat their cartoon heroes with a stick until candy falls out — I focused my attention on Birthday Dad, who was managing the festivities.

I noticed how he was able to get this group of 15ish kids — most around the age of 8 and all sugared-up with birthday cake — to follow some basic rules, the most important being: Stay behind this stick I’m holding until it’s your turn

This was a critical maneuver, as the kids mobbed the ground under the piñata any time candy went flying. He ensured every child got a swing, asking them to raise their hands each round. 

Birthday Dad was cheerful, crystal clear, and fair. 

Most importantly: There were no injuries, and everyone was able to get some treats.

I congratulated both parents, as they had gracefully — almost effortlessly — controlled pure chaos without feeling autocratic.

“Yes, he was once a camp counselor,” laughed Birthday Mom, as she made sure my daughter’s goodie bag was full.

broken pinata
Image by Alexander Kliem from Pixabay

I share this story partly because I was so overjoyed to cautiously mingle with humans again. But mostly because I continue to learn what it means to be an effective leader and facilitator, and this piñata game — which lasted all of 15 minutes — was an excellent example of those skills in action.

I have to be honest: Two years ago, when I first volunteered to facilitate the Campus Engagement Workgroup, I felt like that piñata. I remember my nerves during our early meetings — all butterflies and sweaty palms. And don’t get me wrong — I’ve led various projects and meetings over the course of my career. But I’m much more comfortable expressing myself through blog plosts like this one. I didn’t want to make any embarrassing belly-flops, especially in front of colleagues I didn’t know very well.

Two years and a pandemic later, I’m feeling exhausted … but really good about what our group has accomplished. In Fall 2020, the Engagement team morphed into the Strategic Planning: Communication Workgroup, and we are wrapping up our substantial deliverables now. I feel so fortunate to work with all of our team members, past and present.

I am by no means an expert on workgroup facilitation, but I do want to share what seemed to work well for our teams — and to help nudge anyone who might be on the fence about facilitating a group next year. Here are my five lessons learned along the journey:

1. Focus on building relationships first.

Approach these meetings as opportunities to get to know your colleagues better, as the relationships you build will outlast the workgroup. Why is this so important? I will continue to link back to my blog post about creating a “relationship-rich education” — my theme of 2021.

So how do you focus on relationships? Spend a good chunk of your first meeting on introductions. Ask fun, icebreaker questions, like the one I posed to our communication team: “What song best captures Virginia Western’s future?” Try to draw everyone into the conversation. Consider breaking up into smaller teams to accomplish your goals.

During one of our first engagement workgroup meetings — long before COVID — I asked about our favorite candies, and brought most of those treats to the meetings that followed. I wanted everyone to feel welcome and engaged, kind of like a gracious party host. If this role excites you, then I highly recommend reading “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters” by Priya Parker.

2. Create meeting agendas.

I recently watched a very helpful TEDx talk, where Dr. Madeleine de Hauke provided a strategy to COPE with “meeting madness.” The first “C” of her COPE acronym stands for “Captain.” She explains: “Every ship needs a captain to get safely to its destination on time, and meeting science tells us that the meeting leader makes or breaks the meeting.” As workgroup facilitator, YOU are the captain of the ship! Or … combining the role of captain and party host, you could think of yourself as a hospitable Cruise Director, aka Captain Party (which is an actual store in Roanoke).

At the very beginning of the fall semester, prepare your ship: Take the time to really understand your workgroup’s mission and design some structure, like sending Outlook calendar invitations for your meetings. One of the best ways to get your team to the desired destination is by creating meeting agendas, which I usually send out on Mondays — at least a day in advance. And because I am very corny, I created an agenda template that looked like a quest map — because we were on a year-long quest.

The process of creating an agenda will help you think through your purpose and desired outcomes ahead of time, which will help make the most of everyone’s time. Which reminds me of this tip from “The Making of a Manager”: The larger the meeting, the more important the preparation. Author Julie Zhuo reminds us of the actual hourly cost of a meeting. Then multiply that by how many people are involved. Spend our time wisely!

3. Be clear about your goals, and keep repeating them.

I believe our communication workgroup was successful because we had a very clear mission and expected deliverables, which I put at the top of every meeting agenda. I like to call this “radical focus” — and your job as workgroup facilitator is to keep the group focused on ROLES and GOALS (an unforgettable phrase I learned from “Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager.”)  We had to stay flexible as we powered through our quest, as two of our workgroup members left the college during the year, but one teammate remarked this month: “We set a plan, stuck to it, and didn’t get distracted.”

4. Do more, meet less.

Our workgroup’s mission was clear: We were asked to gather internal perspectives for the strategic planning process using three suggested questions. The “how” was up to us as a group. We could not do this by meeting by ourselves, so our team made a decision early on: We would use our designated workgroup hours to conduct Zoom interviews at our convenience.

During our first meeting in September, we paired up into “dynamic duos,” decided on a first goal (interview all the VPs), and then each duo worked out how to interview their assigned VP before our first deadline, which was about a month later. Our workgroup huddled again on that date, reflected on our progress, and set our next deadline. Month by month, we made baby steps toward the big goal.

All of us have been in meetings where we feel like we talk in circles … where we’re not getting much traction. Using our allotted workgroup hours for DOING felt much more satisfying. As facilitator, I used the official workgroup schedule (provided by Institutional Effectiveness) to help map our periodic “check points,” which kept us on track.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

I’ve written before about movie directors — and how their main job is to constantly communicate and collaborate to complete their projects. Communication is your primary role as facilitator, and you can do this through (1) Regular Outlook calendar invitations (2) Meeting agendas and (3) Email updates between meetings. 

This can be challenging, I know — I never felt like I was communicating enough. But a progress chart can help. The seasoned movie director who wrote “The Director’s Journey: The Creative Collaboration Between Directors, Writers & Actors,” provided an example of the chart he shared with his entire movie crew every week, and I will do the same. Here is the “status chart” I included in every workgroup meeting agenda and in emails throughout the year, which noted who was doing what and by when (ROLES and GOALS). 

Dynamic DuosComplete before April 30Interview notes received?
Joe and Sandy W.
Darla and Sandy S.
Annemarie & Bryan
Lindsey & Stephanie
Stephanie & Kathy

Sharing lessons learned is another, broader form of communication — so try to find some time to share your updates with the whole college, through Bulletin posts, in-service sessions, short videos, or some other creative way. We should brag more! 🙂 

As I said before, I’m still learning. You don’t have to be in a formal management role to be a leader — just think about Birthday Dad managing that piñata.

Same goes for facilitating effective meetings. This is a practice, like sports or writing or yoga. We will make mistakes, and it will be OK, because we’re all students. 

I have this idea about bringing some professional development to campus next year — maybe our governance/workgroup facilitators could act as a cohort, getting some coaching from an expert facilitator as we proceed through the year. So we would learn by doing — but also take the time to reflect on best practices. I would love to see our facilitation skills radiate throughout the college, and into the community.

And I would love to hear your ideas, including any lessons learned from your previous workgroups, committees, task forces, or teams. My inbox is always open for humble-brags:

On our grant radar

*Free* professional learning opportunities

  • The Future Trends Forum: Discussions about the future of education and technology with writer/futurist Bryan Alexander. April 22: How can we best reform teaching and learning? Should we rethink grading and student autonomy? with author Alfie Kohn. April 29: MIT professor Justin Reich will discuss his new book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education. May 27: How can we enhance the academic opportunities for Black students? with Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. More upcoming programs. Video recordings available on YouTube.
  • Innovations in Pedagogy Summit: Fostering Curiosity, Wonder, and Creativity for All Students. A virtual event presented by UVa’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Educators have the opportunity to both create and foster learning environments where students’ curiosity, wonder, and creativity can flourish. But what does this look like in and out of the classroom, in person and virtually, in small courses and large — and how do we ensure we are creating spaces where all students thrive? May 12-13, noon to 4 p.m. each day. Free and open to the public. Registration required.
  • NSF Spring 2021 Virtual Grant Conference. Designed to give new faculty, researchers, and administrators key insights into a wide range of current issues at NSF. Program officers will be providing up-to-date information about specific funding opportunities and answering attendee questions. June 7-11. Registration is free and opens at noon May 5.
  • The #RealCollege Virtual Journey, sponsored by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. A series of online workshops and engaging activities led by experts and delivered free of charge. Upcoming topics include a conversation with “Pregnant Girl” author Nicole Lynn Lewis on May 12, and “Campus-Based Supports for Students with Familial Responsibilities” on May 19. Register here.
  • Bookmark the VCCS professional development website

Funding opportunities

  • NSF: Advancing Innovation and Impact in Undergraduate STEM Education at Two-year Institutions of Higher Education. NSF encourages bold, potentially transformative projects that address immediate challenges facing STEM education at two-year colleges and/or anticipate new structures and functions of the STEM learning and teaching enterprise. It also seeks to support systemic approaches to advance inclusive and equitable STEM education practices. (due May 10)
  • NEH: Humanities Initiatives at Community Colleges. An opportunity to create curriculum, community partnerships, and faculty development with up to $150,000. (due May 20)
  • NSF: Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. Provides funding to provide scholarships, stipends, and programmatic support to recruit and prepare STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 teachers, especially in high-need school districts. Community colleges strongly encouraged to apply; however, it requires collaboration with K-12 and co-leadership with 4-year school. (due Aug. 31)

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About Stephanie

Stephanie SeagleStephanie Ogilvie Seagle has served as Grant Specialist at Virginia Western since 2016, but she prefers her honorary title: “Chief Joy Officer.” Stephanie spent most of her career at The Roanoke Times, a daily newspaper, where she served in various news and features roles including “Shoptimist” shopping columnist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies at George Mason University and a master’s of arts in liberal studies at Hollins University. Stephanie is a mom to one human daughter and multiple chihuahuas … and is obsessed with reading nonfiction, Halloween, and crafting glow necklaces inspired by the Mill Mountain Star. Glow Roanoke!