Category Archives: Kevin E. O’Connor

Your Team-Building Exercises May Not Be Creating a Team

By Kevin E. O’ConnorKevin E O'Connor

Team leaders have a perennial dilemma: how can we educate, engage and develop our group in a substantial way that helps the team become better? “Team-building” is often seen as the fun add-on to a meeting devoted to science, sales figures and quarterly goals. These can include a ropes course, golf outing, a trip to the desert, horseback riding, softball, a cooking school and the like. Were these experiences useful toward the goal? If the goal is fun, distraction or an open afternoon, then these experiences create shared memories and are often a welcome opportunity.

But, the goal is rarely just to have a fun afternoon. Leaders want teams to trust better, to understand at a deeper level, and certainly to communicate with one another in useful ways beyond one afternoon.

Building a team requires three basic elements, and they are the same perpetual needs that all team leaders have: engagement, education, and development…all with a twist.

Engagement…with a twist: Sometimes it’s simple—like a handshake—and other times it’s complex—like securing buy-in for a high-dollar project—but engagement always involves obtaining a “yes” from the other person. This agreement begins a cooperative relationship that seeks to align goals, minimize a judgmental response, and keep the momentum going (even during the naturally-tough times that are bound to come).

The commitment of marriage, for example, is symbolized by an engagement ring. In business, commitment is demonstrated with a signed letter or contract. In both instances, engagement is an agreement that both parties will move forward and seek more specific agreements. When people are engaged (in both the marital and business context), there is an interior feeling of security that assures each person that they will work together.

This agreement cannot be secured in one event. Just as hospitals have a heart monitor on every patient, team leaders must constantly monitor the tell-tale signs of stress, unrest and frustration. This involves listening to what the team says and what they don’t say, and, maybe, what they cannot say.

Here is the twist: listening closely to both the words and the feelings of your team members allows you, as the leader, and those who work for you to feel your engagement. Paraphrasing and empathy are the perennial, highly reliable skills that will help you steer clear of becoming judgmental. When you are in tune with your team members’ unique “heartbeats” of engagement, you will know when somebody becomes an outlier. Only then can you use your other skills to bring them back aboard.

Education…with a twist: Too many meetings are based on lectures. This repetitive structure might have worked for multiplication tables in primary school, but no longer. When teaching adults, presenters actually waste valuable educative time thinking that dumping data, spreadsheets, bullet points and manuals onto people will somehow enlighten them.

The word “education” comes from the Latin word “educare,” which means “to lead out” or “draw forth from.” Socrates knew this when he asked questions in order to “draw forth from” his students. While this might make sense on paper, it is a more significant shift in how we can really envision meetings. We still, by and large, run our meetings with a speaker or presenter who often says, “Is it OK if I take questions later?” These people will then read their PowerPoint aloud, droning on and on, while the audience pre-reads each slide and then waits for the presenter to finish.

Instead of a 60-90 minute lecture, what if…

  • The presenter didn’t see this as “my time,” but saw “our time” as an opportunity for the team to talk with one another about the essence of the issues
  • The team divided into groups of three, brainstormed three or four concerns for the future, and then had the expert facilitator give a 10-12 minute reflection on each of the concerns
  • Simply have a Q&A session
  • The expert asked the audience questions, guiding the team toward answering the question “What do we need to do to prepare for the future we want to make?”

Here is the twist: when we ignore that education is really about drawing forth from our collective experience, we waste incredible resources already present in our teams. Witnessing this collective knowledge is a strong formative element for a team. This is often what scientists experience working on a project during a “think tank” session, or what a Broadway cast feels on opening night.

Development…with a twist: This is the most important, yet most often ignored, element when building a team. In an effort to move forward quickly, many leaders start sharing the “takeaways” from the experience before the team has caught their breath. When team leaders say, “I hope that you realized this horseback riding taught us to better listen to one another just as we did with our horses,” they risk the team saying, “What? I thought we just learned there’s some beautiful scenery here!” Instead, team leaders should consider asking:

  • What did you notice when you tried to steer your horse too hard?
  • What did you learn about your colleagues’ lives during the ride?
  • For those who have never been horseback riding, what skills did you learn?
  • Aren’t those skills some of the same that we need in our office?

Here is the twist: just as we rely on crockpots to slowly heat and mold a meal’s flavors together, we must allow the individuals to apply the lessons for themselves.

Team-building…with a twist: So, it is OK to take the team golfing, horseback riding or out for drinks, but don’t think that activity alone will build the team any more than a reception with fine wine and tasty cheese will foster interesting conversation at dinner.

Reconsider how you educate, and how you think about education, because everyone will learn more when the collective team experience is drawn forth. Finally, understand that the act of looking back on what the team learned and experienced together is a vital part of becoming a team…and building one.

Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (, is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at

Avoid Canned Speeches: Grow Facilitation Organically

By Kevin E. O’ConnorKevin E O'Connor

Farmers and chefs know that we love to eat foods described as “organic,” because we know it means natural, pure and without pesticides. Most people have never seen advertisements for an “organic meeting” or one featuring an “artificial speaker,” yet meeting attendees will tell you that interactive games feel “stale,” group discussion questions seem “generic,” or many speakers give a “canned” speech. When done well, an audience views facilitation—defined as, “the act of productively making collaboration easier for an audience”—as a normal, important conversation. When you fearlessly facilitate, the audience will know that they are in good hands.

It’s easier and less expensive to bring organic content to your next meeting than you might think. Just like organic foods, organic facilitation is less known, healthier in the long run and takes time to perfect.

1. Organic facilitation is less well-known. Most organically grown food is less well-known than other brands; often it isn’t branded at all. The same holds for the activities designed for great facilitation. While “off-the-shelf” games, case studies and role-plays can certainly be used to help people learn and apply concepts, use caution. Today’s audiences quickly figure out when they are being manipulated to employ a strategy or system. When you develop customized discussion topics, surprise interventions and audience involvement from scratch, you stand a better chance of engaging people. You also bring the wonderful element of surprise to them.

Presenters today often confuse noise, repetition and ego for useful, engaging content. Traditional speakers say, “Audiences won’t want to participate,” “Facilitation is too hard!” or “All they want to do is listen.” The experienced speaker, though, knows that it’s nearly impossible to connect with a group of seated people in a windowless room by talking at them for several hours and then expecting them to learn!

2. Organic facilitation is healthier in the long run. Fewer pesticides and carefully-supervised growing conditions make organic foods healthier. The common tomato is a clear example; bright red full tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden carry more nutrients than the pinkish, waxy imports grown in a commercial greenhouse. When involvement—led by a skilled facilitator with a watchful eye—occurs naturally, conversation becomes more natural, productive and fun.

At your next meeting, consider being the skilled farmer who tends to the participants, watches them closely, and arranges them in specific ways. For a meeting with a small group, arrange attendees in a circle with no tables (yes, this is possible!) and begin the discussion at the point of their pain (e.g. current stressors, challenges, or number-one priorities).

3. Organic facilitation takes time to perfect. Fearless facilitators see perfection as the appearance of imperfection. When a speaker is too polished or perfect, audiences see the presenter as unapproachably distant. Furthermore, because traditional training emphasizes “giving” over “probing,” these sessions omit the audience’s innate brilliance, experiences and contributions. There are many ways to enhance and perfect the flow of organic discussion.

Solicit “burning questions” (i.e. what people most want to learn after their time with you). Because outcomes are vital for the meeting planner and participants, a good set of burning questions, gathered at the start of the meeting, will create an informal agenda. Meet, address, or answer those questions and you will have one happy audience! Form small groups to discuss or solve a problem and let them talk to one another. Toward the end of your allotted time, pull out one question at a time and ask, “What did we say about this one?” Don’t answer it yourself, but have them do so. Write what they say on a flip chart, and have them explain it to one another. They know more about how it hit them than you do, and it is a great way for you to discover what outcomes they really received. Ask how they will apply the skills that they just learned tomorrow, at their next team meeting and in one year.

Give your content in targeted chunks or “lecturettes” of no more than 8-12 minutes before you ask the audience to talk again with one another. If you believe that you need to talk for 45-60 minutes, know that you have lost them by the 13th minute! They may appear to be paying attention, but they are certainly thinking elsewhere.

Revise your internal mindset: Move your audiences in a direction that will engage their astute listening and creative thinking on the spot. It will not always come easily; it takes time and many imperfect attempts to discover the timing and appropriateness of the involvement.

Acknowledge what few professionals allow themselves: it is okay, and often preferred, to be imperfect and to go with the flow. Know that your audience is there for the experience together and not just for the experience with you.

When you take the stage, call the meeting to order or begin your presentation, remember that engagement is always more important than the notes that the audience takes. At so many conferences, people fill legal pads with ideas, yet rarely apply them to their everyday work. When you facilitate a dialogue that produces engagement, learning and partnership, you build connections and develop influence and you help them begin to implement which is the goal of the meeting anyway!

Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (, is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at

Keys to Peer Leadership: An Unlikely Source

By Kevin E. O’ConnorKevin E O'Connor

As a small business CEO observed a window washer at the Atlanta airport one day, she asked what she thought to be a straightforward question, “What’s the secret to window washing?”

“No secret, ma’am,” the window cleaner said as he continued working. “I just focus on keeping on with my tools and my experience. I keep on going.”

The master continued working with repeated, slick motions, his tool remaining fixed to the glass, and leaving not one smudge. Then, true to his word, he kept on going.

When the CEO asked what was in the blue water, the cleaning professional smiled and said, “I can’t tell you that! If you knew that, you could do my job!” Then, before attacking another pane, he said, “It is very special, though.”

When a professional window cleaner uses just the right combination of resources—minimal tools; years of experience; a flowing, non-stop motion; and a secret concoction of suds—his or her work is efficient, engaging, and looks natural—perhaps easy—to those who observe.

Unlike the window washer, many team leaders don’t find their work to be efficient, easy or appear natural. These leaders often do not have degrees in leadership; they are promoted because they are very good at their jobs. Their former colleagues and friends now report to these “peer leaders.”

There is a skill to leading your former peers without encountering resistance, resentment and regret. When your toolbox contains a simple collection of thinking, communicating, and acting that is coherent, ordered and intentional, your leadership appears as if it is natural. When you’re charged with leading a team of your peers or former peers, the right combination of resources makes all the difference. The following techniques should be at the core of every peer leader’s toolbox.

Minimal tools keep you focused: The most effective leader uses only one tool: his or her personality. One great peer leader uses his thirst for understanding and information. When a member of his team enters his office, he asks that person to be the teacher while he plays the role of student.

“Any questions I ask are merely a student asking,” he explains. “Then, I never use the words ‘I’ or ‘you’…I only use the words ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I want them walking out of my office feeling better than when they walked in.”

By using the mindset of education, the pressure is removed from his “teacher” so that no question is off limits. This philosophy sets the tone for education and teamwork. If, instead, he were to use his intellectual curiosity to demonstrate that only he knew the correct answer, he could face resentment. The best peer leaders learn to harness their personality to inspire trust and teamwork.

Experience gives you credibility: Just as window washers have well-exercised wrists, your team wants to see that you still need and relate to them.

While your team is working to create the next product, researching relevant case law, or driving across town at a moment’s notice to meet with a customer, they want to know that you’re there with them. Sometimes that means that they want your hands working alongside theirs, and sometimes it just means that they want to know that you understand their daily routines, frustrations and joys. Regardless of which approach your team members prefer, they want you to guide them in the next, and right direction.

Your team will remember that you were there with them when you encourage. Today’s culture makes it easy for bosses to find faults, but you will have much greater influence when you frequently ask this question of your team members: “You know what I liked about what you did (or said)?” Be relentless as you look to find the ways that their input, skills and contributions have benefited the entire team. This is always of interest to the receiver; no one has ever responded, “No, I don’t want to know what you liked!”

A flowing, non-stop motion is very intentional: There are few things more beautiful than a leader who knows how and when to listen and where and when to speak; the times to agree and those to dissent; when to stay with the group and those other times when to go out on a limb. Just as the window washer intentionally follows a specific pattern, the successful leader never allows these moments to be chance events. Instead, they are always intentional. While employees sometimes want to be inquisitive, your peers want to be connected with you. With intimacy comes great trust and loyalty.

A consistent engagement with your team on a personal level (within the business environment) turns your role from that of a boss to one of a fearless leader, mentor, and teacher. This intimacy comes when you go beyond their favorite sports team to learn about their childhood passions, when you understand their family’s immigration experience deeply affected their outlook on international business, and that their self-directed nature comes from their Eagle Scout training. To the inexperienced leader, these characteristics are mere factoids. The best peer leaders know that an understanding of these experiences and traits lead to unbreakable loyalty, an impassioned work-ethic and—most importantly to the company’s owners—higher profits.

Your secret formula keeps you ever useful: Famous chefs sometimes share their secret recipes, for they know what many of us have learned after carefully following the same recipe three times: there are just some techniques that can’t be explained with words. Food rarely tastes the same way twice and rarely as good as it does in your favorite restaurant!

The window washer humorously refused to share the ingredients in his bucket for fear of being replaced. The best peer leaders are afraid that their talents and “secret concoction” may go unused, so they focus on how their team is furthering the company’s mission. When leading a group of your peers, you must have a firm hold on the secret formula that lies within you. Ask your team members what they believe to be your “secret sauce,” and be ready to listen without judging their responses. You may find that your team wants you to talk more at meetings, even though you might think you talk too much. Your team may want you to consult them but ultimately make a firm decision, while you may lead by consensus for you fear making decisions alone. When your team tells you what they want, find a way to do what they have asked!

Dolly Parton said, “Figure out who you are and then do it on purpose.” All of what you do as a leader must be naturally intentional, obviously purposeful, yet elegantly skillful.

Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (, is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at

Memorable Presentations Require You To THINK

By Kevin E. O’ConnorKevin E O'Connor

Too many presenters say things like:

  • “I know you can’t read this but…”

  • “This is pretty dull stuff so I’ll try to get through it quickly.”

  • “You may be bored by my presentation today but it is really important.”

  • “Let me tell you a funny joke.”

  • “I know you are out there; I can hear you breathing!”

  • “I just love my blue laser pointer!”

  • “Whew, that wasn’t so bad was it?”

These (and more) are indicators of two things: the presenter is a rank amateur, and the audience has once again been noble enough not to string them up by their thumbs!

In reality, these presenters are not amateurs in their field. They are accomplished professionals who know their stuff but not how to convey it. The audience is eager, open and wants this presentation to succeed. Our corporate culture, however, has intimidated audiences into being polite Labrador Retrievers—ever loyal, even-keeled and placid. Presenting technical, complicated material need not be a chore when you THINK!

Transform how you think about your role: Your first job is to be a memory-maker, so don’t be the supplier of solely facts and data. You are there to present and inform, but more importantly, you are there to create a learning environment. A community of learners is there to unite around your message and make something of it. The last time you went to a comedy club, despite having a great time, you likely had trouble retelling the stories and jokes the next day for those who were not there. That is because you had a community formed around not only the presentation and digestion of material, but you were there to be entertained. That the last meeting you attended left you unable to explain what you learned does not mean you had a positive community experience!

Presentations should focus on digesting content into directly-applicable skills going forward. Because there is no subject that cannot be presented without interest and enthusiasm, you can transform your mindset from that of a lecturer to that more like a preacher, counselor and facilitator.

Hunt for the essence of your content: When you simplify, you stand a greater chance of being an educator supreme. While coaching a sales rep from a Fortune 500 company, a consultant was told the rep feared “dumbing things down” for his audience would reduce his credibility. The consultant encouraged the rep to speak with elegant simplicity, as that would engage customers in thinking of the meeting as a conversation, allowing this sales rep to directly respond to the client’s most pressing questions. Imagine the difference that this rep saw when he began the conversation by sharing four quotes from consumers who had used their product, explaining the results they had experienced. Outcomes, after all, are the essence of why anyone tries new products.

Investigate the expertise present among your audience: Facilitation does not mean “boring group work,” for—when done effectively—it permits the attendees to meet and learn from one another. When you’re given a timeframe in which to present, perhaps one hour, plan to speak for only a third to half of the time. This allows for true interaction.

Net results make you valuable: Pragmatism must be a goal, so think about what the audience will do with the material. Always ask yourself this question, “What do I want them to think, feel, and do as a result of this presentation?” It may help you to send an advance e-mail to all the participants at your next meeting, asking the group about their work, how they are struggling now, and what they hope to learn during your time with them. This will give you a clear sense of direction that meets the audience where they are psychologically, and where they want to be professionally. Even if your next presentation is to your own team (a group that you may believe that you understand well), send the e-mail. Net results are what your boss and clients care about, because they demonstrate the value of attendance.

Know the stories and examples that make your presentation memorable: Watch the presenters at your next meeting just minutes before they start. Too many of them are likely fiddling with their slides. There comes a time, however, where professional presenters stow away their slides and commit pen to paper, noting what stories and examples they will use to accompany each visual. This nuanced change in focus will have a dramatic change on how the audience perceives the speaker. When you personify the content with real-life stories, your audience sees you as a peer – not as a lecturer. While PowerPoint can be a great tool for visually representing data, some speakers rely too heavily on it. To force yourself to re-focus your attention on your message and away from your slides, use a flip chart for your next presentation. As you draw and write, you will focus on what the audience needs to know. Remember, some of the most intimate connections with the audience can be made with no visual aid. Your audience will remember the stories; they’ll forget about the slides.

THINK About the Feedback: To evaluate your progress toward becoming a masterful facilitator, just go to the restroom after your presentation. That’s where people will be discussing what intrigued them, whether they were bored, and whom they met during their time with you. Beware: you may only hear positive feedback from those who don’t want to hurt your feelings, but note the different reasons your participants enjoyed your presentation. “Great talk!” and “I didn’t before understand how to give a good technical presentation that focuses on stories over data” are worlds apart!

When your technical presentation is compelling, you will literally have no competition.

Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (, is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at