The Art of Hosting

copied from the emaillist, early '16:

Hello Hosts,

I am going to host a 2 day retreat of 4 CEOs (all guys) of 2 companies (1
is holding, 1 is subsidiary company). They basically had the question:
³What strategy are we going to adopt?²

I said that we cannot answer this question in the two days, so we agreed
on the following: The goals are to align the CEOs on how they will
proceed in finding a (new?) strategy for the subsidiary company: How will
the company be organised? What kind of products should they strengthen?
Where do they see innovation potential? Also, there are some personal
issues between the guys that they would like to bring to the table.

I have hosted such retreats before, but 4 (alpha) men whom I don¹t know
is new to me :) Also, I feel that I cannot prepare so much and that there
is more need for opening and holding space for them to (re)learn how to
talk to each other. And this is what makes my 'Monkish Me' nervous.

I designed a framework with different options on how the retreat could
go, which is okay for me at the moment.

But I would really appreciate any kind of feedback, suggestions,
questions to ask or experience with that to give me more security in
stepping into this circle.

Thanks a lot and have a wonderful day,


Dear Carina,

That sounds scary, not the cause and the purpose, but the way to proceed.
As preparation is all, I would INSIST to have a one-to one interview, can
be a phone call, with each of them, beforehand. That will create the trust
between you and each of them individually and show you what they really
want and what their needs are.
Once trust is there, the skeleton strategy could even emerge in the time,
two days is a lot. The strategy could then be filled and aligned by the
rest of the company or middle management for ownership and accuracy.
That¹s what I would do.
And for the formats: of course circle probably the most part, but also
dyads and solo time. You will have to sense what the group needs.
And a question: Why did they book/invite you? What do you have you can
offer they need? Once that is clear, the rest is clearer.
And: do you have someone else who can hold this with you?

Wishing you success and self confidence!

Ursula Hillbrand


Hey Ursula,

Thank you for your quick and really helpful response. I had an extensive prep call with all of them and also will meet two of the guys in advance. So that is fine I guess. Also I know they booked me because they are fed up with "classical consultants" and feel they cannot proceed in the "usual way". So they are open for stuff.
The only thing I am concerned about is that none of my company peers will be there -
So, yes I will have to hold space on my own and I think that this is what scares me... And may be part of the reason I posted this mail to get virtual support upfront to get enough strength to do it...



I think it would be very interesting to challenge them about their dreams and their leadership before opening up to the strategy.  The strategy is the HOW of something, but what’s the WHO and WHY?

By the time they reach the top, so many leaders are isolated and feel themselves very alone.  They think about what they have to do, but not who they need to be in order to work in the organisations that would also give them life and energy.  Here are some questions that come to mind:

  • What time is it for our businesses?  Our industry?  Ourselves as leaders?
  • What is the current health of our businesses?
  • What is our biggest dream for the businesses we lead?  What is the most generative future for our organisations?  What might be possible that we are not yet achieving?
  • What is great/amazing/irresistible (whatever works here) leadership to me?  (ask them to tell about a time when they experienced such leadership and have the rest harvest)
  • What kind of leader am I?  (ask them to tell stories that demonstrate their unique quality of leadership and have the rest harvest)
  • What kind of leaders do we need to be in order to manifest the kind of organisation we dream of leading?
  • What will this demand of us?
  • So therefore, what is our vision statement of us as a leadership team? (meaning who they need to be to create their vision, not what they need to do)

And from there

  • What is the flavour or focus of strategy that can lead us to the preferred future?  How are we prepared to invite our teams into creating it?  What invitation are we currently making?  How do we know?

It would be so fun to host a Flow Game for this circle!

And if it were me, I’d be inviting someone like Phil Cass to come in by Skype and have a very intimate conversations about the struggles of senior leadership and how he saw that he needed to work in a different way.  This kind of plain speak from someone who has been there is very important, and gives you more support in your backbone too.

Maybe you also need an eagle team?

Good winds!

Mary Alice


I agree with much of what others have shared so far.

Another aspect to consider: The context of complexity in which these executives are living and working. How does this matter to

what they are aiming to develop in terms of strategy? 

These folks and their companies are functioning in a complex environment.

So, traditional ways of thinking about strategy and goals don't really apply well in this space. (Vision, mission, strategy, goals thought of in a linear kind of way.)

An important questions: What way of leading and what way of approaching strategy is useful in a world of complexity where control and certainty is impossible.

Do you know of Dave Snowden's work? He is quite compelling in this domain of complexity, I think.

I am attaching his HBR article (which he is revising, since he wrote it in 2007). And his consultancy's Cognitive Edge has a great website with a good number of resources.

Simon Sinek's TedTalk, might facilitate their moving into some individual and group reflection:

And, as Mary-Alice suggests - there's the question of "who do they need to be" in leading their organizations in this kind of environment.

Take care,

Julie Engel

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