Five Lessons Learned From The Junto Retreat

Many people familiar with The Junto Institute know that its namesake was the group that Benjamin Franklin formed in the 1700s. Others know that the word junto means "together" in Spanish. Because that meaning so aptly fits who we are, what we do, and how we do it, we decided to adopt it as well.

Last weekend, we held TOGETHER2015, the inaugural retreat for Junto alumni, mentors, and instructors. Over two days at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, our participants got their fingers dirty by doing tactical work on their businesses, hurt their brains by learning innovative approaches to solving problems and making decisions, and reached new depths in conversations and relationships. Invigorating walks in the snowy woods and bald eagle watching were the icing on the cake.

There were many lessons I learned from the retreat as an organizer, participant, observer, and presenter. Here are five that stand out.

1. Our conception of a problem is *always* wrong. That's a quote from Andrew Benedict-Nelson of GreenHouse, who was joined by one of his co-founders, Jeff Leitner, to take us on a mind-bending journey. GreenHouse brings highly ambitious ideas to life to solve problems for organizations like NASA and the U.S. State Department. They introduced their model for problem-solving, which incorporates eight "universal attributes": scale, actors, limits, norms, configuration, parthood, history, and future.

By looking at a problem through each of these lenses and then also by removing or changing the view - for instance, thinking of people and organizations who aren't the primary stakeholders, or removing conditions that we believe must be met by a solution - the problem takes on a completely different identity.

We learned this by doing: Andrew and Jeff divided our participants into three groups to work on an actual problem that they have helped solve. While we only had time to dive into two of the eight attributes, the process made everyone a believer. Now we're challenged to put that process into practice anytime we face a compelling problem of our own.

2. Building a culture of learning requires a system. Another session was led byMarty Rosenheck of Cognitive Advisors, which enables organizations to track experiential and informal learning through its technology platform. He introduced their Continuous Learning Process, a system that leaders can use to build a culture of learning.

It begins with concrete experience, the "doing" of our jobs. That leads to reflective observation, when we articulate and share what we did and how. This leads to abstract conceptualization, in other words, the meaning of our work. And finally, this leads to active experimentation, when we decide what to change the next time we do the work. The more we follow this "do-reflect-plan" cycle in our organizations, the more heightened the learning occurs for those involved.

As an educator who also invests time, money, and energy for my own continuous learning, I sometimes take for granted that everyone does it. But Marty's talk opened my eyes that not only do many organization fail at building a culture of learning, those that attempt it need to have a system for doing so.

3. Our decisions are deeply affected by our mental and emotional state. Mark Hattas, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Rookha, a new coaching organization, took the participants to new depths in his session.

Using a blend of science and shared personal experiences, Mark helped the retreat participants understand the difference between healthy stress and unhealthy stress, and how each can have a dramatic impact on decisions we make every day, both large and small. Whether it's noticing one's breath, using proven techniques to reduce anxiety, or actually canceling a goal one has set, Mark demonstrated that making better decisions is more than just having the right information.

This fit perfectly with The Junto Institute's focus on building emotional intelligence, part of which involves the ability to become highly self-aware. The major takeaway from Mark's session for me was the need to be continuously in touch with my mental and emotional state so that when I'm faced with the need to make a decision, I'm in an optimal position to do so.

4. Entrepreneurs do enjoy sweating the small stuff. For the first time, I led a Junto session, which was a ton of fun. I'm involved in every aspect of our nine-month program, but I've never been an instructor or mentor - I leave that to the ridiculously experienced CEOs, entrepreneurs, and executives who make up ourTribe. The session I led was on creating 30, 90 & 180-day operating plans, during which the participants broke down their vision and 2015 goals into specific tasks, activities, and milestones.

This was the first time I did such a session for companies of the size of the Junto ones; in the past, I've done these workshops for pure startups and corporate managers. As a result, I didn't know what to expect. After all, entrepreneurs are big-picture thinkers, visionaries, and strategists. I didn't know if our participants would get bored by the details of breaking down their vision and annual goals into 30-day chunks, or annoyed by the minutiae that the process entails.

Fortunately, their feedback was positive and gave me the confidence to do this session again. Now, let's hope they just follow through on what they learned and did in the session. ;-)

5. A company can only grow as the CEO grows. That was a line from Paul Caswell, founder/CEO of Weave the People, a Junto graduate. Along with Paul, the CEOs of the Junto Alumni companies collaborated on a "Junto Wisdom" session, during which they shared lessons learned and improvements made in their companies as a result of the Junto program. Here are some items that were among the dozens shared:

  • Listing the company's purpose and values on its web site.

  • Creating a new hire process, from recruitment through onboarding and training.

  • Integrating Monday "intention" huddles and Friday "reflection" huddles.

  • Creating a weekly internal email newsletter on what is happening across the company's three offices.

  • Having employees write their own performance evaluations and action plans for improvement.

  • Creating a "wish wall": a place for people to not just post ideas and recommendations but also why the wish is relevant to the business and who is responsible for it.

  • Realizing that team, plan, execution and sales are more critical than funding.

This session was somewhat of an experiment. We know that every company derives value from the Junto program and that they implement many new things as a result. However, we weren't sure how valuable the sharing of all this would be. That uncertainty was wiped out towards the end of this session when several of the participants expressed their delight at learning what the others had done: it inspired them to try the same initiatives and reminded them of the program's breadth.

Personally, the list also showed me that the bulk of the lessons and initiatives were related to the most important thing in any company - the people. And for a program that has leadership development as its focus, nothing could be more gratifying.