A Magical Meeting Story from Stephen Shedletzky, Head of Brand of Experience at Simon Sinek, Inc.
Welcome to Magical Meetings Stories, a series where I chat with professional facilitators, meeting practitioners, leaders, and CEOs across industries about their meeting culture. We dive deep into a specific magical meeting they’ve run, including their approach to facilitation design, and their tips and tricks for running meetings people thrive in.
Today’s story is with Stephen Shedletzky, Lead Igniter & Head of Brand Experience at Simon Sinek, Inc.–a company that finds, guides and supports leaders who intend to put their purpose and people first, ahead of short-term profit. Feeling stifled on his corporate track, Stephen was struck by founder Simon Sinek’s vision of a more inspired, safe and fulfilled world. He joined Simon’s team in 2011 to co-host the Start With Why podcast and to answer fan email. He now leads Brand Experience and Simon’s team of speakers and facilitators, helping to ensure the team’s culture, products, partnerships and communications authentically reflect their values and beliefs.
I spoke with Stephen about a meeting he participated in called Prepare for Existential Flexibility (or Ex Flex), why it was necessary, how it helped save Simon Sinek, Inc. during the pandemic, and the powerful ripple effects it’s cast since.
“The test of a strong organization is ‘do you come out of this pandemic better than when you entered?’ And we will. We are. We have a more diverse, robust business.” -Stephen Shedletzky
The Need for Reinvention
The Ex Flex meeting was originally prompted in mid-March 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The vast majority of company revenue came from live, in-person events (which disappeared in a matter of days), and Simon needed to pivot quickly. Preparing for Existential Flexibility means the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance your Just Cause. This is a concept from one of Simon Sinek’s books, The Infinite Game. Stephen remembers Simon saying “Okay guys, we run out of cash by June so if we want this company to continue to exist, and if you want your job to continue to exist, we have to reinvent. I wrote about this in my book, The Infinite Game, and I never thought we actually had to do it or do it this quick or this urgently, but we do.” The instructions for the meeting were for everyone to come back to the next all-hands meeting, 48 hours later, with 15 new ideas.
When I asked Stephen the main purpose of the meeting, his answer was short but powerful: “To reinvent our future.”
Company survival was what initially prompted the meeting, but in the end, a lot of positive outcomes resulted that may not have been put into real motion otherwise. Stephen explains: “This was just a wonderful, designed way to tap into the genius of people who had been in our team for as long as 10 years to go, all right guys. And what’s cool is a lot of the stuff we’ve done through COVID have been things that we’ve been talking about for years, but we never had the impetus or the urgency to have to do it.”
Let’s take a closer look at Stephen and Simon’s process to learn what made this meeting magical.
The assigned prep work was given 48 hours in advance – more time could be given, but in Stephen and Simon’s case the timeline was due to urgency and when the next full team meeting was scheduled. The team, made up of about 20 people of both creative and operational/executional people, was instructed to each come back with 15 new ideas for the company. The 15 idea focus was designed to push the teams’ creative boundaries beyond a handful of initial ideas. “We’d all come up with the same five ideas and they were probably his same five ideas as well so it’s actually accomplished nothing. He wanted us to get to ideas 11, 12, and 13, where we’re sitting there pondering going and then we come up with a totally radical, totally different sort of divergent idea. That’s innovation.” Participants were then instructed to categorize the ideas as green, yellow, or red.
The categorization was based on time and resources, which helped the group prioritize the ideas
- Green meant the idea could be pulled off quickly and become a revenue-generating product or offering within a couple of weeks.
- Yellow meant the idea would need more time to execute on (i.e. four weeks instead of two).
- Red meant the idea would need months – it could still be a great idea, but due to situational urgency it may demand more time to execute.
“We need[ed] to find new revenue generating ways that we’ve never done before, that we need to do imminently to keep going and to serve our end-user and to fuel the inspired, safe and fulfilled movement.”
The meeting was booked for two hours and held on Zoom. The invited attendees were made up of the core operational team of 20 people, with approximately 15 in attendance. Notes were captured by two scribes via Google Docs.
The first thing Simon did was set the ground rules. “He reminded us of our vision. He grounded us in our ‘why’ and our Just Cause.” The meeting operated round-robin, popcorn style. Attendees shared their top innovative/most interesting ideas from their generated lists, while leadership stayed quiet.“Our leaders either spoke last or didn’t speak at all. And if they spoke, they asked questions or they added nuance to ideas. But our most senior leaders didn’t really bring their ideas, they just listened and which was really cool. It was, we want to hear from everyone. And Simon said ‘this isn’t a democracy. In the end, I want to hear from all of you, I want to get all your ideas but in the end, the senior leaders are going to choose which ones and now based on resources and context and the things that they know that we may not, or we may not appreciate.’ But they didn’t really contribute, which I thought was really good.”
Stephen says the emphasis of the meeting was on collaboration, not on competition or about credit or ego for the discussed ideas. Simon wanted to hear from everyone. The benefit to everyone sharing their ideas with the group was that new ideas surfaced through this process too. People built off of presented ideas for 90+ minutes until no one had anything else to add. “
During the sharing, ideas were prioritized based on color categorization. The creator of the idea determined the color category (unless they weren’t sure what it would take to execute, in which case it was then a team decision). Stephen says they then focused on the green and yellow ideas to decide which ones to move forward with. Next, it came time to mobilize the actual teams to get started on idea execution: “So we blocked, tackled and went.”
Outputs and Results
The biggest new idea to come out of the meeting was live online classes, Stephen says. Within a month, the first live online class launched–an over two hour session with a hundred people. The live class offerings, which started with classes based on Simon’s books such as Start with Why, are now even more diversified with topics and teachers both inside and outside Simon’s organization and material. Stephen and his team have since reached out to friends, colleagues, and others in their network to see if anyone else would want to teach live classes on the newly launched platform. The feedback has been positive and the team is now working with other companies and teams that they didn’t know pre-COVID.
Stephen emphasized how impressive it is that these new connections have come about, especially during the pandemic. He said they created a new ecosystem (or what I like to refer to as “the global coffeeshop”): “It’s hugely powerful because it’s kind of replacing what naturally happened in the Vienna coffee shops, or Einstein would meet with whoever because that randomness is happening less and less and certainly less and less with COVID.”
A free-to-the-public book club with Simon was another idea from the Ex Flex meeting that quickly went live. It streamed on YouTube and other platforms and ended up attracting thousands of people who tuned in live to watch Simon go through pieces of the Start with Why book.
There were a few tools Steven used to create magic and connection in his meeting:
- Zoom – Fosters connection using conversation, chats, and breakout sessions.
- Google Docs – Used to capture notes from the meeting in real time, and categorize them.
- Monday.com – Project management tool, similar to Asana.
A Successful Pivot
I asked Stephen what made him most proud about this meeting and process.
“I’m proud of that one, in a moment where there was every excuse to panic, freak out, we were very calm, we were in charge of creating our destiny and future. We were very transparent and open. We tapped into the genius of our team…We were transparent, we asked for input from the team. It was testament of the fact that we had psychological safety in a circle of safety because people were very open, no one held back…We literally invented our own future. And we did that, it wasn’t external, it was internal. Now we were responding to external circumstances, but we pivoted, we did it and I’m hugely proud of that. We all did it and the company is still going and going. The test of a strong organization is ‘Do you come out of this pandemic better than when you entered?’ And we will. We are. We have a more diverse, robust business. That’s rad.”
I asked Stephen what he wants to do next, now that it’s been more than a year since the meeting occurred. He says he’d like to have more of a retrospect on it: “Revisit some of the artifacts from that meeting or come full circle and be like, ‘What are the things we’ve done? What are the things we’ve not done?’ I mean, it was a year ago and we’ve not really meaningfully done that yet and that could be cool to do too. Not to lament on the future, but just to reflect on the growth and also circle back on, ‘are there things that were in the inception of the idea when we dreamed this up, that we’ve not yet done or could do better?’”
Through this meeting, Stephen, Simon, and their team were able to save their company and even create new offerings they’d discussed in the past but never had the urgency to have to do. Their magical meeting is proof that great opportunity can come through crisis.