Monday, June 30, 2014

Leadership and U-Shaped Tables

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I'm just returned from what was a very successful strategic retreat with the Board of Directors of my association. Like many of the Board meetings we've done before, we used a U-shaped table for several of the sessions. With the open end of the U facing a projection screen, we've found that it gives the Board members an equal opportunity to see and interact with each other and to view the many presentations we use to report progress and explore strategic concepts.

But something different happened at this Board meeting--something that is a great reminder of how something as ostensibly simple as your room set can affect the the outcome of your meeting.

In order to help focus discussion, we usually break our Board up into a handful of smaller groups. Each can tackle a particular issue, and report recommended actions back to the full Board. We've found it to be helpful in increasing participation and efficiency. Fewer people dominate the conversation and more work can get done.

At this meeting, when the breakout groups came back into general session, they found that the hotel had put us into a cavernous room. Much too large for our group, and rather than put a tight U-shaped table in the middle of its footprint, it had built a giant one for us, stretching to fill the entire space, and putting people on opposite side of the U more than thirty feet away from each other.

It could have been a disaster. But when it came time for the first breakout group to report, the chair did something important--something that no breakout chair had ever done before. Rather than stay in his seat, he got up, and moved to the middle of the U to give his report. With the words on the screen behind him, and moving around to speak directly to all three sides of the U, it was almost as if he was giving a mini TED talk.

And it completely changed the dynamic. I've seen these reports go bad before. A quiet voice from one corner of the table, easily dismissed as partially heard and dimly understood. This was anything but. The chair made the information compelling--if for no other reason than he seemed to lay the recommendations directly in front of each and every Board member. The discussion that followed was robust and additive, and the breakout chair was in the best possible position to moderate it. His physical movements helped integrate ideas from all around the U, and he got the Board to a even better decision point than the one he had initially framed for them.

It was one of the best displays of leadership I have seen, especially when you consider that the breakout chairs who followed him wisely choose to emulate his style. Makes me wonder if I'm going to purposely set my U-shaped tables too wide in the future.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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