If someone had told me a year ago that I was going to co-lead a transformational program for several hundred patent lawyers at an American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) meeting—together with my former mentor Ron Bynum, I would not have believed them! But that’s exactly what I did in Tampa, Florida, on February 1st, 2013. Let me tell you how it happened.
Last May, I flew out to San Francisco for the Spring Meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Practice Management section. While I was there, I took a detour up to wine country to visit my old friend Ron. We went on a hike through the hills of Healdsburg, barbecued some dinner, and drank some of the region’s finest wine. All the while, we had an extraordinary conversation, comparing notes about what we each have learned about consulting, coaching, and leadership. I even got to share with him some distinctions about human behavior that I had discovered. At the end of my visit, Ron declared, “I might have been your coach or teacher in the past, but now let’s consider ourselves colleagues, equals. Next time we get together, let’s talk about co-creating a program that we will lead together.”
Serendipitously, the opportunity for us to begin co-creating such a program would come less than a week later—at the AIPLA Spring Meeting in Austin, Texas. While at the Spring Meeting, I heard about a planning meeting that was going to happen in Austin right after the Spring Meeting ended, to plan the 2013 Mid Winter Institute conference. Looking at the draft program for the Mid Winter Institute, one of the proposed sessions caught my eye. It described a session that would seek first to understand the misunderstanding and disconnect that chronically occurs between in-house counsel, outside counsel, and business leaders, and then to promote understanding, connection, and collaboration between them. The description also specified finding a “professional facilitator, perhaps someone with a psychological background” to lead this unusual and groundbreaking session.
Hearing about this session was enough to get me to change my flight home, so that I could stay in Austin to attend that planning meeting. I thought: this type of program is right up my alley! I would love to help plan it! And of course, I knew the perfect person to lead it: Ron Bynum. Ron has led trainings to over 300,000 people over the past 40 years. He has designed—and played a part in designing—some of the finest leadership and executive training programs in existence. He has contributed to and made a difference with countless individuals, from corporate executives to street gang members. You might say, a good part of why I got involved was to make sure AIPLA got the right guy for the job!
Once Ron was on board, of course, he wanted to fulfill the declaration he made to me that we would be co-creators. Over the next 8 months, we spent countless hours designing and preparing the program. And ultimately, he insisted on fulfilling the other part of his declaration—that if he was going to lead this program, I would lead it with him.
Now a confession: I was scared to death about leading this program! It’s not that I lacked any confidence in my ability to deliver such a program. The problem (as it occurred to me) was that this was something so drastically different from the typical AIPLA session that there was no telling what the audience response would be. The thought of leading this group of my peers, in what was being called a “therapy session for lawyers” by some—and what I would call a “transformational program”—was terrifying. Even the conference organizers considered this program a big risk.
Consider that a typical AIPLA program consists of a PowerPoint presentation or panel discussion about changes or developments in the law, best practices, etc. The audience attending simply sits, listens to the presentation, and learns. Our program, however, was to be interactive; it would require the group not just to sit back and watch, but to really participate. We were going to ask them to share their experiences, to talk about things they don’t ordinarily talk about! Achieving results from our program would require them to take an unbiased look at themselves, at their relationships with their colleagues, and at the way they behave in those relationships, so that they have the opportunity to create a new way of being in those relationships, and thereby replace the disconnect they commonly experience, with real connection.
My big fear was: this could totally fall flat! The audience might not participate! In fact, in my previous experiences at these meetings, conference attendees tend not to participate. When the moderators of these panel discussion opens the floor to the audience to ask questions, sometimes there are one or two questions, but rarely do even 5 percent of the group put their hands up. Clearly then, Ron and I could stand up in front of a room full of my colleagues, asking them to share their experiences, and just hear crickets!
While working on planning for our program during those 8 months, I had a lot of time to build my apprehension about actually leading it. I mean, I woke up on September 1st and said, “I can’t believe I’m going to lead this type of program to a group of patent lawyers in 4 months”; on January 1st, “I cant believe I’m going to be leading this program in just 1 month”; and as I got on the plane for Tampa on January 28th, “I can’t believe I’m going to be leading this program in a few days!”
On Friday afternoon, February 1st, all of my fears were put to rest once it was clear that we were having an extraordinary session! Where the group would typically turn their attention to their Blackberrys within 5 minutes, instead they honored our request to turn off their electronic devices. While people typically come and go during these sessions, about 95 percent of the people who started our program stayed for the full three hours! And with an audience that typically remains silent, we got everyone to participate fully in the table discussions—and more people offered to share their experiences and thoughts with the entire group than we even had time to get to!
The best part, however, is that by the end of the session, there was a noticeable shift in the mode of speaking of the participants. In the beginning of the session, there was a lot of “us vs. them” talk. By the end, however, people were speaking responsibly—taking accountability for their relationships, for the way that their colleagues “occurred to them,” and taking a stand for having things go differently with their colleagues moving forward. It was clear that something profound had taken place. The room became more intimate. The participants became more grounded and appreciative of their relationships. The prospect of real cooperation, collaboration, and connection between inside counsel, outside counsel, and business leaders was actually felt as a real, tangible possibility.
I couldn’t be more pleased with our program, and with the opportunity to contribute to my colleagues in this unique way, and I am looking forward to more opportunities to do so. Hopefully, at the next available opportunity, I’ll be working with my good friend Ron again, too. His declaration that day in wine country sparked the fire that grew into a great program for my colleagues—and a great learning experience for me!