Fast Company

Driving Dramatic Progress through Touchstone Events

The original touchstone was basanite. It is a smooth, black stone used to test the quality of gold and silver. It was rubbed across the precious metal and the authenticity could be determined by the color of the streak produced.  The word touchstone now means anything that tests genuineness or excellence.

Genuineness and excellence are at the heart of what drives people forward in dramatic surges of progress. They are the roots. From this powerful core, real transformation takes place. But, people will want to test it. So, give them something powerful to test.

For this very reason I created Touchstone Events. These are gatherings that dive deep and make contact with what is real, essential and core to the work of change in ways that generate sudden, striking forward momentum. The purpose of a Touchstone Event is to gain a perch in a particular culture by striking a keynote, like a tuning fork, that causes the entire community to resonate in response with powerful authenticity. Done well they move the entire community forward in one giant leap, constructing the common beliefs and understandings that sustain coherent activity into the foreseeable future.

In the mid-90s there was an internal perception that the World Bank was a cold and uncaring institution, populated by the educational elite who operated on poverty from a distance. There was a lack of warmth inside headquarters. With over 10,000 people in a half-dozen buildings in downtown Washington, DC, it was easy to feel lost among strangers. Perhaps even more so because the multi-cultural diversity was so great, the ethnicity so varied. No one culture dominated the population. There were many who were concerned about this lack of community. This included President Jim Wolfensohn and his internal communications team of which I was a member.

When I was interviewed for my job, I was asked what I could offer to help create an esprit de corps among all staff.  There were open discussions about bringing people together and creating greater camaraderie. I was asked to use my background in street theater to create a special brand of gathering that would be customized to our culture, assembling thousands in a face-to-face experience that would enhance our professionalism. 

1978  - 1989 I produced and performed street theater. In my work I brought together actors, dancers, musicians, and poets, both professional and amateur, to improvise performance art in public spaces. I led two troupes during that time and delivered a series of original one-man shows. My goal was to create live events that stopped busy people, caught their attention in irresistible ways, and compelled them to participate.

My capacity to involve people, to engage them in compelling ways would be put to the test inside a world-class, multi-national organization. Little did I imagine the first large-scale gathering of World Bank staff I would produce.

During the attacks of September 11, 2001, our small communications team coordinated the World Bank’s internal response. We could see the smoke from the Pentagon attack from a window across the hallway. It was a challenge to separate rumors from the chaos in chaos that ensued. The Internet was jammed, overloaded, and failed to download newscasts in a timely fashion.

Our unit was new and we had not yet installed our television sets to monitor world events. My wife at home held our telephone to the television screen so I could hear what was being broadcast. 

We liaised with the Department of Treasury, responsible for coordinating emergency response in downtown DC, and our president’s office.  Before noon, we made the decision to close our offices.  As the Director of Communications dictated to me, I hand typed the message to all Bank staff members to evacuate headquarters.

Along with the nation and the world we struggled to figure out what how to respond appropriately without enough information to know what was really happening. Early the next morning, with everyone stunned and grief-stricken, our team went into huddle and decided that in 48 hours, on Friday, September 14, we would have an all-staff gathering.

The purpose was to bring people together, reminding them of the community they belonged to in a time of anguish. We would openly acknowledge the grief in our hearts, giving it a home inside the organization. We were doing our best to set our sights on the uncertain, difficult road toward healing and the new world we were tumbling into.

With short notice we brought about 2,000 people in our atrium for a 20-minute gathering. By President Jim Wolfensohn’s request we had live music, Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G-Major, Sarabande. It is a powerfully moving piece that is introspective, complex, and emotionally intimate.

Wolfensohn characteristically delivered his words straight from the heart. He asked staff members to join hands, which had never been done before. Then he asked for a minute of silence in remembrance. Open weeping could be heard in the large, cavernous atrium. The event was profound. It was a marked departure from the dispassionate and efficient communications of the past.

In the weeks that followed there were a series of activities unusual for the World Bank, aimed to establish a new, more humane ambience inside the organization. A memorandum went out from the president encouraging staff members to travel only if they felt safe. Vice Presidents and Directors walked the hallways, checking in with staff and engaging in personal conversations to see how people were doing. Clinics were set up where people could go for counseling. Special events were hosted to educate people on Islam.  Security staff members were made available to chaperone people upon request to and from our buildings. Leadership responded to the tragedy by turning toward people instead of away from them. Months passed. Healing happened. Stability returned.

Throughout the next year and a half we brought people together in the atrium to celebrate the work of our support staff, to explore innovation together, and to review our year with all its ups and downs. The atrium became a place for our community to assemble. We pumped the events out to our thousands of employees around the world through the Internet. We even ate together, serving cake, ice cream and juice on occasion.

We mastered the art of the Touchstone Event, delivering power by drawing deeply on authenticity, activating the core of what it means to be human and cope with change in ways that generate dramatic forward momentum.

 

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. He is the founder of Seth Kahan’s CEO Leaders Forum, a year-long learning experience for CEOs in Washington, DC. His next book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, will be published in Spring 2010 by Jossey-Bass. Visit his other blogs, GettingChangeRight.com for more info on the upcoming book and FreelanceFortune.com for tips on how to succeed as a free agent.  Follow Seth on Twitter. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com

 

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