April 9, 2019

Can Intimacy Scale? Heck Yes!

Intimacy isn't about group size, it's about intention.
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I do a lot of my Conscious Leadership coaching and consulting with leaders and companies most often 1-1 or in groups topping out at 20. Our largest Leadership Camps and Couples Camps have been groups of 35. Although it requires more presence and attention from the front of the room for the larger groups, I know we’ve created intimate containers in groups of those sizes.

I speak to much larger groups numbering in the hundreds. Although I have been able to give hundreds of people an active and personal experience of learning the concepts of Conscious Leadership working in pairs or trios, I have held open the question of whether it would be possible to create the deep intimacy and vulnerability with more people, a stage, microphones, and the rest.

This week, on the heels of facilitating the second-ever Culture First Forum experience led by Culture Amp, I can confidently answer that question in the affirmative. Culture Amp asked my frequent collaborator, Kaley Klemp, and me to partner with them to develop a program for Culture First Forum with precisely this mission. The target audience was senior leaders in the People, Talent, and HR functions from companies around the world.

In building out this event -- which we all agreed to refer to as an “experience” (and I think we delivered on that promise) -- we had as our mission to create real, vulnerable, intimate conversations among senior HR leaders around the most pressing current and developing issues they and their companies were facing. We wanted to create an experience that blended a sense of executive coaching, an offsite retreat, cutting-edge content, and actionable conversations.

To do that, we divided the attendees into eight-person forums, and we placed an experienced facilitator with each forum group. Forums are a common structure used by YPO, EO, and my good friends at the Conscious Leadership Group. The beauty of a facilitated group of this size is that it can foster a deep experience for each attendee by establishing a safe container where talented executives can be open, vulnerable, and wildly creative with their peers.

The Culture First Forum (CFF) experience -- which we’ve now run successfully in Sydney and London -- begins as a group of 100 in a plenary session. To kick off the event, everyone put their voices into the room, sharing with a neighbor an “essence quality” of theirs and one thing they hoped and feared from being a part of the experience.

From the start, I, as the continuous facilitator across the two-day experience, set the “ground rules” and intentions for the event, which included a blend of concepts from my Conscious Leadership work and from Culture Amp’s Company Values:

  • 100% Responsibility
  • Learn Faster Through Feedback
  • Courage to be Vulnerable
  • Candor and Responsible Revealing
  • Confidentiality and Trust
  • Presence and Tech

This opening session set the tone, giving the audience a sense that everyone in the room -- including attendees, speakers, facilitators, and organizers -- would walk the walk as well as talk the talk on being available for connection during our time together.

To land this message right up front, in the most recent session in London, I learned a few days ahead that a man named Simon Viggers would be attending from a company called Otsuka Pharmaceuticals. When I walked up on stage, I got real with the audience from the start. I asked Simon, whom I’d never met, to stand up. I shared my appreciation for him and his company for creating a recently approved new drug for a condition called Polycystic Kidney Disease. I let Simon and the audience know that I, my brother, my late father and aunt, and a bunch of cousins all suffered from this chronic condition, and we all appreciated Otsuka for pushing for the first-ever drug to address it.

One key for scaling intimacy? Modeling from the stage from the first moment.

We were pleasantly surprised by how hungry CFF participants were to co-create a vulnerable space, and we were able to see our thesis proved during these events: that more intimate conversations produce more interesting and innovative outcomes.

My key learning from CFF is that, yes, it is possible to scale intimacy. From my view, the most critical ingredient to achieving that objective is modeling authenticity and vulnerability at every step by every person in the room. At CFF, the speakers did this. Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp, did it. The facilitators admitted to their forums when they felt a bit intimidated by an experience (or a senior executive). Most importantly for me, I did it. I remember at the end of Day 1 asking the audience to rate their level of presence during the day on a one-to-five scale. I asked them to jot that number down. I then asked them to rate their average level of presence at work and jot that number down. I then did something that scared the heck out of me. I asked: “How many of you have been more present on average at work than you have been today?” I admitted that this question set off all sorts of insecurity alarm bells for me. I ducked, covered, looked up and saw very few hands. I asked the opposite question and almost all the hands shot up. This was no pushover audience, and my fear shifted to gratitude.

I am thrilled to have been a part of this experience. The feedback from audiences has exceeded my expectations. It seems that, as we’d suspected, far too many conferences are pat. We can be lazy. We can check the boxes. We can assume our attendees “don’t want to go there.” I’m now solidly persuaded that they do and that the next generation of events that fulfill the promise of creating an experience will be built around this idea of creating a safe and intimate container where the attendees can fully show up as themselves. I’ve written before about the ROI of Authenticity, and Culture First Forum showed me that lesson on an even larger stage.


Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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