A Small Town Grocery Store Renewal Thanks to AoH Patterns and Practices

It is always a pleasure to share Art of Hosting success stories. This comes from Angie Benz who attended an AoH training in Bismarck, North Dakota in November 2014. The AoH training was supported by the North Dakota League of Cities and the Bush Foundation, co-hosted by Jerry Nagel and me.

Angie Benz

Angie Benz

She writes:

I wanted to share a success story.  After taking your AoH class in Bismarck I was so moved and excited.  I knew these were principles that I wanted to implement, I just didn’t know where or how.

Fast forward to last week.  I am a director for our local grocery store board and we have been struggling to say the least!  Our sales were 15% down from 2013.  Our manager, understandably, was a bit disgruntled.  The board members, myself included, had checked out.  And the worst part…this was all being seen by the community.

Then I remembered the principles taught at AoH!  We started out slowly……and grew into something bigger…….and I am hoping that we keep growing!

We started by sending out a survey asking two very important questions:

  1. Is the store important to YOU to have in YOUR community?
  2. Is it important enough to YOU that YOU are willing to pay a little higher price for groceries?

The responses were a resounding YES to both and we knew we had work to do.  We restructured our management team, creating a co-manager position with two people that will do great things together.

Then we had a planning meeting.  Everyone was dreading it!  I sent out an email inviting the management team and the board directors.  I gave them some ideas of what would happen that day. Then, I shocked them all by asking them to bring something that represents their journey with the grocery store….and I left it at that.  (Enter the sound of silence from the group.)  It was so loud that I could “hear” it through email.

The day of the meeting we started out with Check In using a circle setting.  It was AMAZING!  There was emotion, meaning, and most importantly….understanding.  Understanding of all the frustrations we faced in 2014.  We were letting go of the past and moving towards the future with understanding of each other and our journey.

We then moved into a variation of Open Space.  There were only 6 of us, so we used it more as a brain storming session.  At the end of it, one of the board directors made the comment that they thought we would have about 3 ideas…..we ended up with about 50!

Then it was time for us to get a little more specific.  We came up with action plans and timelines for the top 5 ideas/topics.  We will meet monthly to analyze and assess the top 5 and beyond.

To end the day, we did Check Out in a circle setting.  Again, there was emotion, meaning, and understanding.  There was also a sense of team….something that had been missing in the last year.  I said it before and I will say it again….it was AMAZING!

When everyone came and saw the circle they were a little put off and thought I was nuts.  I just asked them to hang in there with me.  They did and the results were incredible!  We left the meeting feeling more like a team than we have in a very long time.

I want to thank you for showing me that there is a way that a group of people with different worldviews can come together and be a cohesive unit!  You very well may have given me the tools to keep our small town grocery store alive!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Purpose Statement for the Bismarck AoH training, November 2014


Becoming an AoH Practitioner

One of the things that stands out from my Envision Halifax days when a team of us co-designed and co-delivered a nine month leadership program, meeting with the group once a month for either a retreat or a learning day, is how often people talked about getting their Envision “fix” – essentially being able to step out of the craziness of their workplaces into a deep breath of a different kind of space, where we often began with check-in circles and always entered into a conscious, intentional practice field of learning focused on self-leadership, team learning and community reflection and engagement.

The desire and need for this “fix” is directly related to how challenging people find it to bring their learning about new ways of interacting with people, creating the conditions for different conversations that lead to different results back into their work environments – and it is also what I hear from people who have just stepped out of their first Art of Hosting training ground.  “It is okay to do this here, but back at work, well, that’s another story.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, becoming a practitioner of anything takes…. well… practice.  And, I am aware of how risky it feels to try out new group processes or new ways of inviting conversation at work.  How many times we hear things like, “I could never use a talking piece at work.”  “I could never get our group to agree to use World Cafe.”  “People I work with would find this language strange and it may turn them off of even trying something new.”  Yes, all true AND there are always ways to begin practice.

People feel their credibility and reputation are most at risk trying something new with the people they work with all the time.   So one of the simplest possibilities is to look for other places to practice – with another team or department, in a volunteer capacity, with someone else who also wants to practice.

When we just begin to know the many and varied practices that are available through the Art of Hosting field and have little experience with them, we have less confidence in and knowledge of how the processes work and how people can be well and fully engaged in them.  Our own lack of confidence and fear can influence how the process unfolds.  For example, if the group has never participated in an Open Space before, it  may take a few minutes for them to warm up to inviting their own conversations when we open the space for their questions.  With experience, we know to be easy in that pause.  Without experience, it ignites our fears and then we want to jump in to make it happen, often over facilitating the space or the process, sometimes resulting in less than hoped for outcomes.  As grow our own experience and confidence in the impact of the process, we relax more which invites more flow and synchronicity into the space.

As for language, if it will be a barrier, don’t use it.  Rather than talking about circle practice, you could just say, “I would like to make sure we hear from every voice.  Maybe we could just go around the table and as each person speaks, the rest of us could just listen well to what they have to say.” Or, of course, whatever language suits you best.

Begin your practice in little ways.  Take little risks.  Change how you listen and see what difference shows up.  Use more questions, powerful questions, that invite people to respond differently.  Bring more curiousity to the conversations you have in the work you do.

Find places to practice the skills you want to develop more.  Find people to practice with.  Look for like minded people inside your organization with whom you can have conversations of discovery and potentially opportunities for practice.  Think of how you can intentionally shift the shape of your world.

Look for places outside of work to practice.  Take yourself back to another Art of Hosting training to deepen your understanding and skills and grow your courage.  Share success stories, small and large, so you and others can see the impact of making even small shifts.  Maybe you have an opportunity to be part of a calling team for an Art of Hosting in your organization or community.  You could look for an opportunity to apprentice in an Art of Hosting training with experienced practitioners and stewards so you learn to pay attention to and look for the nuances that can influence design, hosting and results.

Grow your confidence through practice and your practice will grow.  Don’t be discouraged easily.  Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity, openings and invitations.  If you look for them, you will be delightfully surprised at how often they show up.

Join a community of practice.  If there isn’t one in your area, start one – even if it is just with a few people.  Join the on-line conversations and communities.  Observe and contribute when and as you are ready.

Whenever and however you can practice, do so.  Grow your courage through small victories and those victories will also grow.  You didn’t show up at an Art of Hosting training because you are risk averse.  You came because something called you.  My guess is, this work will continue to call you and you will continue to respond.  And there is a global field of practice that responds with you.  Be intentional, thoughtful and mindful and practice well.  Before you know it, you will recognize the Art of Hosting practitioner that is you.