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Leadership Q&A:The Experience That Matters


The line between what is typical, standard and expected and what isn’t is not thin but as wide as ocean.

The difference is the experience.

What, then, constitutes a genuine, authentic, transformational experience?

How do leaders create these experiences?

These are questions that I’ve been tracking on for almost a year as I’ve worked with a group of local leaders to create a leadership workshop for our community.

It is simple enough do a workshop. I get invites all the time to these things.

Recruit some presenters, secure a site, set a date and market it. People show up. The presenters do their seminars and when done we all go back to the office with a pad full of notes.

Then, when asked about the event, participants talk about the ideas on their notepads, not the experience shared. Within days, maybe hours, the urgency of doing something with those ideas is gone. And they begin to look for the next workshop to get their idea fix.

When I took on the task of coordinating our group to create a workshop, I knew that I didn’t want what was typical, standard and expected. I knew that we had to focus on creating an experience that engaged everyone from presenters, to participants to volunteers, to even the hotel staff where our event was held.

Many of these events are spectacles, like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz..


The purpose is to create a spectator’s experience, not a participant’s.

What is the difference?

A spectator watches detached in an entertainment mindset. A participant connects with the presenters and other participants in an engagement one.

The result is totally different, to the point that the only similarity is the layout of the chairs.

There are four key principles that we followed for our workshop event to create a genuine, authentic, transformational experience.

1. The presenters’ messages must be linked together so that there is a conceptual unity. If the messages are viewed as random and ad hoc, then the learning experience will also be so. For this unity to be realized requires a team approach where topics and presenters are tested, interviewed, and finally selected.

This conceptual unity cannot be abstract, but rather based on how the idea can be translated into the experience that the participants will have.

In our case, our conceptual unity was based on the awareness that we all were needing to make a BIG SHIFT in our lives and work. So, each of the three presentations were individually and collectively about how people can change.

The result was that each of the presenters naturally referred to the other ones during their presentations. They were able to do this because they had seen the presentations prior. A “run-through” was conducted so that the presenters would be at their best. Each of our presenters are experienced speakers, yet they each found the advice on how to make their presentation better made a huge difference in their performance. As a result, the presenters’ experience was beyond their expectations. It was a transformational experience for them.

In addition, the up-front facilitator of the workshop, acts as the manager of this conceptual unity by creating a learning environment in the segues between speakers. It may be an audience interview, or a story of someone who is an example of the presenters point. This should not be off-the-cuff, but planned with the presenters to create a seamless flow throughout the event.

2.  The event experience doesn’t begin with the introduction of the first speaker, but at the moment a person pre-registers for the event. How the event organizers interact with those who register begins to prepare them for the event. If you create an anticipatory, informative experience prior, expectations grow for what they will get the day of the event.

For our event, there was an initial email that described our hopes for their experience and how often we’d be in touch with them. They were each asked to identify a purpose or goal for the event based on the workshop theme.

Each of the follow up emails introduced the speakers and their presentation topics. We wanted the participants to know the presenters before they heard them. They were given the opportunity to express to the presenters what they wanted to learn. In a couple instances, interaction between presenter and participant was facilitated prior to the event. As a result, everyone walked into the room emotionally ready to learn.

3. Every event is a networking event that must be designed to build participant interaction. You can’t assume that people will come and interact with one another. There is always a social reticence that inhibits open conversation of ideas and the exchange of business cards. As a result, you have to tell people prior to the event there will be specific opportunities to network.

Our group has been creating leadership events in our community for three years. After each, we conduct a follow-up survey of what people liked and wanted more of. In each survey, they wanted more opportunities to network.

One of the ways we facilitated a higher level of interaction was to wedge the event between two networking meals, a breakfast and a lunch. Approximately one half of our participants came early, up to 90 minutes early and stayed after for a networking lunch with the presenters. Including the networking opportunities during the networking presentation, the level of interaction between people at an event like was unprecedented in my experience.

4. The participants are not spectators but contributors to the experience. At the beginning of our event, the participants were told that a successful workshop is not achieved by them just showing up, but by their contributions. They were told that they contribute to the presenters effectiveness by their listening, and they should listen with their eyes, not just their ears.

In addition, they were given a simple sheet of blank open spaces where they were instructed throughout the workshop to write down responses to a question related to what they had just heard. The idea was not to create pages of notes, but to remember one thing that would be worth sharing back at the office.  As a result, their contribution goes beyond what they might say to another participant, but to others who were not there.


Leaders create experience by default or intention. They can create a spectacle that entertains for the moment or a genuine, authentic transformational experience.  The question is what is the difference that matters ultimately.

The unity of social experience is the bond that leaders must learn to develop.

Events and encounters are not about them, but about a relationship between contributors. This is more than collaboration. It is a social experience that elevates everyone’s perception of what is possible.

Years ago I heard a professor from Scotland talk about going to his first Southern Cal / UCLA football game. He talked about going with friends to cheer on their team, to support them in their endeavors. At some point during the game, he realized that he was the one being supported, and cheered on. He was uplifted by the whole experience. This is the shared experience that we should seek to create.

The professor went with an attitude to contribute, and found he was contributed to by the experience.  Create this experience with your employees and customers, and there is little that you cannot overcome during these challenging times.

If creating these kinds of experiences sounds like a lot of work, it is. But the alternative is to create irrelevant experiences that are testimonies to a lack of real interest and concern for people.

Create the experience, and you’ll stand out from the crowd. Create the experience, and you’ll find a social bond of unity forming around you and your business in ways just doing good customer service could never achieve.

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About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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