Energizing, authentic, and keen to connect

If you believe the rumours, celebrated chefs are super competitive and never reveal their exact recipes. They change an ingredient or leave one out, so that no one can replicate a dish exactly.

I’ve met a few facilitators who act this way too. They keep their cards close to the vest. Rarely do you feel like they’re passing along everything they know.

Randall Vickerson does the opposite. He connects openly. He shares generously. There’s never a missing ingredient in his “secret” recipes.

I know this from first-hand experience. In early 2007, I trudged through a snowy Toronto morning to meet Randall at the Global Knowledge offices. We were meeting on neutral ground. His job was to teach me some new leadership content – the Thomas-Killman Conflict Styles model.

I was the *new* guy. Randall the veteran. The gig for this client was pretty sweet. The program was being delivered internationally – Italy and Hong Kong were among the destinations Randall had most recently visited. Business class travel was pre-approved!

It would have been easy for Randall to hold back and keep the gig all for himself. I was just overconfident enough that he could have let me crash and burn on my own. Or he might have whispered to the Client Manager that maybe I wasn’t quite ready.

Instead, Randall’s feedback on my practice delivery and understanding of the content was direct and fair. He knew just the tone to take, just the right way to share his know-how and draw out the best in me.

No competitiveness. All openness. He saw an opportunity. My first delivery was a success. He set it up so that the client would trust us as a team to deliver a good product consistently.

That mindset permeates everything Randall does. It’s why we’ve continued to collaborate over the years. It’s also why I invited Randall to join me as a co-facilitator on the Shift team.

What I know today is that Randall is one of the very best at being a live coach. He shares his secrets and makes people feel good on stage in a way that opens them up. He helps them blossom as facilitators.

Just like he did with me, Randall draws out people’s strengths and unique style. It’s a rare gift and it’s an honour for me to continue to learn from him.

~ Moe

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Randall’s #SHIFTsauce Ingredients

  • Avoid the teacher-student dynamic
  • Ask permission questions
  • Allow and respect people’s autonomy
  • Use performance skills to help relay authenticity
  • Read the crowd; keep your radar on
  • Connect, connect, connect

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Randall Vickerson talks to #SHIFTsauce

#SHIFTsauce:  I have to start with this: Why a giraffe in your logo?

Randall: The giraffe comes from a leadership workshop that I participated in, a kind of New Age-y, five-day retreat. They had a basket of stuffed animals. In one exercise, you had to pick an animal and make sense of why. It was quite amazing. There were eight of us, and everyone picked something that was very unique to them. When they dialogued about it, you’d be like, “Oh, this is so much about who you are and what you bring to the table.”

#Ss:  And what was it about a giraffe for you?

The giraffe has a better perspective. It sometimes struggles to take care of itself. It can be precarious for a giraffe to drink water because they have to spread their four legs out, lower their head, and that’s when the lions tend to come out. It’s mostly about perspective though, the idea that I can see things that other people don’t see.

Actually, thanks for that question. It’s amazing how many people don’t ask me about it. I still have the stuffed giraffe.

#Ss:  It’s one of the things that makes you unique! You also have something of an unusual background. You’ve worked on Bay Street, and as an actor.

I’m from a small town in Alberta originally. When I came to Toronto, I was going to school part-time and started as a bond messenger. Then I got promoted, first to doing the financing on the bond desk, then working on the bond desk itself. I did that for about three years, then I got an offer to work on a currency desk with a tier two bank, which means it’s a foreign bank. That was, again, kind of a unique situation.

After about three years, that bank closed in Toronto. I was happy not to continue into finance, and I was still at university part-time. I started taking Second City classes and ended up creating a comedy troupe that toured around the city for a couple years. I then took a Shakespeare class, followed by a classical acting program for a year in England. And then I came back and duked it out here. Among other things, I did a one-person play that I wrote, and some TV shows here and there. Nothing substantial to really make a go of it.

After about three years of that, I took a contract at CIBC, managing a team of customer service reps. And it felt great. It felt so relieving to just be like, oh my God, every two weeks they keep giving me money! When I finished with that, I got another contract, and then a full-time job at CIBC Mellon Trust.

#Ss:  That’s quite a change, after a few years of acting.

Yes, quite a change, though I knew I was not the type of actor that only wanted to act. At CIBC Mellon I thought I was going in for some kind of customer service job, but they were targeting me to be a supervisor of this team. They must have built a whole back story based on my resume – they made all kinds of positive assumptions about me. I just laid low and let it ride. I was like, okay, let’s do that. I know when to shut up, most of the time.

#Ss:  How did all that lead to becoming a facilitator?

I got a great opportunity to learn coaching on the job. I took a chance to go to Invesco Trimark, and became an on-staff coach there. I didn’t really have any direct experience. I usually do stuff first and figure it out second. That’s my mantra.

#Ss:  What prompted you to start doing facilitation and training on your own?

When my son was born, I realized that I wanted to work less and have more time with him and my daughter but I wasn’t sure how. Then I did an information interview with someone who does facilitation and training and I went, okay, I think I found it. A daily rate fee… If you do more days, you make more; if you do less, you make less, but I could have the time with my son.

So then the person I did the interview with called me and said that one of her clients was looking for a facilitator. I went and did a presentation for them. They were like, absolutely, we’d love to work with you. So I quit my job.

And then that didn’t pan out and I had no work for six months.

#Ss:  Wow.

But the good news is, I got the time with my son. I was with him for those six months full time, which was awesome. And then I facilitated a one-day session for CIBC with about 100 retail branch managers. I’ve been busy since then. It just kind of took off.

#Ss:  That was the beginning of your company, Solution Development Group?

Yes, exactly. For the first few years, I was really just a hired gun to facilitate whatever people wanted me to facilitate. I said yes to everything, just to get the hours in.

#Ss:  And now?

Now I’m largely focused on leadership, and also loving working with and helping other facilitators.

#Ss:  What appeals to you about helping other facilitators?

It’s crazy engaging! It’s nice to feel like I’m at this point in my career where I’ve got something to offer. I can speed the process up for these 35-year-olds and 40-year-olds that are new to facilitating. Maybe they don’t facilitate for a living, but they have to do it as part of their job. It can be a bit of a mystery to them.

Being able to role model, or share some ideas and practices with them, has been a blast. Sometimes it’s just some levers that need to be pulled. Sometimes it’s tricks and tips. Other times it’s tapping into a person and making sure that they are connected to what they have to offer, and getting more confidence in who they are as a facilitator – not trying to be something, as much as just bringing out their personality.

#Ss:  How do you see what that is, if it’s not being overtly expressed already?

I have a radar on all the time and always watching body language and behaviours. Sometimes I say, “You know, at the break I see this in your personality. But then you come up here and now we’ve got Mr. or Ms. Professional. Which is cool – but tough to get any contact with you. We need more of you. Anyone can be professional. We can get a professional anywhere. But only you can bring your personality and give us something to connect with.”

If we can connect with you, then you’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re allowed to work with the team. People will see you as human. But if you just start doing the professional thing, they expect professional all the time. That’s a high risk situation.

#Ss:  Could you share any stories of working with participants’ personalities?

I can think of a couple of  facilitators that Moe and I helped when we did a session for a blue-chip Canadian insurance firm. One was an enthusiastic 25-year-old who filled the space with frantic energy. We helped the individual realize that there was room just to stand still, manage the frantic energy and own up to that you have a right to be there. The other one was kind of a bulldozer as a facilitator.

#Ss:  “A Bulldozer” that sounds like a challenge.

I had a couple of things I could connect with her about, including that we both have an Italian background. So I felt I had a connection with her, and I kind of called her out on what I was seeing. I feel like I can say things if I’ve got a relationship with the person.

I said, “I know you just want everything to be run a certain way, but you haven’t given us any reason to really get to know you.” I asked her to slow down. Make eye contact with the people in the room.

Whether she was a better facilitator or not, I wasn’t too concerned about. In that moment, my hope was that she would have a more meaningful experience at the end of the day. If she could have a more meaningful experience while she was up there, she may not feel the need to boss everyone around and push through and just throw information at them.

#Ss:  How do you know how far you can go in your feedback?

I tend to ask permission questions before I do something. Like, “Would it be all right if I gave you some feedback? I think it’s kind of tough feedback – would you be open to hearing it?” I give people the chance to prep.

I’ve had mandatory coaching clients who don’t want to see me. I would usually say at the beginning, “Would it be okay if I ask you two or three questions?” Just get permission first. Does that make sense?

#Ss:  Completely. And I could see how it would shift the dynamic to something that is more cooperative and collaborative – we’re in this together.

And that the person has control. That feeds into my philosophy; I have some assumptions about people in the room. One is that they should have autonomy in terms of how this goes. And that they’re smart. They probably have some sense of what works for them in life. For the most part, if you give them a chance and some space to reflect, they can come up with ideas about how to solve or make progress on whatever is in front of them.

#Ss:  Do you see part of your role as helping them see what is already there?

Absolutely. To see what’s already there or to create something that is keeping them in mind. So it’s not me saying, do this. Even when I present a suggestion, I say, let’s just try this as an experiment. And if you never try out this activity again, if you never use it again, that’s totally cool. If it goes well, great. If it’s useful, terrific. If it goes badly, not useful, we’ll move on. I won’t die, you won’t die. We’ll be all right.

#Ss:  It sounds like you approach it with a light touch. You’re not weighing things down.

I’m also trying to avoid the teacher-student dynamic. As you described it, we’re in this together.

#Ss:  Is that why participants say that you make them feel energized?

I think what’s energizing to them is there’s not a sense that it’s scripted. Because I’m a trained actor, I know that you have to keep it fresh and new. You don’t want to get into a pattern. So I try to just start talking and not really think too much about it. I think that makes it much more real.

I do these big conferences with 500+ people in the room. I tend to start off just smiling at them, and then I say how excited I am to be there. I love being in front of a big group like that.

Some coaches are great technically. They really keep people on track in terms of a plan. But my thing is, make sure there is a relationship – that there’s a connection between myself and our client, and myself and a group.

#Ss:  Is part of the connection based in vulnerability? I’m thinking of the giraffe, how it has perspective but is also sometimes vulnerable.

Nice connection… thank you. Yes and you can’t always be vulnerable when you’re up front, because they need some trust that you know how to drive the ship. But at the same time, they need to see that you’re human. I do look for opportunities to be vulnerable or open. Openness might be a better word.

If I’m in front of 400 people, someone will say something, and if it cracks me up, I’m not going to try to be “professional” non-stop. If it cracks me up, I’m cracking up. And nothing’s moving forward until I’m finished with my little laugh fest.

And if something really moves me, I’ll be like, “I’m just going to take a pause here.” I’m not going to steer over it. The professional thing to do would be, “Well, that’s a little too personal, I don’t want anyone to get uncomfortable here emotionally. So we’ll just go past that.” But I look for those little opportunities, because I know that they’re good for me and I think that they’re good for the group. It gives permission, it gives space to have more contact.

#Ss:  And it’s authentic. How does your authenticity mesh with your training as an actor, which suggests performance?

I am authentic. I’m trying to be myself. But I also know that if I’m in front of a few hundred people, I need to perform it. If I’m going to get them to get me, I need to crank it up.

I need to be more demonstrative, more dramatic, play the pause. Make sure that they can see that I’m really reflecting on what I’m about to say to them. They need to see all of that. I need to make sure that I communicate it, to get my authenticity through.

#Ss:  What is the most valuable thing that came out of your acting career?

Being able to read the crowd. Knowing that whatever I’m doing up front has an impact on them.

#Ss:  Is there anything else that you think makes for successful facilitation?

For me, positivity, a sense of humour, and focus on what I’m pleased about. Asking good questions. And avoiding being put on a pedestal.

#Ss:  What’s the most fulfilling thing for you?

It’s when people get really caught up in stuff, where they feel interested in what they’re doing. To see people get energized for a company that they might have been dragging their feet around – they see they can do something a little different. So, yeah, energizing people. Getting them re-focused. Opening a door to something.

#Ss:  How do you know when they’re energized?

They’re not talking about the weekend. They’re actually talking about the topics that we’re talking about. People that may not be all that open at the beginning, all of a sudden are contributing an idea or a thought. That says something’s happened. Obviously you feel more comfortable, you feel more energized, you feel like you have the space in here to give your opinions. That’s all cool.

#Ss:  What would you hope that they leave with?

At the end of the day, my wish would be if they were to go home and have supper and someone asks how their day was, they’ll say, “It was pretty good.” That’s all. And if they’re asked, “What was pretty good?” they’ll have something positive. If you can get that, that’s cool.

I don’t have huge expectations, like we’re going to change the world in one day. But I hope we can add something that you’re going to go, “I got something, I learned something, I thought of something differently.”

Any client wants their people changed, or they want them to adopt certain behaviours. But I think putting that pressure on isn’t always useful. So I want to have the group know that, at the end of the day, you don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

#Ss:  Is that also a way to break down or to avoid resistance?

It’s to put me on the same page as them, that we’re in this together. And if some organization thinks we have to change? You know and I know that you don’t have to. So it is about breaking down resistance, but it’s also a way to remind them of the autonomy that they truly already have.

#Ss:  It sounds like there’s a lot of respect there.

I think so. I practice solution focus, and solution focus has an assumption in it that people need to come up with their own solutions.

#Ss:  Is the work you do part-and-parcel of who you are? Does it cycle back? Is it all part of your personal growth?

Oh, absolutely. There’s definitely days where parts of it are work. But the actual facilitating and being part of a group, at this point in my career, it doesn’t really feel like work. I’m into meaningful experiences in life, and I’m just really lucky that I have a job where I get those experiences.

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Randall’s #SHIFTsauce Ingredients

  • Avoid the teacher-student dynamic
  • Ask permission questions
  • Allow and respect people’s autonomy
  • Use performance skills to help relay authenticity
  • Read the crowd; keep your radar on
  • Connect, connect, connect

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Curious to learn more about Randall and his work. Check out the Solution Development Group website or find him on LinkedIn.

Moe Poirier is the Founding Partner of Shift Facilitation. For over 15 years, he has honed his craft as a facilitator and a designer of training. He is on a mission to have corporate trainers reinvent themselves as change agents and value creators in their organizations.