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Building Team Connectivity…Through Food

Over the years I have designed and facilitated countless leadership team offsite meetings. Some I remember fondly, some I’m embarrassed to remember, many are forgettable (for the participants as well as me!) and a handful are the stories I repeat to all my clients. During the past two decades the nature of the requests for these gatherings have changed. Gone are the good old days of exotic locations with lavish accommodations, lots of free time for hanging out and spectacular shared meals. (Oh, Istanbul, how I miss thee.) Gone are the long days of serious work or quasi-group therapy sessions followed by too much drinking and fancy food.

Today an offsite is most likely an “onsite”: taking over the conference room for one day, working hard on critical issues and ordering in sandwiches. If there are three pennies to spend, the team is taken to a nice-ish restaurant in the area as a reward for the hard day’s work. The day begins with the proverbial “icebreaker” which means “everyone share something personal”. That is the extent of the conscious team building that takes place. The expectation is that working together in this uninterrupted fashion will generate closer ties and more effective teamwork.

And most of us know how well that usually turns out. Mention attending an offsite in 2000 and everyone was a) jealous that you were one of the chosen few or b) pissed that s/he didn’t get invited. Tell colleagues today that you are going to an offsite and you are likely to get sympathetic sighs and condolence cards. We all feel your pain.

So what’s the deal here? I would summarize the situation this way: All leaders have very positive intentions when they call their teams to gather in meaningful dialogue away from the everyday craziness. They all want something special to happen over the course of the meeting; some new insights, critical decisions, alignment around tough issues, emergence of new thinking. And most of all, these leaders hope that the members walk out with a renewed energy and commitment to work more productively together. But whether or not this magic takes place has nothing to do with the perfect agenda or lovely location or time to have scheduled side conversations.

Those breakthrough team moments occur when the barriers between members drop and they see each other as human beings rather than the professional roles they perform. When you know someone, even just a bit, you can make a connection that is more heartfelt. From that place of knowing each other, good things can happen. So what can you do at one of these meetings to encourage those interactions?

In spite of all the great intentions of these leaders, very few have the interpersonal skills and team dynamics know-how to nurture exceptional teams. But there are some tricks that anyone can do.

There is a universal experience that we all share as human beings that most of us have strong sentiments about. Food. Each of us has our own rich (mostly good, sometimes bad) history with food. And if you put ten people in a room together you would get ten very different stories but ones that charm and delight. Stories that give you a window into something that is strongly imprinted on the person. And stories that highlight the diversity of the group.

So, after years of consulting, I offer this one delicious team building idea that will result in more personal and low risk sharing, new knowledge about each other and a greater desire to know more.

  • Preparation: Give each member the assignment to cook one dish that is especially evocative of their childhood. (If the offsite is actually somewhere away from home, improvise by giving them time to scout out the local restaurants that will allow take-out and delivery.) The dish needs to be enough to serve everyone a small portion. Get assistance from the cafeteria staff for storing and reheating.
  • Serving: If you are doing multiple meals together, have 3-5 dishes per meal. In turn, each person shares briefly his/her story about the dish itself and why it is special. Take only a few minutes before eating to offer just the headlines.
  • More of the story: Once all the dishes are served and people are eating, circle back to each cook and have him/her go into more detail about this particular meal or the kind of cooking in the household or the family history around the food. Team members can ask questions and engage freely without revealing their own stories prematurely.
  • Clear the table: Those who offered the food get to stay seated while others clear the table. (The cook never does the cleaning!)

Don’t over-program this activity. Leave it this loose. If you have three entries, fine. If you have four desserts, oh well. Don’t prompt the discussion; just let it flow naturally. Trust me, food is always a lively discussion topic.

I prefer this food sharing event over many others I have attended or facilitated. Team cooking classes can be fun and tasty but it doesn’t really further the relationships. Nice dinners at good restaurants are a yummy treat but it necessitates speaking only with those seated near you. Elaborate plans to have the CEO serve the members or other forced personal conversations over the course of the meal tend to be good in theory but not in practice.

What I like about my approach is that it mirrors the true nature of teams. It is a group of unique individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives coming together for a shared objective. Successful teams take full advantage of all the disparate skills and knowledge in the room, share information freely to achieve the goal, know and respect each other, take turns giving and receiving, listen to each other and trust that working together will create a better outcome than working alone. This is a simple and elegant way to demonstrate all those traits with an added bonus. Each person must put some preparatory individual work into his/her offering that is decidedly more appealing than a slide deck. And, FYI, it’s okay if a family member helps with the preparation. This is also a great reflection of teamwork; sometimes we don’t possess the skills we need to complete a project so we have to ask for help. But we can still speak quite expertly about the topic…for instance, the perfect curry.

Team members need to connect at a more heart-to-heart level. Rather than going all kumbaya (which is short lived, at best) or the other extreme of all work (seriously?), there are easy options to encourage people to open up just a bit and let themselves be known by sharing something wonderful. You’ll be surprised at the lasting impact on the team.

Now, anyone up for THE best chicken soup in the world?

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