Tag Archive for: Executive Programs

Listening to Women

 By Debra Valentine

The first discussion of this new program will be on works by American author Kate Chopin, pictured here. Our syllabus includes works by Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood, among others.

Howard Zeiderman, Co-founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project and Director of Leadership Programs, and I are starting a new series designed to help us reflect on ourselves.

The readings are by women writers, and we will use them to probe issues of self-identity and historical and cultural differences and distances between ourselves— both between each other and the writers. While gender has become an increasingly fluid and plastic concept, it touches on every aspect of our individual and communal lives. So, much of our discussion should, we hope, improve our self-awareness and ideally, our understanding of others.

I am certainly aware that as a woman in the 1990s who was often the only woman in a conference room or meeting—whether at my old law firm or in businesses where I have worked—I was often not heard. It wasn’t because my voice was too soft, although we know that men hear voices differently than women do. My voice was simply overlooked. Often, a man would later restate or paraph

rase the idea I’d expressed earlier, and everyone would agree it was a good idea. The point is not whether the idea was good or bad but whether it was heard. I guess that is why Ruth Bader Ginsburg encouraged us to always speak our mind, even if our voices shake. We have to work harder to get our voices heard.

The gender environment has, thankfully, evolved a lot in the past 20 years, but there are still many ways in which various people’s voices are not heard in the same way that male voices are heard. This is not to say that males’ voices have lesser or no value—they have much to contribute. It is simply that other voices have equal value. Touchstones has always been a wonderful process for getting all participants in a group to listen to each other, to respect each other, and to think before they speak. We thought bringing a bit more of the Touchstones method into an adult discussion program based on works by women would be a great way of opening ourselves up to the voices of others.

While the readings we’ll be discussing are not necessarily the latest and most cutting edge on gender studies, we believe they are fertile touchstones for exploring gender. Indeed, many are ones I recall seeing on Justice Ginsburg’s library shelves. And we know she thought long and hard about what it means to be a woman in what has remained a male-dominated world. We hope many of you will join us, either this time or in a subsequent group, as we look forward to learning more about ourselves and each other.

Why there are always poems and sometimes even poets

By Olivia Braley, Stefanie Takacs, and Howard Zeiderman

For more than 25 years, Touchstones staff ran executive programs in-person in Washington, DC and New York. Although highly customized in many ways, most of those programs had one characteristic in common: none of them featured contemporary texts. In the past seven years, though, we’ve shifted to programs designed increasingly around modern works. The purpose of these programs remains the same: engage professional adults in the process of examining and modifying their presuppositions through collaborative discussion. And while they are all Touchstones programs, these executive offerings depart in some significant ways from the process method we follow in other settings. Instead, the focus here is on self-reflection and using the works read to reveal ourselves more completely. Such efforts, we believe, are useful starting points in forming our futures.

Our newest program—on modern poetry—launches this winter. These texts were selected primarily by Olivia Braley, our Programs and Office Assistant, with input from our Director of Leadership Programs, Howard Zeiderman. Olivia, who joined the Touchstones staff in September, is a poet with an educational background in creative writing from the University of Maryland. She and Zeiderman will co-lead this eight-meeting program.

In choosing the writers for this group, Olivia looked to poets who encompass a wide range of style, subject matter, and personal background. “The world of modern poetry is perhaps more diverse in form and voice than ever,” she says, “and it’s important to look to writers who represent that in their written as well as lived experience.” The featured poets in this program cover multiple spectra of ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and sexualities. These components of their identities emerge in their poetry in ways as varied as they are. All collections on the program reading list are written in the last 20 years and include writers Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Anne Carson, Ilya Kaminsky, and others. This “living” aspect of the poetry invites the group to consider these poems in real time—leading naturally to questions about the role of poetry in our present world. It also raises issues of how language and world interact to shape one another.

Like the poets, the participants in this group come from different backgrounds but are united in their interest to read and consider the role of language as it affects our lives. Though the role of language may be more pronounced in certain fields— such as education or law—all people are sensitive to language, regardless of profession. It is the locus of our humanity. This Touchstones poetry program serves as a way to delve into this sensitivity and explore language working at its most acute. There, the group is concerned with the very structure of language, sounds, and form.

Recent Fiction as Navigating an Emerging and a Virtual World

A New Touchstones Discussion Program

Since late spring, once a month 12 professionals— lawyers, CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs—sign onto a ZOOM meeting to spend 90 minutes together in a Touchstones discussion. Like all Touchstones programs, this virtual program uses selected texts— in this case recent short-fiction by writers such as Borges, Calvino, Handke, and Hazzard. These works function as tools, touchstones, to make our emerging world more visible. Undertaking this in a virtual form is a relatively new departure as we chart a course both by exploring these recent modes of fiction and engaging in authentic inquiry via a virtual platform.

Although we’ve piloted online programs in the past, we’ve affirmed this spring that our unique, decades long and tested approach in the concrete Touchstones face-to-face experience translates richly and effectively into virtual discussions. These meetings equal both the intimacy and collaborative power of our traditional environment and, like explorations in person, create a venue for full and balanced participation with room for everyone’s talents and insights. One participant, a CEO from a major marketing corporation with prior experience running Touchstones groups said he was stunned at the extremely high level of engagement and in certain respects even preferred the virtual sessions. A successful entrepreneur from the Midwest who is also involved in internet marketing said he finds this Touchstones program an important vehicle for igniting his thinking and expanding his horizons. Participants come in from every time zone in the continental U.S., effortlessly overcoming geographic distance with remarkable ease and connecting meaningfully with others from diverse communities and professions.

Our foray into online executive programs began six years ago in piloting Mapping the Future with nine highly experienced Touchstones participants. Mapping serves as the backbone of our executive work because it develops a deepened and collaborative organizational culture. In that pilot, the group felt a virtual format offered many exciting possibilities, but issues of connectivity and bandwidth were problematic. High-speed access has improved significantly and new platforms such as Zoom offer tremendous adaptability.

In creating the new Touchstones custom program, we offered additional guidelines for online interaction: participants do not mute their microphones and the private chat tool is not allowed. Everything remains public and available to all— with few barriers to entry into the discussion. The use of breakout rooms enables small group work where teams of two to apply the Touchstones method to examine leadership issues. And polls, creatively designed, allow the group more detailed assessment of their dynamics. Even Touchstones speech maps can play a useful role, as they capture the flow and patterns in speaking. Although the current group has 12 participants, we’re considering expanding future group sizes to 18-20 participants.

We believe providing exceptional experiences in both in-person and virtual discussion programs strengthens our position as leaders in innovation and education. We will keep you current on these ground-breaking initiatives, as we seek opportunities to engage more leaders from around the country and the world in Touchstones.

Leadership Development On Deck

By Howard Zeiderman

As we look forward to spring of 2019, we’re gearing up for some great Touchstones professional development activity this month and next. Next week, Touchstones staff will be working at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario for two intensive days of classroom observations and coaching. Touchstones programs are integrated into the academic curriculum throughout the Junior and Senior Schools, and this is our fifth consecutive year of continued professional development work with teachers and administrators.

A group of Senior School administrators and faculty work together to refine
their Touchstones discussion leadership skills.

Then, in March, Touchstones staff will have the pleasure of working for a second year in a row with participants of the annual CAFÉ Deans and Directors Retreat. This professional development opportunity is “for postsecondary program leaders who work in “the Hourglass” position; i.e., they have administration above them pushing down with the needs and requirements and they have to filter the information down to the faculty and students with whom they work.”

CAFÉ, which stands for the Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education, was founded in 2002 by Mary Petersen from Annapolis, Maryland, to provide shared educational opportunities for professionals in the foodservice industry and the culinary/baking/ pastry classroom. Mary has been widely recognized for her leadership and entrepreneurialism and received numerous awards for her exceptional work in education, including being inducted in 2005 into the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque as a lifetime honorary member (one of 15 honorary and only 100 members in the United States).

This year, the two-day retreat will take place in Charleston, SC—home of exceptional, modern Southern cuisine—and Touchstones will focus on the role of collaboration in building a brand.