LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 02

Leaders Use Study Circles to Test and Stretch Their Capacities

March 13, 2017 | by Michelle McParland, Laura Kopp and Kathryn Brod

Fellows of the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy went through a study circle process to address challenges to our field, while boosting their own abilities as leaders.

For the fellows of the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy, a study circle—a part of the Academy curriculum—takes place over a one-year period. The purpose of a study circle is to collectively examine a timely issue relevant to not-for-profit aging-services providers. These discussions are meant to provide a vehicle for ongoing, structured dialogue, deliberation, and shared problem-solving.

The question we studied evoked emotion in some of the fellows early on: “What do we see as gaps in our field and how do we think aging-services providers should address those gaps?” This is a broad question to which there are many possible answers, and for those of us accustomed to being right most of the time, this question felt daunting, especially as we considered issues such as ageism and ableism, access to care, technology, language and workforce.

Building Magic

One of us, Laura Kopp, had some trepidation, as an executive in a nonprofit senior center, about relating to a group of fellows who came primarily from life plan communities. A former fellow who is a member of LeadingAge Iowa told her, “Please don’t worry! Let’s talk after your year is complete. There are no words to describe the experience!”

She thought about how many “life-changing” leadership experiences we have had: 10? 20? Now, a few months post-graduation, she is struggling to find adequate words to describe the experience.

We all got a taste of the magic that is the Academy, and the root of that came from our shared experience with the study circle. In Boston, MA, last October, our mentors and coaches created an undeniably safe and trusting community filled with emerging leaders, each with a unique perspective and a diversity of thought. Fellows came from all across the country and that culture of safety was cultivated in a matter of hours. That’s no exaggeration. While there were ice-breakers, check-ins, readings, exercises and group meals (and maybe a few cocktails), it was during study circle conversations that the richness of thought evolved. These experiences helped transform our thinking about leadership, about our field, and about the way in which the world sees older adults.

For many of the 48 Fellows, broken into 2 groups of 24, the concept was foreign prior to joining the Academy. One of our teammates explained her initial concerns like this: “When I first heard the term study circle, I immediately envisioned Sunday school and Bible study. I mean, what was the intent and why sit in a circle? Why not a crescent or triangle? Why not ‘study’ with the entire group? I had so many questions!”

In the end, our questions had little to do with the content (which was new and often forced us to think outside the box) and had more to do with procedure and structure, which is certainly much more controllable. Like most executives and leaders, we gravitated toward that which we could control rather than that which might force us to face some hard truths about ourselves … in front of other leaders from across the nation! Asking ourselves and our peers about the gaps—things we are not doing well—stretched us more than many of us were accustomed to.

However, the exercise brought forth some interesting themes. Both groups identified opportunities to combat ageism and ableism, to increase access to care and services for those with lesser financial means, to use advanced technology to support aging in place, to understand the power of words and language, to grasp the value of genuine connection, and to face the reality of an aging and shrinking workforce.

We came from every region in the country, and it turns out, we all saw similarities in the service gaps facing older adults. Having the opportunity to talk about disparities and to brainstorm feasible high-level solutions to those challenges reinforced the idea that we are all in this together. We are the collective solution. Although we may have our own approaches in our own communities, the only way to make real change in aging services is to work together and share our ideas and philosophies.

In reality, the study circle experience feels a little like a dinnertime conversation with your immediate family or dear friends, rather than an awkward family reunion. It allows smaller groups to develop a deeper connection and rapport, create their own cultures of trust, and develop their own ways of communicating that brings out the best in each member. The intimacy generates its own safety net for open, genuine and authentic conversation. We all began to see similarities between our communities, in our struggles as leaders, and in our vision for the entire field of aging. The study circles elevated our insights and personal reflections from the micro (individual) to the macro (our field). More importantly, the process dared us to reflect upon what we should be doing. “What ought we be doing?” is a question we should never stop asking ourselves.

The study circle conversations continued throughout the year and brought us all to a deeper understanding of our field. While it was alluring to think about process and operational solutions to the universal problems facing older adults, when we were together as a group, we realized it was a unique opportunity to stretch beyond our operational expertise and view the field from a different vantage point. Getting away from our communities and work places, the study circle questions brought us back to the bigger picture in a way that became natural and was almost intrinsic for many of us as well.

Throughout the Academy experience, our mentors planted the seed of curiosity in all of us—a refined way of viewing our roles, our communities and our field with a curious lens. The reality is that curiosity is the key not only to professional growth, but also to introspective learning and meaningful, genuine connection to others. This is truly the magic of the Academy.

Becoming Change-Makers

While promoting small-group dialogue, the study circles generated themes across the entire group as well, and these themes played out in 6 distinctive team presentations. The consistent refrain was the very real impact ageism has on the ways in which we serve older adults, and the ways in which society views this group. From how services are offered to how the entire field is structured, the negative connotation of aging is rampant and thoroughly embedded. As a whole, we as leaders recognized that we needed to embrace our role as the next generation of change-makers in the field; that when the insipid effects of ageism coalesce with the decreasing skilled workforce in aging services, we only have ourselves to depend on to create a nation geared toward successful aging.

For us, the study circle exercises and the Academy experience brought full-circle the “why” of what we do. These encounters taught us to take our time, go to people we know we can trust with our most vulnerable moments and thoughts, and create a culture where making mistakes is valued. We quickly realized we need to learn to trust each other more, and spend more time focused on the larger picture rather than the minutiae of our day-to-day work. We need to bask in these moments of true clarity and relish the experience of simply being present rather than jumping back to where we came from. The study circle also taught us to bring others along throughout the journey and to boost the confidence of the other leaders around us. It isn’t hard to listen to and validate the ideas and thoughts of your teammates and peers and remind them of the value they bring to the table. It turns out, aging services attracts incredibly bright and engaged leaders; it’s our obligation to help them grow!

In the end, “finishing well” became a theme for some of the 2016 Fellows. A member of our group said this about the experience: “I find myself being more and more aware of ageism in day-to-day life as a result of our experiences together. I make an effort to speak up about it with others. When I am feeling overwhelmed or not as successful as I wanted to be in these endeavors, I remind myself of the importance of finishing well.”

Certainly this can be a reference to our final years of life, but within the context of our study circles, perhaps finishing well refers to this noble work upon which we have embarked.

Michelle McParland is vice president for health and supportive services for Frasier Meadows Retirement Community, Boulder, CO. Laura Kopp is president/CEO of Center for Active Seniors, Davenport, IA. Kathryn Brod is president/CEO of LeadingAge Ohio.