How to Tackle Big Issues at Small Meetings

Wingspread was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936.

Shortly after Roger Dower became president of the Johnson Foundation in 2007, he wanted to explore what it takes to host meaningful meetings. So, he held a meeting with a group of 18 experts who ranged from labor arbitrators to environmental mediators.

The Johnson Foundation manages Wingspread, a Benchmark Global Hospitality Company property. The mission of the bucolic 36-acre retreat and conference center near Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin, is, Dower said, “to utilize Wingspread as a place for the right people to deal with big issues in a small-group fashion.”

The 18 experts came up with a list of important things for a successful meeting, he said. Among them: Are the right people at the table? Is everyone prepared? Have you set the right agenda? Do you have a good facilitator? “If you do these things, they said you have a 75-percent chance of having a successful meeting,” said Dower, who oversees a staff that assists with everything from developing the agenda to hiring the facilitator at events hosted on site. When Dower asked what makes up the other 25 percent, “They said, ‘It’s magic. You create an environment where people want to do something important.’”

That meeting magic at Wingspread comes in the form of the property’s lush landscapes and the building itself: It’s the last prairie-style home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Featuring five fireplaces and a teepee-inspired ceiling, Wingspread was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. But Wingspread’s heritage extends beyond its walls. Meetings hosted here by the Johnson Foundation have led to the creation of National Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the International Criminal Court.

What makes Wingspread such a successful incubator? Convene asked Dower to break it down.

Roger Dower, President of the Johnson Foundation

What are the keys to a productive meeting?
At the simplest level, if you get the right people at the right time on the right topic, you’ll have remarkable outcomes. That means you have people who are knowledgeable on the topic and they’re in a position to act on the information.

What are important pre-meeting questions to ask?
We ask simple things. Why are you holding the meeting now? Are you the right person to call the meeting? We think a lot about what participants need to have the right kind of conversation and whether the agenda is appropriate for what they want to do. Is it structured properly? Where do you need breakout sessions?

You focus on intimate meetings that generate discussions. How many people should attend?
Our meetings max out at about 40 people, but the sweet spot is more like 25 to 30. If you want a meeting that’s important and impactful and inspirational, it needs to be small enough so that people can interact and not be lectured to.

How do you generate those intimate interactions?
We create white space in the agenda where you have opportunities for the group to engage informally. That could be a break. That could be a dinner. That could be stopping for a half hour so everyone can go outside. White space is important because not everything that happens at a meeting happens in the meeting itself.

Do certain types of meetings work better at a place like Wingspread than others?
We’re not the best place to host a debate on, say, climate science, where you’re bringing in people with divergent views. Often relationship-building isn’t as important there. We’re set up for meetings that require conversation. If you want a meeting where you hear presentations and lectures, you can do that at any Marriott. We’re not that kind of place. We’re better suited for a board retreat or a strategic-planning session.

How long do meetings at Wingspread usually last?
Our traditional model is two-and-a-half days. We want enough time that we don’t force people to sit in a meeting room for 10 hours straight. That’s an impossible agenda. So we have hospitality time around 5 p.m. — translated loosely as a cocktail hour — typically followed by dinner here at Wingspread. We try not to have business items on the agenda at dinner. This is social time. After dinner, you come back to our residential facility and have more informal time as a group. We’ve found that the more people can build relationships with one another, the better they are at working together and talking to each other.

Why are you well-suited for relationship building?
First off, we’re on a closed campus. Once you’re here, you’re here. There’s not a lot of distractions so people quickly become close. And the Frank Lloyd Wright home is just a phenomenal example of innovation and imagination. Even though it’s 14,000 square feet, it’s an intimate structure.

What are some common meeting mistakes?
We’ve all been to awful meetings, right? I think that’s often due to spending too much time on the agenda and not enough on what needs to happen in advance of the meeting — such as providing people with the information they need. We also make sure that at the end of each meeting you spend at least 15 to 30 minutes saying, “What needs to happen next and who is going to do it?”

What is the most important meeting that you’ve been involved with at Wingspread?
We hosted a series of meetings on African-American infant mortality rates in Racine. The rates were shockingly high. About midway through these meetings — we must have held 10 or 12 on the topic — you could almost see the light bulbs go on and everyone in the room recognizing the possible solution. In this case, it was combining early medical intervention with post-birth treatment and information. We’ve tracked the results: Infant mortality rates have fallen here in Racine.

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