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Kevin Huynh at ComNetworkV+

ComNetV+ Keynote

Kevin Huynh, cofounder at People & Company and coauthor of Get Together helps people get their people together. He’ll be sharing learnings, research, and lessons from his work to cultivate communities of power users including:

Nat will explore:

  • How to approach community building as progressive acts of collaboration.

  • How true communities fuel growth for advocacy and social good.

  • How we can accomplish more together than we ever could alone.

Below, watch the video or read the transcript.



Sean Gibbons:

Hey, everybody. It’s Sean Gibbons from the Communications Network. Welcome to my bedroom for what is our final V+ keynote. I could not be more delighted closing out, talking about the place we began, which is thinking about communication and how communication really does move at the speed of trust. That’s been a lesson I think we’ve been learning over the last couple of years.

We look for folks that we have a relationship with, that we are in community with, and so that is increasingly going to be a charge that falls on all of us who do communications work at foundations and non-profits, not just the words and the images but really bringing people together so they can receive them, hear them and share them.

That’s a little bit of what we’re going to be talking about today with Kevin Huynh who is with us.

Before we do that, a little bit of housekeeping, and if we can, just heeding back to some of the practices we developed over the last all too many months. Where are we at now, month nine now, gang.

We checked in with each other. If you’ll go down into the chat, just follow me, I’m going to be slow here, y’all know this by now, I’m a slow typer, but if you go to the chat button, a big word bubble at the bottom of the screen, take your finger or cursor, whatever you use to manipulate your computer. Go down in there and take a moment to say hello.

It should probably say you’re talking to everyone, or might say all panelists and attendees. But either way, if you would, just type in your name, where you’re coming in from and that idea that we’ve borrowed from professor Brené Brown down at the University of Houston, and that is the two-word check-in.

So, in two words, how are you doing right now? I’ll just join you kind of kick things off.

Hi, it’s Sean. Excited and happy.

Who we got in there? There’s jade, how are you, excited and thankful. And Amy, another friend of ours from the D. C. area, tired and grateful. That is a common way to be just about now as we head into the holiday season.

Who else is here? Melinda coming in from Montana, nice to see you virtually anyway, my friend. Motivated and hopeful. Jay from Chicago, nice to see you, eager and hungry, and thank you for all y’all did today. They just came off of a wonderful event talking about racial equity in Chicago.

Susan is with us as well. Grateful and energized. Kevin is here in Brooklyn where it’s snowing just a little bit. Steady and breathing. That’s a good way to be.

To everybody else, Dana, coming in from San Diego, hungry and happy, and if the rest of us could borrow your weather, send it our way. Kevin is sitting in the beginnings of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. Come on in here, gang. Talk to each other. We’ll show some links into the chat along the way, and feel free to be in community with one another, talking to one another.

Of course, the span of this next 45 minutes, an hour that we’ve got with Kevin.

Also just flagged for you something we have proud to made our practice in 2020, a little ashamed we didn’t get to it until now is we are offering a little greater accessibility, and so if you’re interested and you have need of or just want to have the benefit of some closed captioning, want to say thanks to Michelle who’s doing that for us.

You can find closed captioning down at the bottom of our screen, and our friend Marva who is with us throughout the last couple of months, she’s with us as well. You’ll be able to see her if you have need of ASL interpretation services. Can you pin the camera up and keep an eye on her, and I promise to try to talk slow to make it easy on Michelle and Marva.

Hey, Liz, fired up and chilly. It’s a little bit chilly in D. C. A hint of the snow that Kevin’s about to see.

Also, behind the scenes, my colleague Tristan, Mr. T, he will advance the slides.

One thing I want to let you know, as we’re winding down the last content piece of V today we will have replays as we have through the last couple of months through the portal. You’ve gotten a password should you need to begin. Shout out if you need one and we’ll get you hooked up with that.

Everything is on-line and available for you. A lot of it is migrated to — the V portion of stuff has migrated over to YouTube, so you’re welcome to share that as well. Mr. T, if we can, take it forward.

So here is the slide we’re going to sit on for the next little bit. It’s my great honor and pleasure to invite now to join us, Kevin Huynh. Kevin has been behind the scenes helping us design and build V+, and he has been incredibly helpful in that process.

If you’ve been working with or are you a community ambassador, he doesn’t need much of an invitation to you. You’ve seen the handy work that he has provided through helping us all think through how we might be bringing people together. Kevin, thank you for coming in today.

Abigail, while you’re in the chat, and Lamont, thanks for being with us. Kevin, nice to see you. I know we got to chitchat a little before we joined everybody here. You want to tell us — before I start with the question of how you got on this journey and the work you’re doing, do you want to explain to us what’s behind the scene here? We were just talking about Dune.

Kevin Huynh:

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. This is a virtual background. You can tell if I cover my camera, it’s like I disappear, boom. Yeah, behind me is a — this is a photo of one of the first bookstores that a book that I published last year was put into. It’s actually in Singapore, and I got to write this book with my amazing partner called Get Together. It’s a guidebook on how to build a community with your people. And above it is a large collection of Dune, which I read for the first time four couple of weeks ago in a couple of days, and it was a wonderful dystopian escape that I just escaped into for a short period of time. Sometimes we need that.

Sean Gibbons:

Something we all need in 2020. If you’re looking for a book, I guess we just got a good recommendation. Speaking of book recommendations, thank you so much for the gift of this book, which the team, Tristan and Keri, Kareem and I have been looking at. It’s been incredibly helpful, and so commend it to everybody. If you’re a community ambassador, we got to share these out with everybody. It’s a wonderful book. Rather than just holding it up and showing it to everybody, Kevin, can I ask you — this was the result of a long journey. Maybe the question becomes how did you finally end up with this book being published in that beautiful screen behind you? How did you get there? Why do you care so much about? building community?And maybe you could share with us sort of your story and your journey about how we got here, how we find ourselves in conversation today.

Yeah. The story of my work and where I’m at right now, really starts with the story of my family, you know. If I go back 45 years, I know Dana’s calling in from San Diego, my dad landed in Camp Pendleton in San Diego. My mom simultaneously landed in Arkansas as Vietnamese war refugees in 1975. You can imagine my father walking off with a thin T-shirt saying this is the coldest I have ever been in my entire life as he arrived in San Diego. Growing up, I saw them kind of fall in and out of social communities and social groups that they were a part of from, you know, being sponsored by these church families in Texas and really being surrounded by a group of people to, you know, following opportunities elsewhere that led them to feel more isolated. This comes up to me starting to grow up in Colorado, going to a predominantly white school at some point I was referred to as the OA, which was the original Asian, because I was the only one. And I believe it made me just a bit more conscious about the people side of things, you know. When I was interacting with people, when I wasn’t, when I felt like a part of something and when I wasn’t. And through this, one of my first loves became organizing. It became organizing school events, the school dance, the canned food drives, and to me that was a way of almost inserting myself into the interaction if I wasn’t sure, I’d be invited if I wasn’t sure I fit in at the time, it was a way to be a part of that process. And that Theresa Tam really just stuck with me through — and that theme really just stuck with me. I was doing as much time producing concerts and movie screenings on campus to starting my career as producing large-scale conferences, kind of like what you do with V+ as well as building out this chapter-based organization called Creative Mornings, which hosts events and lectures for the creative community. In 2014, there was a pivotal moment for me. Two women named Jess Johnson and Brie Farigna were starting change maker chats. They started this group in York to discuss the good, bad and ugly of navigating their careers, and they came, you know, seeking some sort of advice, some guidance on how to build out their community, and you know, in my book Get Together, which I wrote four years later, we define a community as simply a group of people who keep coming together over something they care about. And 2014 Kevin in that moment realized, you know, there’s a lot of people that care about a lot of different things. This isn’t just about me and, you know, the kids at my school. This isn’t just about my parents and the people that are supporting them. It’s not just about the creative world, which I was helping organize at the time. There are a lot of people that care about a lot of different things, and you know, and there are leaders that step up in certain instances to do something about it, to put the pieces in place to kind of, you know, spark the fire, to start a group and really begin to rally other people. And so, with that, my mind kind of opened, and I would join forces with, you know, my current business partners and my co-authors, bailey Richardson and — we would start this company called People & Company with this hunch that we could help individuals and organizations better break down how they can bring people together. Communities feel magical, but they don’t come together by magic. What are the steps involved? How do you try to? make smart bets to do it and not just hope that you’re, you know, creating this space that organic things happen, please, please. And we can get more into, you know, the work we do as a strategy partner and some of the research we do, like the book, but back to your question of why I care, in short, you know, whoever you’re focused on right now, whether you’re thinking about an external audience, you know, as a communications professional or you’re thinking about your internal team, or just thinking about your personal life, I have this hunch that there’s more that we can do together. You know? We don’t need to reduce them to an audience. Alone we are limited. With others we extend our capacity, and if we start asking ourselves, you know, what does it look like if I’m actually serving a community, a? group of people that would come together, keep coming together over something they care about. You know, what does my work look like and what is possible if we do so? And I think a lot is possible. So that’s me.

Sean Gibbons:

And that is awesome, and a beautiful thing, but I’m struck by the fact that you come from a I suppose engineering is a science or math-based background, but you’ve stumbled upon, and I don’t want to overemphasize this, but it seems to me you believe nothing happens without the community piece coming first or that that is a really necessary ingredient, and I think a lot of people walk past that piece. Maybe you could talk to me about is that observation true, that lots of people just assume community and then think about how to leverage community without the doing the actual community building work? Is that true? And if so, what do we need to do to change that sort of narrative or belief that many people have, which is that it’s just a happy accident that occurs on your way to a better tomorrow?

I’ll first call out that the word “community” is sufficiently ambiguous, you know? And it’s getting thrown around in so many different ways from a euphemism for, you know, my large audience or user base. It’s also thrown around as, you know, a sense of community. It’s you’re thinking about, like, social groups you’re a part of. If you play basketball or something else, and you know, my engineering wizard brain likes to kind of very quickly go past a philosophical discussion on, like, what is community and the meaning of community and very quickly into, all right, who are you bringing together, why are they coming together and what are they going to do together?Because that’s what this is about. Communities could go by many names, you know, from — your networks to your social groups to the ERG at work to all these sorts of things, and what it’s really about is, you know, if you — what it’s really about is bringing together a group of people to go do something together. And this might be my kind of engineering bias, but I am more fascinated by how do you put the pieces in place, what are the inputs and outputs, how do you create the right structure so people can start to, you know, work together, to interact and do more and accomplish more together.

Sean Gibbons:

So maybe I’m trying to take you to an ethereal place but you’re reminding me that there’s a lot of mechanics. But it’s true, right? Ultimately what we’re talking about is some kind of construct that requires, actually, a foundational piece and structure in place in order to I guess sustain itself, survive and ultimately maybe thrive, and then to your point do some good stuff together, even if that’s just getting the folks together to go to that ball game some day in the future when this pandemic has passed us and we’re able to be a little bit more mobile. How do you go about — so then I’m going to ask you the engineering question, then. How do you build community? How do you go about getting after this work? What kinds of skills do you need to have? What’s the magic beans that you need to bring into the process?

Yeah. I’ll tell a story to kind of illustrate. One of the organizations that I’ve gotten to work with, that we’ve gotten to work with is the Ed Camp foundation, education-focused organization. So about — must be between five and ten years ago there were I think five teachers, five-ish teachers within the Philadelphia area that really disliked how professional development was being done within their schools. At its worst they felt like they were being forced to sit through, you know, PowerPoint presentations from so-called experts who really didn’t understand the needs of the classroom. And they looked at each other and said I think we can do this better with just ourselves. If we were teaching each other. So inspired by some other kind of events and camps that have existed, they put this call out to say, hey, we’re hosting an Ed Camp on Saturday, and what it involves is you can be any type of educator, whether it’s elementary school, middle school, high school, public, private, charter, you’re welcome. We’re going to meet up at the school. There will be no set agenda, and we will suggest topics to discuss for the day that we really want to get into, whether it’s teaching science to introverts, whether it’s social justice in the classroom, whether it’s some new type of technology or tool that people are interested in using. And we, you know, who — we will lead the sessions. Individuals will lead the sessions and you will be able to walk into or walk out of any session you find valuable for the day. They had 100 educators immediately show up at their first one, and if you fast-forward, some of those educators walked away and said, wow, that was the best day of professional development I’ve gotten in my 20-year career, and it didn’t involve any so-called expert coming. And it was actually just having the space to discuss what we really needed to discuss, what I really wanted to discuss with other teachers. The Gates Foundation would eventually become a sponsor of the Ed Camp foundation, and today thousands of Ed Camps have happened around the world in all 50 states, in over 50 countries, and it started with this core group of teachers. So you ask, you know, how do you start a community? I think there are three key questions to go about this. One, who do you want to bring together? Two, why are you going to come together? And three, what are you going to do together?And I say this because I think people jump almost immediately to the what sometimes or they’ll have, like, a selfish why involved. It’s like I want to, you know, increase X metric at my company. But really it starts with who. Who do you care about right now? Who is your work focused on? Who are you investing in?And for those educators, it was other educators who were — who weren’t feeling the professional development they were getting right now, believing something was better. And as far as why they would get together, probably a blend of both skill development and actually empowering setting. You know, they’re going every day having to answer to kind of, you know, the state telling them what to do, the principals telling them what to do, the administration telling them what to do, and now other non-educators telling them what to do. So what does empowering skill development look like? That’s why — that was their original hunch. And then they decided on, all right, well, there’s no substitute for action right now. There’s no substitute for actually doing something together, and in this case they decided to host an unconference, an event that has kind of a very fluid participatory vibe where they could have teachers teach each other and provide empowering skill development. And based on the timing and this group of people, it really resonated, and people wanted to take this and make it their own and bring it to other cities and bring it to Brooklyn and bring it to, you know, Ukraine and all over. And to me that’s — I like the idea of bringing just a little bit more structure to how we approach making the best bets we can to start a community, start a group of people that are coming together to realize a certain purpose. I think it starts with just who, why and what.

Sean Gibbons:

Pretty simple stuff, but incredibly powerful, and no surprise here to find that there’s echoes of that in the networks origins story, which 40 years ago was a few folks gathering at the back of somebody else’s conference. Didn’t want to talk about what was on the agenda at the front of the room. They wanted to talk about their work and their craft and maybe a little bit of gossip, and it’s grown now to the point where there’s thousands of people across the globe who are part of this organization. And really I think I always hesitate to use the word organization, because it is a community. It’s people turning up for one another. Maybe we could pivot to another professional experience which I think would have a profound impact on you. I won’t be so presumptuous, and that’s your work at Creative Mornings which has been a model for those of us at the network and a lot of us who are trying to bring people together to enhance and improve their work. Can you talk a little bit about what that stories looked like? How did you end up working for Creative Mornings, again with that background in engineering. How did that come together for you and what are you most proud of that experience?

If you teleport me back to starting to work at Creative Mornings, it was my first job, and I was taking multiple jobs, but it was one of my first jobs out of college. I had this —

Sean Gibbons:

And you were employee number one, right?

I was employee number one. Maybe it’s a bit indulgent, but if my parents had a survivor mindset when they came to this country, I had a mindset of they gave me a privilege and a platform to thrive, to do something that I really find is like purposeful, meaningful, interesting. Not that it’s going to be easy, but, like, that — and I had — and I was looking for an opportunity that somehow blended all of these different cakes I was trying to eat at once, right?Blended both being pretty process-oriented and operational, and that’s kind of the engineering side. And then also loving, like, live human experiences and bringing people together and this, like, entrepreneurial scratch. And through a series of, you know, cold emails and introductions, I was eventually just put in touch with Tina Roth-Eisenberg who is the creator and founder. I was in school at UC Berkeley at the time, and she was at the point where she had started a creative meetup where she is a web and graphic designer by trade, and felt like there are all these silos within the creative industry. And this was back in probably a few years — this was probably back in about 2008. And you know, what would it be like if who we brought together like a wide swath of creatives that still — that why for inspiration and what, some sort of live lecture or gathering. And she started this kind of Creative Mornings meetups series out of her studio space in New York, and it grew and it grew and it eventually had hundreds of people attending. There was another city or two that, like, you know, an attendee from here would move somewhere else and they would say, YO, can I start this chapter, and she was looking at that moment for a person who had an entrepreneurial itch with a process-oriented operational mind that also loved, you know, live experiences and bringing people together to help her scale it, to help her pass the torch to new organizers. And my experience there, which was, you know, was formative, it showed me kind of the power of building a sandbox for other people just to enable them to do more of what they wanted to do. I got to inherit, you know, a — an inbox full of people saying, hey, can I bring Creative Mornings to my city, and I interviewed and on-boarded and created an application process for the first, you know, 50 — I was interviewing them all myself for the first 50 or so chapters and putting the systems in place. You know, those resources, those assets, the legal agreement, what does it mean to be an organizer, to eventually — and eventually building a small staff that would highlight sort of the content, the lessons that were coming out of all of these different cities, up until we got — we passed 100 cities. You imagine — today it’s over 220 cities that every single month there is an event celebrating the local creative community with — it always happens on Friday mornings, and one creative person is kind of sharing their journey, their process at a time. And it was — yeah, I think the key point here for me is it taught me that how much was possible — I mean, the team was small at headquarters, right? It was me and this small team I built. How much is possible when you really channel people’s, like, energies. Like, you can’t fake the funk. I couldn’t make those people, like, seek out the need for more inspiration. Like, that was the — that was what they wanted and needed more of, and I got to see what happens when you create the tools and the space that enables them to do more of it. And also organize for others.

Sean Gibbons:

And now — so from 2008 we’re now in 2020, 12 years later, hundreds of chapters of Creative Mornings, or maybe one way to think about it once a month on a Friday there are 200 hours of people, you know, separately in different parts of the world.

Yeah, around a common theme now too. There’s a global theme, whether it’s food or water or loneliness.

Sean Gibbons:

Can you quantity using your engineer’s brain, what’s the impact or meaning of all of that when it was for a series of time just a series of inquiries on an email?

After I left Creative Mornings in 2015, I traveled and spent some time on the sofas of, you know, Ross Drakes who runs the Johannesburg chapter and Emma who is part of the Buenos Aires chapter, and what struck me was two words. Shower time. You know, it’s like the things I think about in the shower are sort of the things that either are, like, really stressing me out or the things that are really building me up, right? They are the things that I am dwelling on or dreaming on. And when I spent time — this is not showering with the folks, but when I was spending time with them, I realized sort of the unquantifiable amount of kind of brain energy and meaning that this leadership role meant for those leaders. And I think we felt that at certain times, the power of, like, finding the right role that enables — that gives you a little bit of that structure and confidence to do something that you didn’t think was possible, whether it’s like someone saying, hey, you’re now the — you’re now the secretary for our club or, you know, you are the Asian American, like, employee-resource group leader. How that almost, you know, takes over and provides this platform for you to start dreaming on. And I don’t know, if you asked me to think about what it means to me, that was a lesson. Like I wanted to work on things from then on, and I wanted to help other people work on their things that were going to, you know, create those opportunities for others. I believe great leaders create more leaders, and we — I got to see what it meant to create leaders, and that experience, because I’m hell-bent on helping more leaders create more leaders in their work.

Sean Gibbons:

No, I think that was very much how I kind of think — I hope all of us on the board and the staff, the network think about it is one of our great opportunities is to build not just our field, but to build leaders in our field. And I just — the crazy things that can happen when you empower your people a little bit of power, or permission is really what we’re in the business of doing, giving people permission to go and build something and see the wonderful effects that can have. I wonder if as a piece of that, what are some of the challenges or dangers that you can run into potentially as you’re thinking about these things? It’s not always sunshine and daisies. There are going to be some challenges as you’re doing these things. What are some challenges you encounter of lessons learned or gosh I wish I’d known that before I stepped in that particular spot? Any takeaways? Particularly around Creative Mornings or more broadly around community building.

Yeah. Well, the challenge of this year is adapting, you know? I don’t need to tell any of you that. The challenge of this year is adapting, and when I think about the organizations that we’re advisors to, or the community leaders I get to take office hours with, or you know, the friends who are putting on things, one challenge is the world’s shifting. And if a community is about who you’re bringing together, and community starts with who you’re going to bring together and why they’re going to come together, what is the purpose of this group, and then what they’re going to do together, this year with the pandemic we’ve seen for some groups, like the what is no longer an option, right?The in-person Ed Camp, that 400-person unconference in Newark, New Jersey that I went to last year, those can’t happen anymore. The world has shifted. I was talking to an organizer who put on, like, this monthly party around, like, building solidarity among their group, and it just felt like with the pandemic, interests shifted, you know? The needs — the group of people they cared about did not change, but what those people needed changed. They no longer needed sort of, like, a celebration of solidarity. They needed something else in this time. So you know, one story that kind of brings us to think about the challenges and how to navigate them is a group called the dinner party. So there’s an organization that’s called the Dinner Party. I think if you look at thedinnerparty. org, or you check out the Podcast, was started by two young women who lost loved ones at a young age, you know, lost parents, lost family members at a young age. And as, you know, 20 and 30 somethings, they were looking for a space to transform kind of their life after loss, you know. What happens now? And they have been doing this work for almost a decade, and they began hosting these dinners to provide a space in cities where people who are part of the club that no one wants to be a part of can find support and guidance in a non-judgmental space. And with the pandemic, you know, what they do, in-person dinners, like, that had to change, but why they existed, you know, the purpose, all of a sudden became even more heightened and urgent and, frankly, more people in their network were dealing — more people in their lives were dealing with losing a loved one. So suddenly the needs, like, has sort of skyrocketed in some ways and shifted in form a bit while what they do has been constrained. And so they’ve had to adapt and shift, and it wasn’t as simple as, like, oh, we went virtual, right? We hosted, like, Zoom dinners, and they tried that, and there are some of those sort of gatherings happening, but as they started to listen to their group, they realized that what people were missing was a person to talk to kind of on this level, you know, to talk to on this level. And honestly on a more specific level. The idea of not just losing someone in general, but losing a parent or losing a child or losing, you know, someone that you weren’t able to see before they went, before they left. And they decided to shift what they do and stand up sort of a one-on-one program, almost like a buddy or a mentorship program, where they would match people on even more specific criteria. So I think the lesson there as far as, like, challenges people face, you know, and the challenges people face is dealing with change, and I think the tip there as far as, like, dealing with how the world shifts, because inevitably it’s going to, is back to that point of leadership, right?Like, if you’re going to build a community, you can’t build it for people, you got to build it with people. If you want to build a community, you got to build — you can’t build it for people. You need to build it with people, and in times of change, the best you can do is work with sort of the folks and hopefully you’ve created more leaders that start to troubleshoot and, you know, figure out, like, what’s going to happen. And like Carla did with the Dinner Party, it came back to who we serve, are they still there? Yes. Is what they need changed? A little bit. Even more heightened, but there’s a different form here. We need to go talk to them. And finally what do we do together? It’s going to be informed differently. There’s no longer these larger groups all the time, but more specifically these one-on-one conversations that we facilitate.

Sean Gibbons:

And that brings me to the place that lands in the communication space, and that’s listening. If you’re trying to build with people, obviously you need to have the questions that you want to ask, but then you need to be really open to the true deep listening, where it’s not can I hear what I want to hear and plug it in.


Sean Gibbons:

But how do you actually receive what you’re saying and it’s meaningful. You talk to me about how important listening is when you think about building with or building for people — not building for, excuse me. Building with people.

Yeah. What I think about listening in the context of community building, many things come to mind, to listening to feedback about what your group is doing to listening to your members and their needs, perhaps my — the one point that I would dig in to is the power of personal epiphanies. The beauty of — I think a lot of the types of communities we’re talking about right now are organizations — or organizations or groups where people aren’t doing something just because of money, right? They are motivated for something else. You can’t fake the funk. They are showing up to the Dinner Party because they lost a family member, like I did this year, you know?They are showing up because, you know, they feel like the other people in their profession or in their sector, like, aren’t getting the resources or aren’t getting the support or skill development they need. And I think the approach to building with people is realizing that you need to help people kind of find their own way, and you’re not listening necessarily to do something for them or to just — just to cram them down some funnel so they, you know, move from awareness to activity to sale, right?What you’re trying to do is help them, you know, see and figure out and realize what they are really want to do and capable of doing and then providing the right environment to do so. So — and this is, you know, how I approach my work and my work in community building is really the orientation of, you know, almost a coach that understands the power of a personal epiphany. There’s just something so different from just feeling like you’re being heard, and that’s going to be filed away, right, or just hearing advice from someone else. When someone listens to you but then also kind of reflects and helps you see, you know what, like, I would really be excited to be a leader. You know, I do care about this right now. Like, that’s so powerful. I think about the best mentors that I have had, and they really helped me reach my own sort of destinations and my own epiphanies. And Carla and Lenin aren’t just out there convincing others to host dinner parties. The founders of Ed Camp are not, you know, just listening to kind of feedback on what teachers need right now and filing it away. They are reacting to it and they are creating, you know, opportunities for those people to take action on them. So to me it’s listening with the — with an ear for how do I help this person get where they want to go.

Sean Gibbons:

And it strikes me that as you say that, we oftentimes, you know, forget that — like, there’s a very powerful thing of just inviting people. There’s this idea I learned a couple years ago, and I’ve remained very taken, taken with is that leadership is not a role, it’s an activity.


Sean Gibbons:

But for a lot of people to take on that activity, we’ve been taught, you know, what leadership looks like. It’s this hierarchal thing or something, and there’s that wonderful book from someone who I guess just a couple of miles from you, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans who wrote the book “New Power” it’s all the —

No, you put it on my reading list.

Sean Gibbons:

I put it on your reading list. I’ll send you a copy after this is over. I’m a big believer that a lot of the work that you’re doing and a lot of people are thinking about is all kind of coinciding with sort of shifting that we’re seeing in power dynamics broadly across the world. Some of that is because of technology. Some of that is just because of the way we problem solve needs to shift, but there seems to be this movement towards galvanizing lots of people and directing their activities. Sometimes for just a moment or two, right, with a political campaign, but other times with Ed Camp, recognizing what’s been provided by this old power hierarchical structure, command and control, isn’t actually scratching the itch. And so it makes me think about, you know, how do you help people understand the opportunity that they have to lead, that they don’t actually have to wait for someone to roll up and hand them a gavel or a crown or whatever it might be, that it’s actually sometimes just that invitation, we could use your help, what do you think?How do you help people build that mindset?

I believe community building is made up of progressive acts of collaboration, right? Like perhaps you start by doing something for others, you know, you organize the first meeting, the first conference, the first, you know, collaborative resource y’all are going to work on, and then very quickly you enable other people to participate in a meaningful way. Very quickly then you break off little pieces, chunks of responsibility and say, hey, is this — you know, this seems like a good fit for you based on what I’m hearing about what you’re interested in. It’s not 100 percent baked, but with you, you know, you could make it happen. You know, the story for me that comes to mind here is my friend Nate Nichols, he was telling me on the day that George Floyd was murdered, he woke up and he was in tears with his wife, and he said this is one of the first days I feel like more people are starting to understand what it feels like to be me each day. And Nate, who is in the advertising industry and he started an agency called Palette Group, he had been — his business had really, like, taken a hit with the pandemic. So if you run a creative agency and you do a lot of, like, in-person live production, that stuff was out the window. All of his clients were gone, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars, they were gone, and he was like how the hell are we going to navigate this time?And he started organizing people, right? He started organizing other freelancers and creatives within the advertising industry, and at this point in the story, after George Floyd’s murder, he immediately rallied a small group of people and said the next summit we organize, the next sort of freelancer advertiser summit we organize is going to be about Allyship & Action. It’s going to be about, you know, how are you taking an active role within the industry, within your company, within your team to do something about, you know, racial injustice if you want to take an anti-racist stance?And you know, they — they organized their first virtual summit, something kind of similar to what you’ve done, that had, like, 3,000 people sign up for this, like, live session. I know a lot of people say they are Zoomed out, but to me, when you really tap into something, when you tap into the elephant in the room that people really want to discuss, when you really tap into something, you know. And what’s beautiful is very quickly this became just something bigger than Nate. It became something bigger than Steffi, his wife, and even bigger of that core team of a couple of partners organizing this summit. All of a sudden they were just breaking off pieces of what it means to start bringing people together around this topic, right? We need workshop leaders. We need producers. We need someone who’s thinking about that Slack group that’s going to be happening afterwards. Maybe those people will become moderators. Who’s raising their hand right now? Let’s pay attention to who’s showing up and help them understand a — craft a role, a leadership role, whether it’s big or small, that enables them to do more than they were doing before, you know, that gives them a bit of that right balance of structure and freedom to enable them to act more. So you know, I — you asked, you know, how do you kind of enable people to do this, to take on more, and I think the story of Allyship & Action comes with this idea of believing in that balance, believing in, hey, if people are really showing up and raising their hands, one thing we can do is define roles and very quickly just start breaking apart the work that needs to be done here and enabling others to do it and take it on and give them enough support so they are not going to flounder, but also enough of an opening so they can remix that. You know, they can bring their own vibe to it. They can bring their own interests to the table.

Sean Gibbons:

What — as you reflect on this year and that wonderful story of the dinner table and how they adapted, on the whole, sort of taking back — maybe just this time of year to take stock a little bit, but as you reflect on what has been I think for all of us an extraordinarily difficult year, a lot of turbulence, a lot of danger, a lot of damage, do you leave the world, from your perch, witnessing a lot of the kinds of activities that you have described, do you feel more optimistic or pessimistic?Do you feel more enthusiastic about the future or are you a bit concerned based on what you’ve seen? We’ve seen incredible acts of kindness and inspiration and also quite a bit of cruelty. Where do you land on that ledger?

Hmm. Is both okay?

Sean Gibbons:

Yeah, absolutely. Can you explain how you come to both and if there’s a little bit of the scale tipping one way or the other, tell me how.

What is that phase change where you’re both, like, a — it’s a liquid and gas simultaneously.

Sean Gibbons:

The basic roles of polarity. Two things opposed seem to exist simultaneously.

Given what I’ve seen, optimistic, pessimistic, there’s a part of me that feels — has felt, you know, personally some of — has felt personally grief and grief with a number of community leaders where their plans got scrapped, where the potential that they saw, you know, went away, you know, the person who was organizing the next incredibly large conference for the chronic illness community that was, like, really taking off all of a sudden those plans, like, kind of went out the window. Not to say that she’s going to continue to serve them through chroniccom, but as a leader there’s only so much gusto you have in the tank, and you also got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. The part that makes me optimistic is in a — I guess in a weird way is the — I believe that creativity thrives within constraints. And in a time where there is an — you know, there’s a lot of painful stuff going on. That means there are a lot of needs. There are a lot of even more important needs. Like, we work and advise with an organization called Special X that is helping parents raise kids with disabilities. How do they find a blend of that urgent guidance and that emotional support as they are doing this really hard thing. And there is so much more need right now. You think about remote learning and in this time, well if you have — if you’re raising a kid with disabilities, you’re really trying to figure out school right now. Let alone if you don’t have certain access to resources. So I am optimistic because I see people recognizing the needs. I see such clear constraints in perhaps people’s time or bandwidth or the format of what they are able to do, and I believe that people are, you know, are willing and brave enough and courageous enough to go take that first step and go do something about it. Jason Lehmbeck, the founder of Special X is saying I’m having to navigate that with my son Noah and there are other parents doing the same thing, and I’m going to go figure out something out to go do this. To me maybe it’s less about optimistic about the impact we’ll see. It’s optimism around our empathy for other human beings, you know? It’s like through that process of, like, seeing needs and feeling needs and doing something about it, or supporting others that do something about it. You know, I have to believe that our empathy for other humans gets more real over time.

Sean Gibbons:

Now I’m going to sort of flip a little bit to more of the practical tactical because there’s an awful lot of this in this book. I’m going to ask you to tell us the story — we talked about what was one of your favorite stories, and you said Surfrider. Many of the folks who joined us know Chad Nelson, the CEO over there who has been a fan and friend to us over the years. But beyond that, if you’re working in the communications space, how do you need to be — and maybe particularly if you’re a little bit thinking, like, I don’t know how this community stuff fits into my daily. You know, I got to get that press release out or I have to update the website. I have these tasks to be performed which are necessary and advance the mission and purpose of our organization, but where does community fit into that? If you’re working in the communications space, if you had the chance to talk through the screen at one person and explain to them why community is a piece of their work, what would you say to them?

Can I flip it back to you first? I would rather remix and riff on this question. As you tee this up, how do you feel like community fits into a communications professional’s life and daily work?

Sean Gibbons:

I’m going to take the deficit frame on that and I’m going to say a lot of us think of it as a tactic. How can we leverage the community in order to get to this great outcome, whatever it may be. We want people to vote or participate in X, Y or Z. Whatever it is, it’s action oriented, but I got to believe that that community that shows up and is reliable is sustained by something other than just those one-offs that you sometimes ask of them, you know. You gently say help us out. There’s something else sustaining it, and to me that feels like a task that falls in a communications shop, that it’s their responsibility to nurture, to do that listening piece. I’ll go back to you. How do you — what would be the case you would make for community building inside of a communications shop? How do you think about that as you’re planning for 2021?

It would probably be the same thing I’d say to anyone in any position. If we’re thinking about it from a professional standpoint, from your work standpoint, what you do probably involves people. It probably involves helping people, supporting people, getting people to, you know, contribute to something. And the lessons — whether or not you call it community, once again, what I’m saying is this is about a group of people who are going to keep coming together over what they care about, and that kind of power of their continual, you know, interaction and work together, whether they are sharing peer support, whether they are sharing best practices and tips, where they are honing kind of their language with one another, that can be channeled to achieve things and accomplish things. And it’s tightrope, right, but it’s this balance. It also has to really be in their interests. This can’t be one-sided. You’re not telling people to get involved with it. I would say if you’re a communications professional, you probably are doing something that involves people, and you know, are you asking yourself what would it look like — you know, can I do more with those people than I’m doing? Can I do more with those people versus saying stuff at them or asking them for things? Can I create a bit more of a partnership, any — loosely. Any sort of partnership with them and with them with each other that is gonna help us accomplish our goals?You know, if you want advocates, we talk about Surfrider, if you want activists and advocates, one thing you can have — you can shout at a bunch of people and say, please, advocate for that, or you can go and say who am I looking for? I’m looking for people who care about the ocean, who care about the coastline right now, who would believe in advocating for this thing. And you can ask why, why would they come together? What do they need more of right now? Do they need more local change in their communities? Do they need more fun in their lives? Do they need X, Y or Z?And what could we do together that helps us further, like, our common purpose, which would be to protect the world’s, like, oceans, coastlines and beaches?And so I think it’s just — it comes down to a perspective shift of believing, you know what, I can probably build with a few — build with people more than doing it for them or kind of asking it of them. Now you know your people way better than I do, once again if you’re talking about your audience or, you know, other people in the sector or your family or internal team members. But going through this exercise of, yeah, who, why, what, how does this — how might I work with them a bit more, to me is kind of that golden thing to keep coming back to. If you walk back with one thing today, Kevin said what does it mean to build with people, not build for them. Just how do I achieve this with others more than trying to do it for them or at them. That’s my one takeaway for today.

Sean Gibbons:

And that’s a really different way of thinking about service, right? Rather than let me do for you, let me build with you.


Sean Gibbons:

Are there any other organizations — we talked about Surfrider, with you there are others you can point to, are there other organizations you can point to as you take time towards the end of this year and reflecting about next year and how you might work differently, if this is a way that appeals to you working with, who else would you recommend as models?

Who else would I recommend? I’m such a big fan of the organizations, whether it’s the Ed Camp foundation where educators, Creative Mornings, Special X, with kind of the raising — helping parents with kids with disabilities. Allyship & Action, what they are doing. I guess as far as role models, maybe nothing’s more powerful than something that’s in your own life, right? It might be taking stock of what is a group that I’m a part of if I have one that has taken on more meaning for me in the past, you know, nine months than it did before. What is one of the things that has kind of increased, like I’m part of a mastermind group, a group of a couple entrepreneurial people, there are six of us that get together each month to share where we’re at, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly, and that group has — talk about navigating changes. Just taken on more meaning in these past nine months, and I think the — I think the inspiration can come from, like, well, where did that come from? What happened? Is there one person in that group that has actually driven that forward, the one that is sending the emails, the one that’s sending the invites, the one that’s creating the space, the one that identified those rules? Like, think about those leaders or those hand raisers in your life and, yeah, pay attention to them, and ask yourself, you know, is that something I want to do or is that someone that I just need to thank right now because they’ve shown up in a time that I wasn’t ready to show up.

Sean Gibbons:

That’s almost a nice way to leave it. We’re going to take one more question. Gang, if you have a question in the Q&A box, feel free, otherwise I’m going to continue to exercise the privilege. And that is, Kevin, as we know there appears to be vaccines, they are being administered in Britain and maybe a few other places now, our expectation is it will start to occur in the United States maybe sometime after the turn of the year. But nothing is going to snap back and get solved immediately. We have maybe one way the team and I are thinking about this is kind of just reached halftime. We’re about at halftime. And there’s that idea I was reading about in the Times or the Post or something, I was reading about this idea of third quarter fatigue. It hits sports teams a lot. You’ve seen it. You’re watching your favorite team and they come out in the third quarter and they are flat. They just — something happened. All of us are probably heading towards a little of that come January.

That’s me just at Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve described me. I was roasted more than the turkey. Please continue.

Sean Gibbons:

Knowing we have a long unsteady, unstable road ahead, any particular advice for folks based on what you’ve learned this year in leading, guiding and helping to build some communities, to get us to the other side? Or to help us find our way to the other side?

Well, I want all of y’all’s advice. I need it too. Hmm. My mom is an infection preventionist, 20-year career leading sort of the hospital protocols in how you deal with infectious diseases, where infections come from, preventing them. So March hits, she’s working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and in kind of her darkest moment I remember her saying, well, one, she’s like — well, somehow still really upbeat when she answered the phone for me, so I was like, that’s my mom, that’s where the survivor is. She talked to me about how she was starting to lean on others as she may have been the infection preventionist of Aurora Hospital in Colorado, but she was training and developing nurses to be — I can’t remember the — she comes up with these great acronyms. At first it was COVID champion, and she was like no one wants to be a champion of COVID. But it was other nurses who were going to be infection prevention almost like ambassadors or advocates. Like they could understand what they needed to know — what my mom knew so she could — she was duplicating herself. I don’t know, when you asked this question of if I — I mean, that’s the one thing that comes to mind around like how can I lean on others in this moment, how can I — if I do not have the presence or the energy to show up how you usually do, are there others that can, that if I invest a little bit of time I can pass the torch to them and I can almost draft off of them, like a cycling team. Because the chance is they’re going to need to draft off of you later, and it’s not bad to draft, but you might need to teach those folks a little bit, coach them or give them the role in order to do so. So yeah, build your champions.

Sean Gibbons:

I love that, and I would let it lie there, but Carolyn and Emily have asked me to last the last questions. Carol asks, do you have any thoughts about successful on-line communities? These are relationships that are on-line only. Maybe folks haven’t had a chance to meet in real life, or they didn’t start in real life and they won’t be nurtured in real life. Truly virtual relationships. How do you make successful on-line communities?

Yeah, so the get-together system or methodology believes that communities feel magical, they don’t come together by magic and there’s actually an order of operations to start a community that can thrive. And obviously, you know, not everyone follows, like, steps one, two, three, four, five, six and then seven, eight, nine. But there are some things that if you do earlier on are going to pay off like compound interest. And I think one of the mistakes that on-line communities make, and I also — I don’t make the distinction of on-line and offline communities is helpful. Communities are primarily interacting on-line. I think one of the mistakes that we make when we start them or try to keep them going is putting people in a watering hole of some sort, putting people in a discussion space and hoping that interaction happens, hoping that those relationships build, and our — my philosophy at People & Company is that after you kind of have a hunch about the purpose of the community, after you pinpoint your people, step two is to do something together and step three is to get them talking. One tip or thought on successful on-line communities is asking yourself, you know, what are we actually doing together? What is the shared activity that is here? And this doesn’t have to look like a, you know, 90-minute Zoom happy hour. It could be something that whether folks are being paired up to have one-on-one conversations, like a mentor program, or small group discussions or we build a wiki together of resources. All sorts of formats for activities, but I ask what is that on-line community doing together beyond believing that they are just going to speak and talk with one another. There are — I think there is a sliver of communities that is just discussion-based. I think you’ve maybe brushed up against some of these forums. It’s always and only just lively discussion, but I think a large majority of the communities we hope will come to life on-line demand something else, which is a purposeful participatory and repeatable shared activity. That’s what makes a good shared activity. Those are the three criteria in the book. Purposeful, it ladders back up to the purpose of your group. If it’s really about empowering skill development, then go figure out some activity that, you know, you’re not leaving this up to chance. It actually makes skill development happen in an empowering way. Participatory, it’s not just sit and get. People are contributing in a meaningful way. And repeatable, it’s something that you do over and over again, whether that be weekly, monthly or some other time span.

Sean Gibbons:

Well, that is where we’re going to leave it because we cannot repeat this, although you will have the opportunity to watch it again on-line on demand if you wish. But Kevin, thank you so much. Thanks to your mom for what she’s doing. I come from a family of folks in the health care space too, so I know it’s been an especially difficult year, last couple of months really feels like people are punching down on all the folks sitting in hospitals doing their darndest. Thoughts and prayers and great gratitude to you, and congratulations because what we didn’t talk about and we’ll leave it mostly here, unless people want to put shouts out, is you’re planning a wedding. Talk about optimistic happy things, right?

Yeah, well, I had a wedding scheduled for May, and then it’s been postponed, so I —

Sean Gibbons:

But the intention is there.

Yeah, I have 75% of a wedding already planned that just — you know, I’ve got the project management boards and everything just waiting for me to get back up. But yes, and I’m so glad to be, you know, quarantined with a life partner.

Sean Gibbons:

Well, I am grateful to you. We all are. You’ve done a tremendous amount of good for a tremendous number of good people, and for that we are grateful, and we’re looking forward to continuing to get to learn and work with you. So Kevin, thank you very much. Everybody else, please be safe and well. This kind of concludes V+ with the exception of to Kevin’s point we are going to continue to gather regularly. So in the next two weeks, the next two Fridays we are going to have group discussions, and maybe you’ve already signed up for them, in which case I’ll see you soon. We’ll have a conversation this Friday that’s focused on how are you planning for 2021. What are you thinking about, what are some of the things that are on your mind. We’ll get a group of us together to talk about that, and then next week a little bit more of a global conversation. We’re going to have a conversation about what are some of the obstacles and opportunities that we can kind of see through a crystal ball as we start to look into 2021 and how might those impact our work. We’ll get the benefit of hearing what other people are seeing from where they sit. That’s all coming this Friday and next Friday. If you need or want an invite for that, just shoot me an email. Kevin, thank you so much. You’ve done a tremendous amount of good for the team and all and the community ambassadors and all the folks who are with us today. We are incredibly grateful. Thank you, everybody. Be safe and be well. Marva and Michelle, thank you for your help as well, and Mr. T as well. Thursday and Friday, thank you, Keri, for making me honest. See you all.



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