Superheroes for a world in crisis

Silicon Valley Next has continued to innovate our approach to our monthly retreats, adapting them for the virtual context. Our most recent April retreat was a day long affair, with short and high energy Zoom sessions interspersed with long individual (off camera) reflection exercises, breakout rooms, video introductions to our “germ circle,” and other forms of connection.

Here are three reflections from our April retreat:

  1. Our most recent content: The Superhero Self
  2. How investment in the Fellows protected the community during the crisis
  3. How the Fellows are collaborating to create the post-crisis world
  1. Our most recent content: The Superhero Self

The purpose of the retreat was to empower the Fellows with greater clarity and confidence in their particular leadership gifting. We used the University of Michigan Reflected Best Self Exercise to collect narratives from people in their lives, and then led them to reflect on the key insights.

Here are three comments from Fellows about the impact of this exercise:

That was such a profound exercise for me. The stories gave me a LOT to think on. There’s something super special about hearing when other people have seen you at your best or have some appreciation for you.

I felt seen. I feel that I have good self awareness, but hearing my strengths/qualities from another point of view and learning how that affected others was really meaningful to me.

Seeing how many of the people wrote about me with common themes was very meaningful. I know how to use what we learned about ourselves going forward in our careers.

We then led them to translate those insights into a “Superhero Profile.” This was energizing, fun, and left us all with the sense that we are part of a special collection of individuals. The Fellows have started calling themselves “The Justice League.”

One of the participants captured the spirit of our gathering with this image (I’m hoping there is not a “cease and desist” letter from DC Comics and Marvel coming my way!)

2. How investment in the Fellows protected the community during the crisis

In the comics, the “Justice League” exists to protect the world in a time of crisis. We asked them to reflect on how they have done so in these past few weeks, especially by calling upon their “Superpowers.”

Here are 10 ways that these emerging leaders have stepped up during the crisis:

  1. Developed in days a new program for getting diapers and formula to hundreds of families in need – all by accessing a new funding stream and building a infrastructure that could be shared with multiple other agencies
  2. Created fun new virtual programming for low income 11th and 12th graders to remain on track for college access
  3. Ensured that an economic empowerment program kept serving the East Side amidst widespread fear
  4. Led a cohesive development team that kept individual donors connected to the mission of youth development
  5. Reinforced the development pipeline of affordable housing in the region
  6. Established a new emergency fund to help foster youth students purchase laptops for remote learning
  7. Rolled out a new giving program for alumni of a gap year service program
  8. Built new pandemic resilient systems for serving formerly homeless clients living onsite at our property
  9. Innovated a virtual advocacy system for domestic violence victims in the county
  10. Rallied the team which provides the bulk of tenant protection legal services in the county to meet the onrush of new eviction cases

The Fellows would universally say that these accomplishments were supported by:

  • having tools to deal with their anxiety (the topic of the last retreat)
  • the executive and peer coaching they have received through the program
  • having improved work at home infrastructure because of SVN’s flexible funding (thanks again for that!)
  • their sense that they are in the fight with others like their friends in Silicon Valley Next

In other words, even though the SVN investment in them was meant to be a long term play, it has already paid off.

During this crisis which can feel so dark and heavy, we need to consciously celebrate the joy of our victories. To give you a sense of the spirit that pervaded the Fellows, here is an excerpt (quoted with permission) from how one of the Fellows – Bryan Tomlinson of Breakthrough Silicon Valley – described his Superhero Self in action during the crisis:

As a refresher, my Superhero Self is Imaginito, who uses creativity and play to fuel generative processes, learning, and community building.

In the last four weeks, Imaginito used his signature power, the Creation Bomb, to figure out how to deliver all of Breakthrough Silicon Valley’s 11th and 12th grade programming virtually for the remainder of spring semester. Faced with the challenge of how to make a Zoom workshop engaging for high school juniors, Imaginito displayed the awesome might of his Gamification Beam. He saw an opportunity to add a little pizzazz to an activity where students had to practice using a Google Sheet to keep track of their college research, and the beam shot forth from his fingers, transforming the dull training into an electrifying competition. On the day of the Zoom workshop, the students were split into breakout rooms, and each of these “teams” was assigned a different copy of the same tracker. They were given 10 minutes to try and complete more research in their tracker than any of the other teams (all teams being assigned research on the same college), and then at the end Imaginito judged the winner and gave them the highly-vaunted prize of virtual kudos.

The only threat to Imaginito during this time of shelter-in-place has been that of interruption and distraction. Secluded in his Quarantine Palace with his three trusty canines and fiance, as well as all of his video game consoles, Imaginito has fought diligently to stay focused on work, which can be challenging since video games provide such a great sandbox for creative ventures. WIll he be able to maintain his focus? Will he crumble under the pressure of Playstation 4? Will he stop talking about himself in the third person?

Find out in the next episode of…. Imaginito.

3. How the Fellows are collaborating to create the post-crisis world

One of our biggest hopes for SVN was that the cohort could serve as the vanguard of a new era of sector wide collaboration. So perhaps our biggest encouragement from this last retreat was how immediately afterwards, the Fellows self-organized – without any direction or participation from me – into two task forces to figure out how to replicate their SVN experience to build the morale of the people they manage. The task forces are building a common curriculum together and will share it across all the organizations.

Collaboration in a crisis can happen when there exists a deep history of trust built between partners. Collaboration keeps growing when those partners actually create something together to meet the crisis.

Imagine what can be built in the post-crisis world as these 12 leaders keep creating together.

This crisis – for all of its inflicted pain – contains within it the seeds of new growth. The first fruits are already emerging.