As leaders, one of our most important tasks is to frame context, so that the people who follow us can appreciate the significance of their work. However, we often miss opportunities to do this.

My friends Katherine and Sax are masters at turning a small event into something more meaningful, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from their approach.

Their daughter turned one last week. Katherine being Katherine, there was no way she was going to let an occasion as momentous as her child’s first birthday go by with just some cake and balloons.

Here is what the invitation said:

"I’m turning ONE and you’re invited to celebrate with all of us at a party in our backyard. I already have everything I need—except good advice. Rather than more toys, what I’d really like is for each of my guests to tell me one thing my parents won’t. Please bring it written on a piece of paper for Mummy and Daddy to collect in a scrapbook for me. (I’d love you to send something even if you can’t come to my party!) If you’re at the party you’ll also be asked to read it out on camera for posterity."

I wasn’t able to make it to the party, but I did send in my own piece of advice.  The day after the party, Sax sent around a video montage showing the guests recording their advice on camera. (You can’t hear what they’re saying in the video because it’s a personal message for their daughter.)

I was struck with the way this simple activity turned a child’s party, which she won’t even remember, into something much bigger for everyone.

  • It gave the guests an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and the advice we’d like to offer to future generations. Plus it was a lot more fun and interesting than shopping for a present for a one-year-old.
  • It created a sense of community and shared humanity among the guests, and a sense of being a part of this child’s life. I can feel this from the video, even though I wasn’t there. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt disappointed at missing out on a kid’s party.
  • I’m sure it was both moving and fun for Katherine and Sax to listen to the advice their friends were offering their daughter.
  • Their daughter will have something wonderful and meaningful to look back on when she’s old enough to appreciate it, in the form of both the scrapbook of advice and the video.

As leaders, every time we gather people together for a purpose—to kick off an initiative, to give a quarterly update, to celebrate the end of a project—we have the opportunity to create meaning for everyone from the event. This might be a sense of reflection, of community, of solidarity for challenges ahead, of shared difficulties overcome, of honouring the past, or of adventure for the future. But most of the time we let these opportunities slide by and just conduct them in the usual humdrum way that has no impact: a slide deck and sometimes maybe some cake. Even worse, often we don’t acknowledge these events at all but just move straight onto the next thing because everyone is so busy.

What if even a few of our meetings were as meaningful as this child’s birthday party? Think how it would change the way everyone in the organisation approached their work.