MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

You don’t need an orchestra when a quartet will do, and other lessons from 2020

Sons of Serendip

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Senior Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of resilience. To the degree any of us can control our life today, adapting to the “new normal” has become a daily requirement. An open, adaptive mindset is one of the essential leadership qualities that we emphasize in our executive education programs. Research, as well as common sense, shows that if you welcome new ideas and value new ways of doing things, good things happen—performance improves, profits rise, employees are happy. At the same time, having to develop such a mindset in a hurry can feel daunting, especially when the success or mere survival of your organization is at stake.

Earlier this fall, I was part of bringing forth a collaborative experience with such a mindset in the form of FRED Week, an annual workshop of my leadership development peers. I have been representing MIT Sloan Executive Education at FRED Leadership for many years, always drawing inspiration from its activities and events. In 2019, I joined the organization as a board member and was looking forward to hosting the 2020 meeting on the MIT campus in Cambridge. Like many conferences, workshops, and courses this year, FRED went entirely virtual, our thinking being that something would be better than nothing. To accommodate the unusual time constraints many of us have been living for the better part of the year, we designed FRED 2020 not as a usual conference/workshop format, but as a week of connected events that people could attend as they wished and as their schedules allowed. To everyone’s delight, the five-day virtual FRED Week proved a success and offered lessons that span far beyond event planning.

Thinking outside the (Zoom) box
What surprised me and everyone else the most was what we were able to achieve because we were online. One of the key parts of FRED are Expeditions, small-group visits to mission-driven organizations in the community where the FRED Forum is taking pace that year. Since it usually requires some local travel, attending more than one Expedition in one day is impossible. But not when you’re connecting by video! Thanks to the virtual format, I was able to “zoom in” to seven or eight Expeditions this year and then “zoom out” to the big picture plenary sessions.

One of the many remarkable Expeditions this year was a live online visit to Elephant Havens, an elephant sanctuary in Botswana, where we met these majestic animals and their caretakers, two of the sanctuary co-founders Debra Stevens and Boago Poloko, who spoke to us about their vision and practice of partnering with local communities to rescue and protect young orphaned elephants until they can be reintroduced back into the wild. For me, that was one of the real highlights, partly because it provided such a wonderfully moving, experiential component to the program.

Another impressive technology-enabled experience involved live music as an illustration of transforming leadership and going through change together, as a group. Aithan Shapira, an internationally acclaimed artist and lecturer at MIT Sloan, took us on “a virtual experiential immersion in change-ability” with Sons of Serendip, a talented professional quartet of harp, piano, cello, and voice featured in the photo above. The group was among the finalists on Season 9 of America’s Got Talent and they continue to create today.

Our event was a study in real-time collaboration by way of improvisation. As a finale, the musicians were given a song randomly selected (by us) on the spot, and, over the course of less than 10 minutes, they performed a polished version of it, all while FRED participants observed the entire process from the first notes of improvisation to the final magnificent result. It was really incredible! And we were all immersed in that with them in a sense. It felt as if they were in the room and we were sitting among them. This experience was an evolution of another amazing, musically-infused immersion that Aithan produced for another FRED event, back in the days when we could get 200 people together in person, where participants were seated in and among a symphony orchestra to witness agility, cohesion, and communication in a large group of diverse individual contributors.

These are just a few of the stand-out examples of what were able to do together at the virtual version of FRED Week, but they are telling. Given the right tools, an open mind, and a bit of ingenuity, a quartet can be just as powerful as a full orchestra. You can meet an elephant in your living room (or wherever your home office is set up these days). The other Expeditions, from meet-the-author sessions to reverse mentoring by digital natives to exploring leadership through movement (aka “dance”), made the most of this new format to great effect.

Good will and good faith
As is typical for FRED, each day featured insightful, provocative, compelling, and engaging speakers and panels of luminaries who shared their insights and wisdom and experience, be it in healthcare or technology, civil rights or public service. Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer spoke about her advocacy to reduce healthcare disparities such as unintended biases in clinical trials. Frances West, formerly IBM’s first Chief Accessibility Officer and the founder of FrancesWestCo, a global strategy advisory company focused on digital inclusion, took us on an inspiring journey of a first-generation, non-English speaking immigrant and her rise to a senior leadership role in technology. Tope Fajingbesi Balogun, the creator and host of She-EO—an international broadcast platform for women of African descent to safely express and exchange their views—shared the mission driving her work.

Other “main stage” speakers and leaders included the Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable, whose long and illustrious career in British public service, diplomacy, business, and higher education, is in itself a study of adaptation and resilience; Fiona Hill, recently Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council; Stephen Kennedy Smith, cofounder and vice president of the World Leadership Alliance, an organization of business and political leaders that promotes democracy, international understanding, and trade. Of course, MIT had a strong showing of faculty experts, as a good host should, including MIT Sloan Executive Education regular superstars such as Hal Gregersen (on asking good questions) and Professor Fiona Murray (inclusive innovation). All the sessions and Expeditions were hosted and/or moderated superbly by my fellow FRED Board members and our NextGen FRED Leaders, who wove a collection of brilliant threads into a vibrant tapestry of ideas and learning, many of which were captured powerfully by our graphic facilitator, Kelvy Bird.

None of the speakers we had originally invited to present in person changed their minds when we shifted to the FRED Week virtual format. In fact, they all switched online enthusiastically and willingly, and many said that even though they would have gladly traveled to Cambridge in person, not having to do so was actually more convenient. The virtual format didn’t discourage participants either. While the FRED Board offered reduced fees, attendees opted to pay the original price and were happy to continue their support for FRED, which is sustained by member contributions. Attendees expressed that they received full value from the experience. All this felt highly gratifying and very much in keeping with the FRED spirit of mutual encouragement and support.

Keeping lights on and spirits up
Everyone had a great time at the virtual FRED Week. We all felt inspired and reinvigorated by the experience, which has always been one of the great benefits of the FRED Forum—a kind of leadership spa for the soul! We hear new ideas, we connect and reconnect, and we are moved to action. The decisions we make and actions we take in times of adversity—as individuals, teams, organizations, and even entire societies—determine our future. We ended the week saying that, three months ago, we didn’t know that this would be how we would feel about it, but after this experience, let’s do a FRED Forum next year! Whatever it takes. Hopefully in person, but if it’s not in person, we’ll do another great virtual experience, because now we know what’s possible and what we can achieve together.

The success of FRED Week was underpinned by the efforts and ingenuity of the MIT Sloan Executive Education staff, who had already converted most of our own in-person programs to entirely online formats. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we at Sloan Executive Education had made the decision to move as many of our in-person programs as possible online and to keep delivering learning and inspiration to the thousands of executives and senior managers who enroll in our programs. Granted, we were not new to the world of online learning, having built the necessary infrastructure, processes, and expertise over more than a decade of experimentation and iteration. Still, even for us, the transition was non-trivial and required all the same qualities we’ve seen flourish at the virtual FRED—flexibility, innovation, and resilience. The Executive Education team was delighted to share the benefits of our own innovation and learning with the rest of the world, in this case the global leadership development community. That is very much the MIT ethos!

Learn more about FRED, find recordings of FRED Week and previous FRED events, and sign up for future FRED events on the FRED Leadership website. If you too are inspired to drive inclusive, ethical leadership in your organization and the world, please join us at an upcoming FRED event or better yet, join us as a FRED Member. See you there!


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