Leading in a Land of Elephants and Sneak Attacks

By Gary Clayton

Episode 042
How often have you attended a meeting that was sabotaged by an elephant or sneak attack? By elephant, I mean that there was something that no one mentioned, but nearly everyone was thinking about. It was so big, so powerful in turning people’s focus from the meeting’s purpose, that there was no chance for the meeting to be a success. Or else, someone abruptly brought up a subject or issue that grabbed everyone’s attention, so the presenter might as well have been speaking to an empty room. How often have you experienced that feeling that this meeting has been derailed and nothing good is going to come from it?

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Leaders must keep their meetings focused

When I was in the corporate world, I often flew long distances to attend meetings – and often I was frustrated at the lack of progress that came from the meetings. Frequently, the problem was inadequate preparation on the part of the meeting leader. But just as frequently, the problem was that the meeting leader didn’t know how to handle an elephant in the room or sneak attack.

Leaders must know how to handle these types of situations. They must learn how to keep meetings focused on the agenda. Otherwise, the leaders’ visions will never become real. The goals of their projects and businesses will never be achieved.

Elephants need to be acknowledged

One example of a place where elephants thrive is during a memorial service. Have you ever attended one where the eulogy was so positive, so incredibly upbeat that you thought, “Who are they talking about? I don’t recognize this person.”? From that point on, your focus isn’t on the service, but on how your memories differ from what is being said. And the odds are that you aren’t the only person who has such thoughts.

There are many instances of elephants invading corporate meetings and presentations. It may be everyone believes that a downsizing is about to happen. It may be that a chair in the meeting is empty because an important employee just left and no one knows who is going to fill her position. Sometimes, it is the knowledge that a faction does not agree with the direction the meeting is taking the company. Whatever the cause, the meeting leader must get all the wandering minds focused on the purpose of the meeting.

In most cases, the best way to get everyone focused is to identify the elephant in the room. That’s right. Acknowledge the elephant so everyone knows that everyone knows – and then continue with the meeting agenda. “I know you just heard about the ten-car accident in the viaduct. John and Sally haven’t shown up yet and I hope they aren’t caught up in it. Hopefully, they will arrive soon - and if they don’t we will call to make sure they are OK. But our business needs us to focus on this agenda this morning, to keep our plans moving forward.”

That is just one example. Most likely your situation will be different, but your need will be the same, which is to get your team focused on the task at hand. You must get out in front of your team, just like in my post Leading When Your Followers March in a Different Direction. First, join your team where their attention is and then lead them back to the objectives of your meeting or presentation.

Sneak attacks must be redirected

Sneak attacks happen very frequently in the corporate world. You are vulnerable to one if there is a faction that is opposed to your direction and they perceive you to be naïve about their position or how to handle such attacks. What can you do?

Once again, as presenter or meeting leader your goal is to get the group focused on your direction. Usually, counter-attacking is not the smart thing to do. That puts your audience in the position of starting to measure your approach against your adversaries’ point. The best approach is to join where the energy has gone (consideration of your adversaries’ comment) and then refocus the energy in your direction.

Just three months after starting my first professional job, I had to give my first presentation – and ran straight into a sneak attack. I had completed a study on how to fix a serious problem: engineers who drew data out of a text database without adequate understanding of how the data was structured. I was to present my study to four high-ranking decision-makers, but unbeknown to me, a much higher executive decided to drop in on the presentation. About halfway through my presentation, the executive suddenly spoke out, “That’s ridiculous! Anyone in this business knows better than that. If these guys are making that kind of mistake, we should consider getting rid of them.”

I was shocked and upset, but I managed to stammer out, “I’m sure anyone with your level of experience would have no trouble with this. But while these users are experts in their field, they have little experience by which to understand the nuances you recognize within the data.” I was very lucky, because this executive could have derailed any improvements my study called for. Instead, since I met him on his ground (that is, anyone with his experience would not have made these errors), he felt he had been heard and did not block the meeting or the improvements from going forward. And none of the engineers were let go.

Often, the easiest way of redirecting attention is to say, “Yes, your point must be considered,” walk up to a clean flipchart page or clean area of your whiteboard and write down the title of your adversaries’ position. Then turn to your audience and say, “I’ve put that on our Parking Lot, a place for holding items that come up out of the planned order. If I haven’t addressed your concern by the end of my presentation (or agenda), then we will discuss it then.”

It is your meeting

Remember, as presenter or meeting leader, you own the floor: you get to control the agenda. Don’t let someone in the room take control away from you via sneak attack. And don’t let any elephants in the room distract from your purpose. Always join your team wherever they are mentally and then redirect them back to your direction.

Gary Clayton has worked with over seventy companies on major projects and management initiatives. He helps project managers and operations executives who are dissatisfied with the status quo and determined to achieve higher performance and consistently better results within their organization.

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Categories : Qualities & Skills