Many clients have told me that, at every board or management committee meeting, they feel as though they are facing a pack of lions waiting to pounce on every word. When observing these leaders in action, the reason becomes clear. Sometimes the leader is in over his or her head, lacking the skills for the job. More often than not, the issue is poor communication and presentation savvy. Their demeanor or conduct lacks confidence and conviction. They can’t hold their ground because they aren’t 100 percent sure what ground they want to hold. They put themselves out there like raw meat to be devoured. Board members and management teams smell fear and doubt–and go for the jugular.
If you feel like you are being eaten alive, here are a few tips.
Be clear about your goals for the communication.
I never cease to be amazed how often people go into important meetings armed with numbers, anecdotes, and information, but no strong sense of what they want the receiver of this material to do or feel now that they have it. Tell participants up front why you are communicating and what it is you want from them–a decision, advice and counsel, brainstorming, a vote, or simply the knowledge that they are in the loop. Set parameters of the discussion right from the start and get the group to agree on this meeting’s direction. Later, if there is dissent, you can go back to the purpose established at the beginning and remind them of their earlier agreed-upon focus. If you aren’t sure what you want your Board or Management team to do, then you probably shouldn’t have the meeting; otherwise, you waste everyone’s time and risk squandering good will.
Get to the point.
Many times leaders beat around the bush and go off on tangents because they really don’t want to have an uncomfortable discussion. Your Board and team will smell your fear and discomfort, and their reaction–or open negativism–only makes it worse. Identify the message you need to deliver and don’t bury it. Be direct. If your organization is having financial issues, say it directly and clearly. Tell your team what you think needs to happen and present your plan for how to deal with it. Enlist their support and ideas. And remember, it’s hard to get to the point if you don’t know what your point is (see the first tip in this post).
After hearing your ideas, your Board or executive team might disagree with you–and strongly. Before lashing out or simply surrendering, listen carefully to what they are saying. When you listen actively, you provide feedback to confirm that you have heard what they are saying. And ask pointed questions about concerns. This allows you to get beyond the growl and vitriol to understand the core issues and how you can address them. Perhaps they are concerned about public embarrassment because the company is experiencing financial challenges; maybe they are unsure whether the enterprise has the funds to do what you propose. You can’t effectively react unless you listen for the meaning behind the words.
Stand tall in the face of conflict.
Inevitably, there will be the team member or executive who will be relentless in their criticism. Everyone else will be quiet and all eyes are on you. This is where you have to take a deep breath, swallow your anxiety and self doubt, and have courage to stand by your thoughts and proposals. If others see your distress, they may push further, so watch your body language and don’t slouch. Try to keep what I call a “neutral face,” an expression that is pleasant and relaxed. After you’ve listened actively, if the Board or Executive team has raised good points, acknowledge them.
A few weeks ago while I was leading a brainstorming session, it became clear that the leader of the organization wanted only specific ideas on a particular issue in a particular way. Board members pushed back hard. The CEO pushed back harder. It was like lions roaring for territory. I had an “oh X#@” moment where all eyes were on me–and I realized I could be the raw meat. I stopped the meeting, asked the group to step back for a minute and reassert the goals for the meeting. We let all the team members speak and when we had a shared sense of what we wanted to accomplish, we shifted the agenda and moved toward that, even though at first the group was somewhat hesitant. It wasn’t what the CEO first envisioned but she got what wanted and the group felt like they’d had input. Later the CEO remarked, “nice pivot.”
Don’t drown people in numbers.
In an era of big data, numbers are important. But if you rely on numbers alone to tell the story, you can walk right into the lion’s den. A client of mine who is a skilled communicator recalled a time when he worked in finance for a major automaker and had a meeting with the division president. The numbers weren’t great–both labor and materials costs had increased sharply. But the reality was that this was a good thing because they were selling more cars, and thus needed to build more engines, and thus needed more parts and more people on the production line. If he had just reported on the losses without context, he would have been eaten alive. People forget the numbers when they walk out of the room. But the story around them will stay with them and will help you win.
Lions roar not when they are hunting prey but when they want to establish dominance or keep others from wandering away from the pride. In the same way, your management team or Board maybe be pushing back hard because they feel you are going down the wrong road or because they want to remind you who is really in charge. No one, however, should ever allow themselves to be someone else’s raw meat. Exercising appropriate measures, like those outlined above, will help you develop the tools and confidence to face the lions on equal footing.