In 2010, I had the pleasure of working with Courtney Minor. She’d just been promoted and was working with a new team on an important project. The day came when she, along with her teammates, had the opportunity to present their work to the leadership team, which I was a part of.
Presenting to the directors and general manager for the first time can be both intimidating and rewarding. Either way, it’s a rite of passage everyone has to go through.
The day after the big meeting, Courtney asked me for some feedback. She said,
Did I talk enough at the meeting yesterday?”
That question puzzled me at first. Then after a brief pause, I responded, “That’s not the right question.” Her eyes widened in surprise. “The question you should be asking is, ‘Did I accomplish my objectives?’ ” Then I asked her a few questions. “Did your team’s progress get presented clearly?”
“Yes,” she responded.
“Did the key risks you identified get discussed fairly?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said again.
“Were you able to answer all the questions in your area?”
“Yes,” she nodded.
“And did the VP approve the funding for your project?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
“Sounds to me like you did great!” I told her. “Congratulations.”
Courtney was happy with that conclusion. But she wasn’t done learning. I went on to explain why she was asking the wrong question.
“There’s no shortage of bad advice floating around. One of the worst pieces I’ve heard is, ‘If you want to be seen as a leader, you need to say something in the first three minutes of a meeting.’ While I’m sure there’s some legitimacy to that, when it’s followed as a guide to meeting behavior, it generally leads to the opposite outcome. I’m sure you’ve seen people who practice it. They sit impatiently on the edge of their seat, desperately vying for an opportunity to get a word into the conversation. It usually results in them blurting out some inane comment that only convinces the rest of the group that they like to hear themselves talk.”
If your concern is whether you talked enough, you’re at risk of falling into the same trap. There are enough eager young MBAs in the room to fill the quota of people racing to beat the three-minute clock. You don’t need to be one of them. I asked Courtney to consider the following alternative.
A better alternative
“When Ashwini Porwal was the director of this department, the president and all the directors were planning a trip to one of the field sales offices. In preparation, one of them wrote an e-mail to the sales team. The purpose was to introduce each member of the leadership team and share a few key insights about each one prior to the visit.
“The author wrote a paragraph for each team member, starting with the president, Bob McDonald: ‘Bob likes to talk the big picture . . . don’t sugarcoat the issues, just tell it like it is . . . will probably ask about pricing,’ etc. A few paragraphs into the e-mail, it got to Ashwini. Instead of the full paragraph used to describe the others, all it said about him was this: ‘Ashwini Porwal, research director. Doesn’t say much, but when he does, you’d better listen. Bob McDonald will be.’
Which personal equity do you want to have? You can follow the three-minute rule and perhaps be seen as an arrogant person who likes the sound of her own voice. Or, you can follow Ashwini’s example and when you talk, people will shut up and listen.”
Courtney felt much better about her performance in the meeting. And she has a much better mental picture of what good meeting performance looked like. Worrying about whether she talked enough is no longer part of it. And it shouldn’t be for you, either. If you focus on being a leader, instead of being seen as a leader, you’ll have a better odds of accomplishing both.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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