Engagement also works upward

by Didier Marlier on Saturday March 31st, 2012

Whenever invited to design and run a leadership program, I avoid “punishing the participants” by adding an extra project to it. They have already enough work on their plate so that, if every development course ends up by bringing more work to their heavy daily routine, they will not want to join in the future.

Sometimes however, there may be such a project on the curriculum for all sorts of good (“Let us give the participants a chance to practice what we taught”) or less good (“Because we also had a project in our MBA at IMD 20 years ago”) reasons. For the motives expressed before, they usually collapse or fail to raise a lot of energy… People feel they have been trapped and will do it without passion.

A program on which I had been invited was heading for a similar rough time. When the participants presented their ideas for such projects and were shot down in flame by members of the Board, it felt even worse than the usual neutrality surrounding such kind of efforts. People left, understandably bitter and disappointed from both sides. We felt we had failed to adequately prepare both participants and Board.

When participants came back a few weeks later, we were impressed by the amount of work, research and analysis that they had produced. In order to repeat the same mistake, we had decided to spend ample time preparing their meeting with the Board. But something struck us: whereas the PowerPoints were near to perfect and the depth of the Logos content undebatable, something didn’t feel right… A vague anxiety was still there. Suddenly the penny dropped: How would they engage their Board? We, who advise boards and executives on how to engage their subordinates had failed to reflect with the participants on how they could engage their bosses.

So preparation time moved radically away from polishing almost perfect content to creating the right context.

Participants worked at five levels from that moment:

  • Type of Meeting: clarify for themselves and their guests whether the meeting would be about exploring jointly, defining a problem, generate option or make a decision
  • Logos: instead of presenting a long power-point based monologue, finds ways to engage the Board into co-creating clarity, meaning and ownership. Don’t make them passive consumers
  • Ethos: exemplify the behaviour you want to see from your bosses. Don’t expect them to start.
  • Pathos: use a set-up conducive to co-creation (get rid of the U shape, tables etc…), use powerful images and symbols. Don’t hope that previous settings will do the work.
  • Content: Respect the rule of three key points supporting the key message. Identify what is the “Noble Cause”, the purpose of your project and share it upfront.

I confess never to have seen anything like the meeting that followed. Serious and brilliant managers became creative, engaged and engaging, their bosses immediately rolled their sleeves up and we witnessed a high level strategic dialogue between business partners and not between school boys & girls and school masters… Upon leaving the place with my partners, my brain was playing and replaying the clip here below: In 12 angry men, Henry Fonda plays the role of a juror who, alone against his 11 colleagues, will through the quality of the context he sets-up, manage to engage them, then convince them, one by one to change their minds. “I just want to talk” (hear I just want to explore before we conclude) is the strong stand he takes at the start.

Useful eye opener for us and for you all as well I hope. Do we spend enough time setting the context of our presentation or do we dedicate all of our resources to the content? When seeking to engage our people into profound changes, how much attention do we give in setting the conditions for success versus spending it on the “perfect” organizational chart, processes or strategy?

If you haven’t seen the movie 12 angry men, I recommend you buy it. It is a fantastic classic.

Lost somewhere in a wonderful place around Rio de Janeiro with one of the most amazing team of high flying finance wizzards I ever met. A week of meetings and contacts in São-Paulo ahead then flying to my “Brazilian home”: Bahia!!! Have a good week all, Didier

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