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Hosted by Tom Henschel

High-Stakes Meetings


January 2016

An executive coach is about to get grilled by a new corporate president. The coach reaches out to insiders who help him prep for the meeting by teaching him three actions to take.

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January 2016

High-Stakes Meetings

Tom Henschel

Charlotte over the horizon

Charlotte had been the president of a consumer goods company for just over a year. Her appointment had been a surprise because she had no experience in the consumer goods sector. Once installed, she’d ruffled feathers by being relentless about revenue and tough on people. In the sixteen months she’d been in place, longtime executives had resigned and junior people were polishing their resumes.

I’d had a ringside seat through it all. For the previous six years, I’d been coaching at the company and had built deep relationships in several business units. Those past clients were calling me now. They didn’t want coaching: they wanted to vent.

The conversations became familiar. First, with moral outrage, the person would tell tales of Charlotte’s transgressions. Then, shifting to grief, they’d bemoan the death of their beloved collegial culture.

I listened patiently but was unsympathetic, saying, “The company’s not better or worse than before. Just different. It’s a new company now. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay. But you might just be reacting to change.”

Then, grudgingly, they’d tell me about something Charlotte had done that was actually helping the company. But always the conversation would circle back to a sense of loss about a workplace that had once felt warm, friendly, and family-like. Now, it was becoming competitive, lean and fierce.

I held my tongue but secretly I had all the same feelings. I had suffered the consequences of Charlotte’s arrival myself. Normally I coached three to five people a year at the company; since she’d showed up I’d coached none. Zero.

Privately, in the mirror, I told myself what I was telling others: Charlotte was entitled to run her business the way she wanted – even if that meant coaching was swept away as one of the outgrown practices. But secretly, I missed that old company, too.

Preparing for Charlotte

Then one day I received an email. From Charlotte herself.

She’d heard I’d done great work at the company, she wrote, and she’d appreciate it if I would contact her assistant (copied, of course) and schedule an hour on her calendar.

After reading the email a second time, I laughed and gave the air a little jab. “Game on!” I said aloud.

I recalled one of my first big gigs when I’d been a new consultant. It was for a major software company in Silicon Valley. One of the vice-presidents had wanted my help grooming his people to go in front of Christopher. The V.P. spoke the name “Christopher” with trembling awe.

Christopher was the executive vice-president of one of the divisions. He’d surrounded himself with fellow Stanford graduates and let everyone know that he didn’t brook any fools. If you were going to present in front of Christopher and his cadre, you had to be playing your A game.

Over several years, I prepped many teams and individuals to get their A game on. I was impressed by how seriously people took the task. The ordeal of presenting to Christopher became a rite of passage: what had been a dreaded trial became a sought-after challenge. People who did well in front of Christopher became sharper, as if forged in a crucible.

As people prepped, a pattern emerged for how to succeed in those high-stakes meetings. Three actions seemed essential:

  1. Clarify the story
  2. Do your homework
  3. Manage yourself

I felt certain that same three-step formula would make me ready to face Charlotte. Game on, indeed!

Clarify the story

I had a great story to tell Charlotte about my work at her company. For six years, I’d worked closely with leaders and gotten some great results. Most of the people I’d coached had expanded their scope and been promoted. Plus, I’d become a trusted advisor, providing real-time assistance long past the end of the coaching engagements.

I’d also delivered work ancillary to the coaching: team retreats, trainings, facilitating small groups. Participants had valued their time with me and could cite how they’d applied what they’d learned.

Yes, it was a great story, but how was I going to clarify it for Charlotte?

To me, the details of all that work were what made the story rich and textured. But I knew that Charlotte was going to fly too high and too fast to catch the details. For her, I had to render a high-altitude snapshot. Creating that snapshot in sharp relief, I knew, is what it means to “clarify the story.”

Luckily, I had time. Charlotte’s calendar was full. I wouldn’t meet with her for a month.

I set about creating a report for Charlotte that would tell the story. I roughed out three pages – one for each arm of my work at the company: coaching, facilitating and training. I knew that later I’d preface those three pages with an overview page and close them with pages about our clients and my bio. But those middle three pages held the heart of the story and I wanted them to be crystal clear.

Once I had a polished draft, I shared it with some of my trusted advisors, including one of my contacts at the company who knew all about presenting in front of Charlotte.

I got great feedback: “Turn your bullet points into charts,” was one helpful piece of advice. “Cut half the words,” was another. “Condense three pages to two,” was yet another.

I laughed because I tell people the same things all the time. Sound more executive! Simplify! Look from a higher elevation! It’s a snapshot not a blog!

“Don’t fall in love with all those details,” I reminded myself. “They’re meaningful to you but not to her.”

Editing and condensing clarifies the story. Like reducing a soup or a sauce, boiling away thinner elements makes the ones that remain more intense and flavorful. It’s hard but rewarding work. Clarify the story.

Do your homework

My homework was clear: find out about Charlotte. How did she like her information? What interested her? What did she already know about me? How did she feel about coaching?

Many people at the company were happy to help me do my homework.

“She barks,” one person told me. “She asks questions like a machine gun. But she’s not mean. She’s just so damned smart and her mind moves so fast.”

“She’s curious,” another told me. “If something interests her, she’ll dig down on it. She’s a good detective.”

“She’s biased as hell,” said a third. “She admits it, but if she doesn’t like something, you may as well pack up and leave.”

“I like her,” said a female executive. “Within her own playbook, she’s fair. It’s just none of us liked her rules at first. But I like her.”

A portrait was forming. I had to remind myself that the portrait was being painted by other people’s filters. I might experience Charlotte differently. But I was already feeling more prepared.

I did more homework with my Master Mind group – a handful of experienced coaches who’ve been meeting together twice a month for years. We’re challenging thought partners and generous mentors to each other. Since none of them knew Charlotte, they gave me different homework:

“What would be a good outcome of the meeting?” one asked.

“How much do you want to be in tell-mode and how much do you want to be in listen-mode?” asked another.

“If she wants examples, what stories will you tell?” said another.

“How much is confidentiality an issue?” someone wondered.

“Why did she ask for the meeting in the first place?”

I might have thought of all those questions on my own, but receiving them all at once from my colleagues was a gift – even though it meant more homework. My homework would’ve been incomplete without answering those questions.

Manage yourself

Then, one of my Master Mind friends asked, “So how are you feeling about this?”

I gave an adrenalized laugh. “Bring it on!”

Because they’re coaches, they assumed there were more emotions at play than just my “bring it on!” confidence. “Really?” they asked.

Calming down a little, I said, “I have no fear about her. People at her level used to intimidate me. But not now. I know how to assume equality.” I’d been talking about that concept since my days as an actor in the 1980’s and 90’s.

“You must feel pissed towards her,” someone challenged. “You lost a chunk of income because of her.”

That was true. In the back corners of my mind, Charlotte loomed as an adversary to be overcome. I had stories in my head that made her a villain and me a victim.

In order to manage myself, I would have to closely monitor the narrative I had in my head about Charlotte and consciously choose stories that would empower me.

Then someone asked, “What do you want to know from her?”

That triggered a flood of questions in my head: What did she think about coaching? How did she imagine coaching could help her company? Had she been coached herself? What did she value in her leaders?

Suddenly I had a way to enter the room that made me feel expert: be curious. I knew how to enter a room with curiosity – for a coach, that’s a fundamental requirement. I felt a small fist in my gut relax. Now I knew how to manage myself in this high-stakes setting. Be curious.

I smiled. I felt certain the three steps – clarify the story, do your homework, manage yourself – would allow me to meet Charlotte and model The Look & Sound of Leadership.

Next month: Charlotte face-to-face.

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