Elephants in the Board Room (how we fail to prepare for meetings)


We’ve all had meetings which have gone off the rails. Projects halted; sales lost, reputations damaged, logic out the window. How’s that possible when we did all that preparation and worked so hard on the presentation? Tempting to blame such things on other people or just bad luck, but consider how we prepare for meetings and how we could do it better.

If you’re like most people, you go in to important meetings cold.

You do your preparation but you keep any doubts or concerns you have to yourself. You don’t share them with your peers because you want to look like you’ve got everything handled. Standard human operating procedure.

It’s not good, because you bring to the meeting all of the things going around in your head beforehand. Your concern about your preparation, your doubts about the outcome, your feelings about the people you’re presenting to… There will be always be something there and it’s seldom aligned with the intention of the meeting.

You can pretend those concerns don’t impact how you are in the meeting but you’re kidding yourself. They sit there like elephants in the room and you consciously or unconsciously tip-toe around them. You probably won’t notice yourself doing this, but you’ll have noticed it in your peers. If they’re worried about impressing someone, you’ll notice they talk too fast/use big words/act unnatural. If they are overconfident you’ll notice they don’t listen closely. That’s a normal meeting: everyone thinking about how to look good, survive or cover something up. Nobody is present to the purpose of the meeting. Any wonder meetings start late, meander, are unpredictable and run over time.

So what can you do about this?

First, get clear on the intention of the meeting. ‘We want to generate new ideas’ or ‘we want to find out what went wrong’ or ‘we want to create a partnership’. You may have a private intention as well as a public intention. Get clear on that too.

Second, express what your concerns are — about yourself, your peers, the people you’re presenting to, what’s happened in the past about this and anything else that’s in your head. That includes private concerns. If your kid’s in trouble at school or you had a fight with your spouse, you need to get that off your chest.

You should express those concerns to someone who’s a skilled listener and is outside the business. Don’t try and do it with your wife/husband/friend; bad idea.

Third, once you’ve experienced having ALL of your concerns heard, you ground yourself in the intention of the meeting. You can’t do this until all your concerns are aired.

Then you do your meeting and it goes however it goes.

And in run-of-the-mill business, that’s the end of that. Nobody stops to reflect. You’re lucky if you get a ‘how do you think that went?’

But there’s a fourth thing. You should have a Reflection call. During that, you debrief with your skilled listener. Did you deliver on the intention? What got accomplished? What did you learn? What’s unfinished? What are your assessments about your own performance and other people’s? Your listener should leave you fully acknowledged, with nothing left unsaid about the event or your thoughts about it. Think that’s an indulgence? It’s not. Without it, you’ll drag those thoughts into the rest of the day, how you are over dinner and the next important meeting you have.

In case you’re wondering, doing it by yourself doesn’t work because speaking to yourself is not communication. The way you’re listened to makes the difference. You meet a guy in a bar who asks you to connect with him on LinkedIn — you may or may not bother. If you know he’s Jeff Bezos you’re probably going to bother. The way you listen to someone influences action. So make sure your listener is someone you trust and respect. Someone who will hold you to high standards. Someone who knows an elephant when they see one.

And if you’re interested to adopt this practice but need some assistance, my business Independent Conversations does that.