What Impact Does Your Presence Have? (Part I)
Awhile back I was leading sessions for small company that had recently been acquired by a large multinational based in France. There were culture issues, communication issues, and because of the vast amount of change they were experiencing, fear and mistrust were rampant. Overnight this small band of technical leaders that had proudly grown their company from 5 people to 200 on their own, a company that had felt more like a family than an organization, was joining forces with a behemoth employing more than 30,000 people worldwide. Their heads were spinning, as you can imagine.
I spent several weeks working with their people managers – a new group every two days – but it was the contrast between the first two sessions that really stands out in my memory. As is commonly done, we had a different senior leader kick off each session. Never before had I experienced such a dramatic example of the impact one leader can have in such a short period of time.
The senior leader who kicked off the first session was more than 15 minutes late. Of course the participants had already had the fear of God put into them by HR to be there on time for the “kick-off”, so as you can imagine the more time that passed, the higher the tensions grew in the room. They didn’t want me to start without the official kick-off, so I made my rounds, meeting everyone, and doing my best to put people at ease.
When the senior leader finally walked into the room, he was reading email on his phone. He proceeded to walk to the front of the room, stood in the center, commanding the attention of everyone with his presence, and typed a response. He finally looked up, his eyes darting around the room, and sighed the sigh of the very put-out, and said, “Look, I know you guys are really busy. This is probably the last thing you want to be doing. But we all have to do it. So pay attention and learn something because we have a lot of work to do these next few months.” And then he left. Just like that. I watched as the group slink back in their chairs. Watched the faces I had been talking to earlier on my rounds go blank. Watched every single person in the room disengage in a flash.
When I arrived for the next session, to say that I was anxious about the “kick-off” is an understatement. I knew that the senior leader who was kicking off the session was the SVP of Finance and that he had just flown in the night before from London. I anticipated a jet-lagged guy who thought that training was a waste of money and time. I braced myself for having to rally the group back to life after he left. Needlessly.
When he showed up 20 minutes early, I was shocked out of my mind. After spending time with me, he greeted every person who walked in the room. By the time the kick-off started, the energy in the room was already buzzing with excitement and anticipation. He didn’t walk to the front. Instead, he casually perched on one of the empty tables at the side, smiled and said, “Good morning! I’m so happy to be here with you.” And you could see that he meant it. He was a soft spoken man, so when he started talking the room was absolutely silent. People were leaning in to hear him, riveted. “You know, I took this session about a month ago” he began, “and when I was sitting in your seat I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need this. I’m too busy to sit in a training session all day.’ I was wrong.”
He continued, “Before this session, I used to go into meetings with my team having already decided what we were going to do, and I would spend the time delegating the responsibilities to execute my plan. I had no idea that what I was doing was having such a tremendous impact on my team. I had all this talent that I wasn’t tapping into. Now I go into a meeting asking questions, gathering ideas, and together we come up with the plan and decide how to execute. Our plans are better. We’re having more fun. And our results are better. I’m better for it. I encourage you to take what you learn in here seriously and run with it. There’s not a better use of your time.”
He smiled, wished us all a great day, shook several hands and patted several backs on his way out, and all of us were left like race horses in the gate, excited to take off on our adventure together.
After the first leader left it took me a solid three hours to re-engage the group. It was excruciating. I’d ask a question. Let it sit. No response. Over and over again. No head nodding. No enthusiasm. Nada. For hours. But here’s the thing – it wasn’t the group. After several hours of building trust, sharing stories, of sticking it out with them, they slowly came back to life. By the beginning of Day 2 they were playing full out. A complete transformation.
As a leader you carry a tremendous responsibility as your presence effects everyone around you. You are always on stage. The first leader likely wasn’t a bad guy, he was probably overwhelmed, super busy, and stressed out. And given what was going on in the company, that totally makes sense and is understandable. But he left a vapor trail of disengagement behind him like I’ve never seen, and while it may be understandable, it’s irresponsible.
When you walk into a room, your presence makes a difference. What’s the impact you want your presence to have?
©OnStage Leadership, 2014 (originally posted August, 2013)
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Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop. Click here to read what people are saying!
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