A few years ago, I was at a year-end meeting for a staff-wide company. There were probably two hundred people in attendance, and I had been invited to deliver a skill-building presentation for the group.
The event was running for the bulk of the day, and it began with a keynote delivered by the CEO. The room was unusually low-energy for a group this size, because the group was at the end of an extremely challenging year for the company.
The CEO cast his eyes over his audience, and grimly delivered a message he clearly wished he didn’t have to say. “Well, I’m sure it’s not news to say it’s been a difficult year. The number of projects out there are a fraction of what they were just two years ago. Business is down. This year we’ve had to say goodbye to too many of our friends.”
From my vantage in the back of the room, I could see that the energy of the room went even lower. You could hear a pin drop, and I leaned forward, excited to hear how this guy was going to turn things around.
He proceeded: “Looking forward, the prospects don’t get any better. The number of projects we’re hearing about for next year are even fewer and farther between. So… that’s where we are today.”
I got pretty concerned at this point. He had taken the room to a pretty dark place — darker than even I was comfortable with — and it was past time for him to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel.
And then he wrapped up. He thanked the crowd, and left the stage. The next speaker announced a ten minute break, and the crowd listlessly rose and startled mumbling to itself.
I was absolutely flabbergasted. This leader had had the perfect opportunity to give his challenged, tired audience a shot of energy, a glimmer of hope, and all he did was capture their despair and push it even farther.
One of the biggest, most important things you have to realize about a staff-wide, year-end meeting is that it absolutely HAS to create some motivation for the coming year. An event like this cannot just be a status meeting capturing the current situation that the company is in, especially if that situation is a bad one.
I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: Human beings are wired for stories. When a message comes our way and it’s structured like a story, we know what it means, and we know what to do with it.
But when we’re exposed to just a single situation, particularly a bleak situation, we just wallow in it.
This is what this particular leader had done to his people. I could tell that his intention was to communicate his empathy for the difficult situation everyone felt they were in, and that was a good intention, but his plan was incomplete. And he was leaving his audience feeling incomplete. (I wished I had thought to offer our coaching services to everyone in the company who was going to be speaking at this event so that we could have helped ward off this problem before it happened, but hindsight is always 20/20, right?)
So I took it upon myself to supply what was missing. I was there to build some skills, so I decided to put those skills into the context that the CEO had so thoroughly communicated.
I was on after the break was over, and, right out of the chute, I acknowledged what the CEO had talked about, the challenging situation the company was facing. Any lightness that might have crept into the audience from the break they had just had flickered out again.
And then I introduced a plan. “The situation out there might be dire, but this company can’t just rely on the situation being good for us to do well. We can’t just hope that business comes. We need to get out there and create the possibility for the work. We need to build relationships with the people who will be deciding to launch projects so that we can be top of mind as a resource when that happens. We need to start conversations that inspire these prospects and customers to move forward. If we do this, then a year from now, the situation this company will be in will be completely different. I can’t say that things will be flush, but business will be up because we drove it up.”
With that last sentence, I had created a little vision for a happy ending that they could believe in. I didn’t have to paint roses and rainbows, I just had to give them something to shoot for that could create the motivation for getting into action.
From there, it was easy for me to deliver what I had been brought in to speak about. I talked about networking to build professional relationships. I talked about presenting to communicate the core value of the company. I talked about how to listen for opportunities, and how to initiate conversations that could lead to sales.
And by the time I was done, the energy in the room had completely transformed. People were no longer fixated on the bleak present, they were focused on a brighter future. And they believed that their participation in an action plan would take them there. Or at least take them in the right direction. And that’s all that they needed from the staff meeting experience.
So, if you’re going to be leading a big staff meeting any time soon, or if you’re responsible for structuring one, make sure that you tell your staff a story. A year-end meeting isn’t a status update, and it’s not a year-in-review (or at least not just that). It’s a sneak preview of the year to come.
- Tell them about the Current Situation (which doesn’t have to be tragic, but actually benefits from not being perfect).
- Tell them about the Action Plan (which has to be simple and understandable, and has to intrinsically involve them so that they know, at least in a general sense, what is going to be asked of them).
- Tell them about a Better Future Situation by the end of next year (which has to be a counterpoint to the Current Situation, and believable).