Get A Room

Jan 20, 2012

When I coach executive teams, a recurring issue is discovering that everyone on the team is in a different room.

I’m not talking here about the challenges of virtual meetings, but rather, what goes on inside the head of individuals when they get together as a group.

Let me show you what I mean. Here we are, you and I, sitting quietly against the side wall of a glass-panelled conference room. Gathered in the center, around a large table, are the executive team of a financial services company. It’s a large-ish business, regionally-dominant, with over 3,500 employees, and so its executive team is similarly large-ish – 16 people in all.

The team meet every Thursday in executive session, and for the last four months I’ve been joining them every six weeks or so to help develop their decision-making and group communication skills. I’ve also been separately coaching the CEO, CFO and CMO – so by now I know the team quite well. Well enough to invite you in without it disturbing them unduly.

Now, see Jane over there to our left? She’s the CEO, bright, hard-working, relatively new to the job, ambitious. Watch her as she guides the team: Jane thinks she’s in the gym. She’s working everyone hard (including herself), encouraging everyone to stretch a little further, lift a lit more weight. For Jane, the team meeting is a workout, and I know from our coaching sessions that she feels best when she finishes these meetings stretched, tired and a little sore.

That guy over at the top right of the table? That’s Jay, the chief legal counsel. Well-read, courtly, always affable, Jay thinks he’s in the library. A well-stocked private library, that is, one with wood-paneled walls and, I suspect, a comfy leather chair or two.

Jay treats the group’s meeting topics like much-valued, heavy-bound tomes. He’ll ignore most, letting his colleagues work their way through them, but every now and again one will take his fancy. He’ll take it down from the bookshelf, flick through the pages, sidle unhurriedly over to that comfy chair and muse a bit. To the rest of the team, this manifests as Jay engaging rarely, but unfailingly politely when he does, and in a half-disengaged, non-prescriptive fashion.

What’s that? The voluble chap in the polo shirt and chinos? Oh, that’s the CMO, Enrico – Ricky to the others. Ricky loves sports, even coaches a team at the weekends. Did a little military service. His people love him. Ricky thinks he’s in the locker room. Everything is couched in motivational terms. Most all his contributions are directed toward ‘winning’: beating the competition, beating the odds, beating the economy. Ricky’s a ‘glass-half-full’ kinda guy, but sometimes you can see he gets a little frustrated when he feels his colleagues don’t see the importance of the game he believes they’re all in the locker room prepping for.

And take a look at Emily, the head of branch expansion – she’s the one sitting right in front of us, the person who’s been scribbling and texting her way through the meeting. Legs jiggling, fingers drumming, always ready with an interjection or suggestion, Emily is a bundle of fire – happy, engaged, if now and again a little short on attention span.

Emily thinks she’s in the kitchen. Always cooking something up, experimenting, adding a little seasoning, pairing this with that, grabbing whatever comes to hand and seeing what she can make with it. Emily is a fount of improvisation, never short of a bright idea about how to cook up something new from ever-changing ingredients.

See what I mean? Gym, library, locker room, kitchen. If we had time, we could wander through the rooms the other 12 team members are in, but these four are enough to make the point.

At first glance, this seems healthy – different perspectives and all that, but the reality is more insidious. You see, it’s likely that none of the team are even vaguely conscious of the room metaphor they slide into at the start of each meeting, much less what room the others are in.

As a result, while Jane is aware that Jay’s affable, non-interventionist manner is frustrating her attempts to build a highly engaged, high-output team, she can’t really lock on to why she’s feeling that way. Ricky feels irritated at Emily’s constant improvisation without knowing why: he wants her to understand there is actually a game playbook that everyone should stick to. And Emily bristles at Jane’s get-it-done-what’s-next-get-it-done approach, unaware that it’s because her own need for playfulness and experimentation is being thwarted.

The answer? Well,if you don’t want to be stared at like you’ve just stepped out of a UFO, you probably can’t go around the table asking everyone what room they’re in. But you can be clear where you are in your own head.

What’s your ‘meeting metaphor’? Where do you most equate meetings as taking place? Maybe you’re a gym, library, locker room or kitchen kinda guy or gal; or maybe you think of something entirely different – driving a train or a rocket-ship, perhaps, or in an air traffic control tower. I’ve even seen some people during meetings who clearly thought they were in a studio being interviewed by Charlie Rose or at the local Imax watching a movie (neither particularly helpful metaphors, by the way).

Once you’ve vocalized your meeting metaphor, do a reality check – is it appropriate and helpful in general? And is it helpful now, in this specific meeting, discussing this particular topic? If it is, and if you feel your colleagues are metaphorically absent, wandering elsewhere in their own rooms, then rather than challenge them about where they are, invite them to come join you where you are.

Explain why you believe the best way for the team to approach this current meeting, topic or interaction is as if you’re all in the gym (or the locker room, or wherever) and invite them in. Even if your meeting metaphor is flawed – and all metaphors are, to a degree – at least you’ll all be in the same room.