Joe, a marketing VP, found himself leading a high-visibility team for a consumer products company.
His company had undergone numerous problems during a twelve-month period – from a series of downsizings to a product liability lawsuit that it lost.
Concerned about the effect on sales, the firm’s directors had asked management to form an image-building team to assess the impact of these events on customers’ perceptions about the company and to determine what damage control to attempt.
Management wanted all product lines represented on the team, so eight people – marketing and product managers – were asked to meet every Thursday from noon to 2:00 P.M. to undo the damage to the firm’s image over the last twelve months.
They were an articulate group, but they also had very decided views about their product lines, the events’ impact on sales, and action step to recommend.
Jeb Thomas, the CEO, didn’t make Joe’s task any easier.
Jeb had been asked by the board to be there for the first meeting, ostensibly to make clear how important their purpose was. But in the course of his remarks, it became clear that he was truly a “doubting Thomas” about the need for the team.
If the past events had created some problems with the corporation’s image, they were short-lived; he thought that in the interim the firm had regained its rosy image in the eyes of its customers.
After he left the room, no one said a word. Finally, Barbara spoke up, “If Jeb is right, what are we doing here?”
“Worse,” Carole said, “if he’s wrong – and I think he is – how do we present that fact to him, let alone submit suggestions to address the problem?”
Joe then spoke up. “Whatever Jeb thinks or doesn’t think,” he said, “should not interfere with our mission. Let’s get down to work. We’ll start with setting some ground rules.”
The Importance of Ground Rules
That Joe and the team set the ground rules prior to working on the group’s mission statement made it easier for him to coach the group through creation of the two-sentence objective; even then it took two weeks of heated discussions.
“Barbara was the worst breaker of the rules throughout the life of the team,” Joe recalled.
“Whenever we discussed any subject related to her product line, she would get defensive. She would interrupt the speaker by jumping on his words, then take control of the discussion. On several occasions I had to retake control of the team from Barbara and refocus the discussion on the subject of the previous speaker,” Joe told me.
Carole represented another kind of problem. Usually so outspoken, she was silent during many of the discussions “She was uncomfortable confronting the political issue involved – Jeb Thomas’s lack of support for the team’s mission,” Joe observed.
He found he had to ask her very specific questions to get her to participate in the group. Dwayne, on the other hand, was very outspoken, and Joe found that he had to wait until the product manager paused for breath, then ask for another member’s opinion on the issue.
“Maria, a marketing manager, wasn’t like Barbara or Carole or Dwayne,” Joe continued. “Whereas the rest of the team, despite the political ramifications, wanted to do a good job, Maria just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
We would be barely into a subject, when she would call for a vote, insisting that any further discussion was unnecessary.” Joe would then ask Maria to state the issue on which she wanted to vote.
He would next ask team members if they agreed with her conclusion that they had reached the point of making a decision or whether more discussion was called for.
The team had numerous heated discussions, but Joe was able to facilitate the discussion, and ultimately the group came up with a six-step program to submit to the board that included a customer-focused campaign in local newspapers in target areas where image problems existed.
Ten Strategies for Successful Meetings
During the course of the team meetings, Joe utilized ten strategies that he said helped him get through a tough six months. He would:
Ask for feelings or opinions. Except for Carole, Joe didn’t have a problem drawing people out, but he did find that asking questions like the following encouraged further discussion: “What brings you to conclude …?” (which demanded that Barbara verbalize many emotional responses to what was being said); “What prompts your suggestion to …?” (which got Maria to verbalize some of her reasons for calling for a vote); and “What are some other ways you think we could …?” (which enabled others besides Dwayne to speak).
Paraphrase what others had said. By asking one angry member to repeat in her own words what another member had said that caused the anger, Joe found that he could prevent arguments from breaking out. He too would paraphrase others to ensure clarification for the group as a whole: “Let me see if I understand your position. Are you suggesting that …?” “What I am hearing is … Am I right?” “Let me restate the last point you made to see if I understand.”
Call on the quieter members for their reactions to comments on more vocal members. Besides Carole, Joe used this technique on Darlene, Ted, and Erik: “Darlene, how do you feel about what Dwayne just said?” “Erik, how would you answer Maria’s question?” “Before we move to the next subject on the agenda, I would like to hear from Ted on this issue. What are your thoughts on the issue?”
As for a summary. Periodically Joe would stop the discussion to review what had been covered so far and any decisions reached. Not only did this keep the group on course; it also allowed the group as a whole to catch its breath after a heated discussion: “Before we go on, can someone summarize the points we have made?” “I have heard a number of ideas from the group. Would someone summarize what has been agreed upon?” “It is evident that Barbara disagrees with what has been said. Barbara, could you give us three reasons why?”
Ask for more concrete examples. This moved the discussion from the abstract to the specific, from information to actions that the team could propose to improve the firm’s image. “Erik, can you expand on what you just said? Could you give me some examples of what you think we could do?” “Are there other things we should consider?” “Maria, since Ted handles your product line, could you add to what he said?”
Question whether the group had reached consensus. Since Maria seemed to want to move on before the rest of the group, Joe found he often had to ask: “Maria believes Erik’s suggestion should be a part of our recommendations. Does everyone agree?” “Darlene, do you agree with Maria that we have fully addressed this issue?” “Maria believes that we can go on. Let me see a show of hands if you all agree.”
Call for action. Joe would ask, “How do you think we should proceed?” Or, more specifically, “Dwayne, how would you suggest we proceed?” Or, looking to the group as a whole, “I’d like your suggestions on possible ways we can get started researching …”
Suggest the next step. “Since we never get to some agenda items, should be rank in priority the items on our agenda for next week?” “Barbara obviously has some very strong views on this topic. I suggest we go around the table and see how the rest of the group feels.” Joe even used questions to get the group to take a fifteen-minute break during the two-hour session: “Who would like to take a break?”
Support a team member. Joe found that supportive statements like the following helped get members of the team to share their feelings: “Barbara, you’ve had your chance to share your opinion. Let’s hear from Carole now.” “Let’s give Darlene a chance to describe her experience.” “Dwayne, you’ve had your say. Now it’s Ted’s turn.”
Confront disagreements. “Carole, you haven’t said anything, but I suspect you disagree with what Ted just said. How do you feel about his comments?” “Barbara, I get the impression that you aren’t satisfied with my explanation. Is that right?” “Maria, is there something here you disagree with?”
In short, Joe found that he could stimulate discussion by asking the group a general question and that he could cut off discussion by asking the group to summarize the discussion to date; that he could bring a quiet participant into the discussion by asking that person a general question; that he could get the attention of two participants involved in a side conversation by asking one of the two parties a specific question; and that he could get an assessment of the group’s progress on a topic or on a debate between two outspoken members of the team by asking for a member of the team to summarize what had been said.
Finally, at the end of the project, Joe asked the team one last question: “How well did I do as team leader?” He got high marks from his team.