Several years ago, I was coaching in a company struggling with a major shift in the economic climate. Rumors of shutdowns and layoffs were rampant.
The CEO decided to assuage concerns by making a global presentation to all employees in which he would lay out his plans for turning the situation around. Staff had two choices: 1) gather in designated auditoriums and conference rooms, or 2) watch the address in their own office on their computer.
I was in one of the company’s offices when the CEO began to speak, so I decided to wander through the building, observing people’s reactions. What I saw surprised me. Most employees chose to view the presentation in their offices instead of the auditoriums, many with two or three coworkers huddled around their monitor with them. That wasn’t the curious part. What caught me off guard was what many people were actually watching. As I walked by an office with several people inside, I caught a glimpse of the monitor.
The screen showed a CEO speaking––he just wasn’t this company’s CEO.
Folks had tuned in to watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs at one of Apple’s signature product unveiling events instead. The rebellion was not limited to two or three malcontents. As I heard rounds of applause echoing throughout the building when Jobs announced a major enhancement to the iPhone, I realized that most––not some––of the employees were watching Apple.
The next day, I had a one-on-one coaching engagement with a leader in that company. I told her about what I had seen, and she was visibly irritated.
“How can people be more interested in their phones than our business?” she said. “Don’t they realize their jobs are in jeopardy here? Hell, the future of the whole company is.”
“Of course they do,” I told her. “They’re not blind to what is going on. This isn’t about that. It’s about why your CEO––even given the current dire straits the corporation is in––could not command as much attention from his followers as the Apple CEO. Why do you think that’s the case?”
“Because they’re idiots. They care more about their g-damn phones than their jobs and this company.”
“And why is that?” I asked.
“Wait a minute,” she replied. “You’re not going to challenge what I just said? You agree that they care more about their phones than this company?”
“I think, based on their behavior, that’s obvious. Or at least they care more about hearing from the CEO of Apple than from their own. The question I’m asking is why.”
“I can’t imagine why,” she said. “I don’t get these people today. What motivates them is not what motivates me.”
“Bingo! They are motivated by something other than what motivates you,” I said. “They’re not buying what you and your CEO are selling, but they’re waiting in line for what Apple’s CEO sells them.”
Selling a product or enrolling in an idea or change are both rooted in the ability to inspire. Performance is determined by the degree to which leaders can inspire what they want from their followers. So many people fail to realize that leading is performance art: The delivery accomplishes far more than the message itself. I watch managers spend 99% of their effort preparing their message and 1%––if that––on fine-tuning how they’ll present it.
If you reflect on your own experiences as an audience member, I think you’ll begin to realize how profoundly the speaker’s delivery has influenced your reception, even when you don’t remember exactly what was said. Case in point: I was listening to a manager speak many years ago but was distracted by a troubling text on my phone. When I turned to my co-worker to ask what the leader had just said, my friend replied, “I’m not sure, but I’m ready to do whatever he needs done.”
When I check in with employees after a leader’s presentation––a common practice of mine––I constantly hear things like, “Her message was missing passion. I’m not sure she was committed to what she’s saying,” or “I was hoping he would be more real and frank about how dire our situation is. I’m afraid our people won’t realize how urgently we need to change.”
So how do you develop masterful delivery? The key is to be completely authentic. Presentation is a performance, but it’s not an act. Consider this: People practice wedding vows over and over, but that does not mean they aren’t authentic when they are ultimately shared.
When I help a leader improve performance, I often begin with a question like this: “You’re clear on what you want to say. Your message makes sense, and I’m sure your team will understand it. But who do you need to be to reach your people emotionally? To capture their hearts and minds? To move them into action?”
The idea of “being” can be difficult to grasp. Think of it this way: When you give a presentation, should you be a father or mother as you speak? Or possibly a queen who is inspiring her soldiers into battle? Perhaps a fire fighter rescuing his citizens from a burning building, a teacher helping his students understand the predicament in which the business is in, or a doctor sharing her diagnosis of the company’s illness and the cure she plans to implement? Immerse yourself in the identity that will help you deliver most passionately and connect to your listeners most honestly.
Remember: A leader reaches the summit of leadership when she can create extraordinary performance while caring for people.
Next week, I’ll share the rest of my conversation with the frustrated leader, during which we began to explore how leaders can accurately gauge listeners’ reactions as they seek to inspire them. Are you All-In?