After four years digesting a prior acquisition, my employer decided to expand into an adjacent market space. Though I learned many great lessons in the days leading up to the deal’s close, none was more powerful than the education I received watching one of my peers artfully take charge of the first due diligence meeting. By commandeering that first meeting, he set himself up as a leader of the acquisition and the subsequent integration process. In short, he showed what great looks like in taking charge.
Allow me to paint a more detailed picture for you. Ten functional leads representing product management, human resources, finance, legal, and other areas assembled for a top secret meeting in a windowless basement conference room. All of us had signed non-disclosure agreements and all of us had roughly equivalent positional authority. Eight of the ten people in the room, including me, came in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and just thrilled that we had been chosen by our CEO to contribute our functional expertise to the vetting process. The other two, however, had larger appetites. They were vying to supercharge their careers by taking leadership of the overall acquisition. Our CEO, known for his skill at identifying and developing talent, clearly put these two exceptional individuals into a competitive situation to test their mettle.
One of the two, let’s call him Jason, emerged as the clear victor. Here is what he did.
Pre-syndicate your ideas with key players BEFORE you get to the meeting
Jason had actually won long before he ever set foot in the room. Well before the meeting, Jason prioritized the level of influence of the people that would be in the meeting. He then individually met with each of the key players to deeply understand their hopes and concerns and to share his own thoughts. Jason’s objective was not to win them over to his side. Rather, his objective was to integrate their ideas with his own to build a coherent vision.
This one technique, pre-syndication, is hands down the single most powerful way to take charge. Despite its obviousness, few people actually use it, enabling you to distance yourself from the crowd simply by being one of those diligent few. In my experience, most people have never even thought of systematically pre-syndicating their ideas. Among those that know it is good for their health, few actually take time to schedule and execute a round of pre-syndication. It is hard work and requires meticulous planning, but will yield enormous rewards.
Starting today, you must make it your practice to pre-syndicate ideas with the key influencers and decision makers that will be in your meetings. You should make it your objective that you will never be surprised in a meeting. You should make it your aim that you always walk into meetings with reasonable certainty that the decision has already been made. That is what elevates good to great.
Arrive early and claim the physical position of leadership
Being a person that is conditioned to arrive early, I was there to observe Jason walk into the room a good five to ten minutes before the scheduled meeting start time. I watched closely as Jason’s eyes purposefully sized up the environment. Though this was a room in which tables and chairs were constantly reconfigured by beings unknown, there is a clear front of the room with whiteboards and flip charts. Jason positioned himself at the front of the room, nearest the whiteboard. He staked his claim by setting his belongings down at the head of a rectangular table and only then engaged me in conversation. Where appropriate, and if you have enough time, you can even reconfigure the room to your advantage.
You may think this sort of thing is beneath you as a leader. Your intellect and abilities, after all, should speak for themselves and you should not have to resort to ‘gimmicks’ like jockeying for where you sit in a room. Although logically sound, that pride will hold you back from taking charge.
Unless your seniority trumps everyone else’s in the room, it is a bold move to sit at the head of a rectangular table. Most people, possibly trying to be respectful in the event that a more senior person arrives, will choose a seat on one of the long sides of a rectangular table. We were conditioned this way as children sitting down for family meals.
By arriving early, Jason set himself up for success in two ways. As mentioned, he placed himself in the physical position of authority in the room. Second, Jason had time to establish rapport with each individual as they entered the room. When the meeting started, he was calm, confident, and collected.
Control the group agenda and goals
Controlling a meeting extends beyond the more generic, but still important, topic of meeting effectiveness (covered in a separate chapter). To own a meeting, you must set the agenda, prioritize the group’s goals, and get buy-in to next steps at the conclusion. All of this requires careful planning.
Though it will greatly enhance your likelihood of controlling the meeting, being the first one to speak does not guarantee success. In more chaotic situations among equals, it pays to wait and then enter as the person that brings structure. This is exactly what Jason did. He was quiet but listening carefully at the beginning of the acquisition kick-off meeting. His (in retrospect) competitor spoke first, providing background information on the target company rather than beginning by setting the agenda. Jason’s adversary committed a crucial error. He fell into the trap of believing that his superior knowledge by itself would allow him to take charge. As the conversation began to drift among various participants, Jason stepped in and began to organize the group. While his challenger lost steam after a quick jump out of the gate, Jason gradually gained momentum.
Secure the commitment of everyone involved
During the course of the meeting, Jason sensed that the tide was turning his way. However, he needed to be absolutely sure. Though the mechanism to secure commitment varies from situation to situation, the most effective method in a business meeting is to be the individual that obtains agreement on next steps.
Inspire with a positive vision of the future
Every great performance has a central theme at its core. This is as true in a corporate environment as it is in the theater. In business settings, the person whom others ultimately allow to take charge bears the responsibility of inspiring the team with a positive vision of the future.
Jason’s final flourish, which cemented him as the team leader, was to paint of picture of how the combined organization would benefit our customers, our employees, and our shareholders.
When I shared this taking charge framework with an attorney with whom I work, he smiled immediately. Curious, I asked him whether his was a skeptical smile of disagreement. He answered, “Just the opposite. In the law, we have an expression for this: ‘control the document.’” So, if you want to become great at taking charge, you must plan carefully to ‘control the document’: both the physical and intellectual resources that will define the outcome.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at taking charge:
- Pre-syndicate your ideas with key players BEFORE you get to the meeting
- Arrive early and claim the physical position of leadership
- Control the group agenda and goals
- Secure the commitment of everyone involved
- Inspire with a positive vision of the future