My client, Peter, is a middle manager who works for a giant telecommunications company. At his level, managers are required to update the executive vice presidents, two levels up the management chain, once every quarter. This is a good management practice because it gives middle managers exposure to senior management. It also keeps senior management informed via a voice that is closer to the customer.
Here was Peter's moment—an opportunity to shine in front of senior management—during a quarterly update. And it was unquestionably a memorable experience, though not the kind Peter wanted to remember!
Peter stood at the head of a large oval table with about thirty people around it. The four senior managers were on either side of him. Peter's presentation was first. He put up his first slide and began. All the executive vice presidents (EVPs) seemed to be paying attention—for the first few minutes. Then, out of the corner of one eye, Peter noticed something that made it hard for him to concentrate on what he was saying. One of the EVPs started to fidget with his Palm Pilot. Peter looked at the others around the table. They were still looking at him. Phew. Another minute passed, and Peter noticed that the attention of the senior managers had changed. Most of them were now watching the EVP with the Palm Pilot! Peter struggled. He looked at his slides to try and refocus. The EVP was still fidgeting.
Then it got worse. The EVP with the Palm Pilot stood up as though he had received a signal to do so, turned, and walked out of the room. Yes, he walked out of the meeting after only five minutes! Peter was flabbergasted, as were his peer presenters who were, of course, desperately trying to figure out how to avoid the same fate!
The EVP's reaction was only different from many others because he physically exited the room. We have all been at meetings where senior managers were present in body only. Their minds were elsewhere, but we smiled at them and talked to them, and everyone in the room kept up the pretense.
In many ways the EVP was doing these middle managers a great favor. He taught them a business lesson that could last their careers (assuming they didn't all quit and join the Peace Corps!). We are notoriously a society of bad listeners. Our managers are also. To keep people in the room, we need to give them a reason to pay attention to our presentations.