5/23/2010

Corporate Survival Guide: All Hands on Deck

In war, or at least in war movies, there is always a dramatic scene in which the troops come together to hear a rousing speech from the General, which inspires them to march happily off to certain death. The General moves down the line of bleak, scared faces and offers words of inspiration that, despite being outgunned, outwitted, and out-and-out doomed, they will prevail. All they have to do is this one little thing of marching straight into the line of fire while the General observes from far in the rear.

This same epic battle scene also takes place on today’s corporate battlefields: it’s called the “All Hands” meeting. This is a regular meeting of everyone in the department or the entire company in which executives address the troops, inspiring them with predictions of victory and regaling them with presentations about fiscal responsibility, budgets, and layoffs.

But the All Hands meeting is not just a time for reflection and dozing; it is a prime opportunity for the Corporate Warrior to shine. Think about it: what other forum is there where so many of your co-workers and your management hierarchy are present?

Here are some ways that you can use the meeting to your advantage:

Sit in front

Educators say that sitting in the front row is the best way to learn the material. Your proximity to the teacher forces you to pay more attention, and the lack of distractions in front of you help you focus. But sitting up front in an All Hands meeting has nothing to do with learning (hey, nobody’s listening anyway). Instead, it’s all about access and visibility.

First of all, make sure to reserve a chair front and center before the meeting starts. You could put your notebook or your laptop on the seat, but I’ve found that spilling coffee or, better yet, cooked oatmeal on the chair is more effective at keeping people away.

Next, wait in the back until the meeting starts. The first speaker is usually the highest-ranking executive talking that day. That first slot is a sign of honor and respect for this highest-ranking executive, and this person is also usually the one that has nothing in particular to talk about, so they just do the fluffy intro. Wait until the audience has stopped talking about their kids’ soccer games and the executive starts to speak to a hushed and awestruck crowd. This is your time to move.

Make your way to the front confidently and noticeably. A mobile phone is a good prop for this entrance, as you can make your position clear in a fake conversation. The trick is to appear busy, important, and yet respectful of the All Hands and the presenters. A quote like this might help: “I don’t care how, just make it happen! Now start thinking for yourself – I’m in an important meeting with very important people!”

Now that you’re at your chair, make sure that the executive at the microphone knows you’re there by saying something subtle, like, “A spill? No problem – I’ll clean it up just like our company is cleaning up in the market!” Then wipe up your seat-reserving spill and sit down.

If you played your part successfully, you interrupted the speaker. That person is now staring at you, trying to get back the lost train of thought. This is an excellent time to help, saying something loudly to them like, “You tell them, Pat!” This serves two purposes: it brings you to the attention of the executive, and it shows everyone in the audience that you’re on a first name basis with them. The best part is that you don’t have to know the person at all; you just have to know their name. With the entire company spread in front of them, they’re not going to have the time and presence of mind to stop and ask who you are and would you mind shutting up, please. Instead, you’ll get your salutation out there and they will continue reading from their index cards, and the audience will think that you helped them do it.


Ask questions

Usually, there is time for Q&A at the end of an All Hands meeting. This is the time for employees to ask serious questions about how the company is doing, or how the budget cuts affect their department, or how they’re going to tell their spouses that they have to sell the children to make ends meet. This is all irrelevant, of course; Q&A is your time to get attention.

Ask pointed questions of the executives, calling them by name and making them notice who you are, and what you stand for. Don’t bother asking real questions about hard problems – these people have enough to worry about getting their golf scores down without people pestering them about personal gripes like "jobs" and "salary cuts." Instead, focus on questions that make both them and you look good, because that’s what it’s all about.

Sample questions might include:


“How is it that the economy is so bad, but your financial management of our company is so good?”

“I don’t know about anyone else here, but this is the most wonderful company I’ve ever worked for. My question: was it always this amazing, or was it through your leadership that it got to be so great?”
Feel free to throw in the occasional not-a-question as well, as long as you have a strong point to make:


“I just want to be the first to congratulate you on a fantastic job. Everybody, let’s hear it for Mary!”
Remember the first rule of the Corporate Warrior: never stop sucking up.


Lead the troops

Shell-shocked soldiers and battle-weary veterans need constant motivation to keep on fighting. They need leaders who inspire them to ridiculous feats. You can be that leader.

In this kind of meeting, the speakers are lucky if the audience stays awake, much less pays attention during the entire event. That’s why they need you to drive the applause that lets everyone know not just when to applaud, but, more importantly, who the applause leader is.

Every time a speaker pauses and looks out at the crowd, it’s clear that a note on their index card or teleprompter reads: “[Applause]”. Be the first one to jump up and lead a round. It doesn’t matter what they just said – you won’t be able to follow any of it since you’ll be too busy watching for cues. It’s more important that you let the speaker know that the audience appreciates what they said … when you told them to.

Watch for other cues as well. When an executive smiles, laugh out loud and throw out a, “Good one!” and then jab the person next to you and gesture that you thought that was a really funny point. When a speaker makes a dramatic point, talk back to them: “No! What did you do then?”

This constant salvo from you, their main indicator for audience appreciation, will give them the feedback they need to continue in their speeches, in their jobs, and ideally in recognizing you as someone they can trust.


Eat

If you’re lucky and this is one of those All Hands meetings with food, take as much as you can. Stuff your face with Danishes, put extra donuts in your pockets, and make off with as much as you can carry. For one thing, you know that the executives won’t be anywhere near, so they won't be watching you make a pig of yourself. But also, a soldier never knows where his next meal is coming from. And heck, it’s free.
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