Avoiding disaster Featured

11:13am EDT November 20, 2003
No matter how well-prepared you are, no matter how much you know about your subject and about those with whom you are going to meet, someday, somewhere, you will have a meeting from hell. The kind of meeting where you wish the floor would open below you and swallow you whole, for falling into an unknown abyss would be preferable to what you are experiencing.

I have preached the doctrine of open communications by stating again and again that you must tell all the good news, for everyone likes good news. Tell all the bad news -- and there generally is bad news -- but tell it so something can be done about it. Most important, never surprise anyone in a business deal, as there is no faster way to kill a deal.

Recently, I was with a client and we were making a presentation to the highest level in this company's management team. After slightly chilly handshakes, and before we could get to the heart of the presentation, the president produced a document that brought into question the past business practices of my client.

There was nothing illegal, but there were issues I had known nothing about. I have to credit the company for doing a more thorough job in vetting my client than I did.

Since the floor was not going to swallow me -- no matter how much I would have welcomed it -- I tried to salvage as much of the opportunity as possible. It wasn't a perfect meeting, but it wasn't the total disaster that it could have been.

If, in spite of your supposedly thorough preparation, things go terribly wrong, salvaging the meeting begins with totally candor. If you were unaware of something, say so.

If there are errors in your numbers, assumptions or market evaluation, admit it. Do not deny what is fact.

If you or a member of your team have messed up, admit it and commit to pursuing whatever is needed to correct what is wrong. Do not try to bluff or use a smoke and mirrors approach. Do not argue and do not be offended that you were found lacking.

Take a deep breath, regroup and never argue against indisputable facts.

If you should, unfortunately, find yourself in one of these meetings, be completely open and honest, even contrite, and ask for the opportunity to reschedule the meeting after you have had a chance to absorb and properly respond to whatever caused the problem. It's not fun, but it is survivable, and with candor, you might get another chance.

Erwin Bruder (ebruder@gordian.org) is president of the Gordian Organization. Reach him at (216) 292-2271.