Best-laid plans Featured

5:40am EDT April 30, 2002
Recently, I attended a presentation where a well-meaning person who is not part of the management team gave a pre-presentation heads-up to executives. We didn't know he was doing so, and all he accomplished was to antagonize those executives.

My client and I were due to present a new technology to mid-level management, and we were confident they would strongly endorse the product. A senior management official had heard a previous, high-level presentation, but it was an earlier version that hadn't addressed deficiencies that later became apparent.

After the high-level presentation, we ran the plan past a few more hands-on people, who promptly poked holes in it. We fixed them and were taking the improved version back.

We ask experts to find fault with plans so we can improve them. Several played devil's advocate, and we ended up with an improved product. We were confident our presentation would be successful.

On the day of the presentation, we arrived early to set up the demo, but the conference room we were to use was in use by another group. The promised analog phone line for an Internet connection was digital, and therefore unusable. A few other unpleasantries had to be resolved, and were addressed just moments before the managers arrived ... 25 of them, and not a smile on one face.

We were only a short way into the presentation when the pointed questions began. These were not questions of inquiry, but of challenge. This was a tough group, and without their endorsement, our efforts were not going to succeed.

When the questions become hostile, the senior manager let us know that he had given the group a heads-up to prepare them. He meant well, but he couldn't have done more harm if he had tried. Not only did he have some facts wrong, he was also unaware of the revisions and improvements.

So how was the meeting?

It was terrific. The CEO kept his cool and humor. He answered the reasonable questions and avoided debating with the hostile questioners. He did not argue, but turned the meeting into a learning experience for us.

He joked about the black and blue mark he was going to have the next day, then gave everyone his phone number so they could continue to "beat me up in private." He let them know we were there to learn from them, and hear their comments.

There was also a time crunch, which kept us from addressing some misconceptions, but that also, mercifully, ended an extremely tough presentation. As we were packing up, a key manager told us he saw significant merit in what we were proposing, and that we should call him so he could show us his operations and share ideas. That was a glorious moment.

I won't end with a pithy conclusion or bit of business insight; the experience speaks for itself. The senior guy tried to help, but hurt us. My client kept his cool, was honest, and made huge progress in getting his company closer to landing the contract. Erwin Bruder (ebruder@primcapital.com) is managing director of emerging enterprises for Cleveland-based Prim Capital Corp. He can be reached at (216) 830-1111, ext. 2220.