Frankfurt, 01. February 2018 – Considering myself to be quite adaptable and quick witted, I chose to make my living as a business consultant. I anticipated constant change of working environments and requirements. However, what I didn’t foresee was the abruptness with which I would be confronted with drastically different situations. A case in point was my recent trip to the land of cheese and bad soccer players.
It was an ordinary day at our Frankfurt office, when a founding partner I had gotten to know that morning pulled me aside and told me: “We need someone to moderate a panel discussion in English at an international conference in Amsterdam tomorrow. Would you be interested?” Being new to the company and wanting to prove myself, I blurted out “Of course!” without blinking an eye. He explained to me, that the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) organized the conference and that I would take part in a simulation during his keynote speech on one of our training formats. “Okay,” I thought, “that can´t be too bad. Sounds like fun actually!” So excitedly, I asked: “What´s the topic of the discussion I will moderate?” And that´s when things turned weird…
Not only was I not to know the topic, so that I couldn´t really prepare but another partner additionally jinxed me by saying: “If you screw it up it´s no big deal. Think of it as a learning experience.” After all night frantically researching English phrases that could be of use in panel discussions, I boarded the train to Amsterdam the next morning. Obviously, I was keen on learning more about my assignment, but wasn´t allowed to sit with my colleagues. Instead, they informed me by text message that someone would fetch me at the venue about an hour into the keynote.
While waiting for my cue I paced back and forth like caged lion, until finally, a door opened and a colleague beckoned me in. I walked into the auditorium to a thunderous applause and – not knowing how else to react – smiled and waved like a celebrity at a parade while making my way to the stage on wobbly legs. On stage I found a half circle of five chairs with four of them occupied. The partner directed me to the free chair and told me to lead a 15-minute-discussion on the topic of “Real Live Simulations in Change Management”.
“All right,” I thought, “breathe in, breathe out and start.” I introduced myself including my professional background and got the panelists to introduce themselves. The two women and two men came from all over Europe and were all seasoned change management veterans that seemed quite friendly. After the introductory statements, they responded to my open questions with eloquently stated opinions on the pros and cons of simulations in change management. Three panelists gave short statements against it and one women thought the idea was great which she elaborated on at great length. I started to relax, thinking I understood the game: The panelists had obviously been instructed earlier to convey certain opinions and characteristics. It was my job to get them to explain these opinions and to respond civilly and curtly to the other panelists. Since they all seemed rather cordial, I thought that the task was quite doable.
Suddenly a booming voice cut through our discussion. In shock, I looked up to see a big man standing in the audience and bellowing: “This is all bullshit! I don´t want to hear that crap. We´ve all heard the keynote speakers and have already formed our opinions. Let´s take a vote right now!” After closing my gaping mouth, I tried to calm the man down, when another man interrupted me by shouting: “Throw that buffoon out! I travelled hundreds of kilometers for this conference and I want to enjoy the proceedings without interruption. This is not tolerable!”
What should I do now? I knew that I had only fifteen minutes on stage and the concierge of the venue was over 100 meters away. I couldn’t just leave the stage and get him to expulse the disruptor. Therefore, I cracked some jokes to release the tension and got the discussion on stage going again. However, after a short while the big man got up again: “Come on, let´s take a vote right now. Who is with me? Follow me out of the room.” He strode across the venue while waving his arms and shouting incoherent things. I was rather flabbergasted. I didn´t know at all how to react to such an event. Fortunately, out of the corner of my eye I saw the keynote speaker gesturing at the big man pantomiming turning the volume dial of a stereo down. Relieved I apologized to the panelists and got them to continue to exchange arguments.
I was just starting to regain my sense of control when the keynote speaker stepped on stage and informed us that the discussion was over. He thanked the panelists for their part and informed me that coaches would now judge my performance as a moderator. Two coaches came up on stage and gave me feedback on my weak and strong points. Then the partner explained to the audience that they had just witnessed a real live simulation and that the steering committee – himself and the big man – adjusted it on the fly to respond to my level of competence with the goal of getting me out of my comfort zone. Stressed as I had been, I hadn’t been able to play a role and had no choice but to reveal my real character and the limit of my abilities to the coaches.
Half an hour later, I was already on the train back home. “What an experience,” I thought. I took part in a real live simulation on stage and actually got a whole lot out of it. The feedback from the coaches gave me a good starting point to work on some aspects of my public appearance. And by then I finally understood the partner that had told me earlier that even in failing I would gain valuable experience.
By the way, the simulation seemed so real to one of the organizers that afterwards she really lit into the big man for his unacceptable behavior not knowing that he was just playing a role. I was actually glad when I heard that a week later. Since at first I felt somewhat ashamed to fall for his ruse and get nervous. My colleagues still tease me with the face I made when he started doing his thing…
Author: Jasper Peters, Senior Consultant @CPC