Here is a riddle: Picture a conference room with a meeting underway. There are twelve chairs around the table and eleven people in the room, leaving one empty chair. With this information, how do you tell who the CEO is?
If you answered the person sitting next to the empty chair, you solved the riddle. People do not want to sit next to the boss. Occasionally you’ll get a brave soul, but only until that person gets some crap about kissing up to the boss. You’ll see the same behavior when you attend a dinner with your team.
I was facilitating a high-level strategy session in the southern region of the country with a high-end technology company. This was a well-run, second generation, cutting-edge kind of organization that could advance concepts quickly and had a great platform for adding services. In my pre-session discovery, I kept getting strange vibes from the executive team members. They were all young, boyish looking kids, including the CEO, who had recently purchased the business from his father and was an extremely capable engineer.
The first day of our two-and-a-half day strategic planning session went off without a hitch. There was good discovery, common information, and a good historical look at themselves. While they had an incredible platform, a great technological leader who had its engineering practice down cold, their sales were just not getting any traction and they were not able to leverage their platform. In fact, a competitor with more money but less intelligence was gaining some ground on them and creating a large threat. I planned to dig deep into the sales program on day two and I was already forming some ideas about how to help them.
That evening, they invited my colleague Sharon and me out to dinner with the team. I usually have a strict rule that we do not engage in any outside evening plans with our clients and we rarely have dinner with them. Instead we retreat and let them blow off some steam without having the resident consultants hovering about. But something was bugging me after that first day, and I wanted to watch these guys in a lighter setting to see if I could figure it out.