Motivational speakers used to turn me off. As a facilitator of leadership and team development processes, I viewed these gigs mostly as ‘edu-tainment:’ sentimental yarns or heroic exploits that rarely left a trace. But then I had the experience…

Several years ago I was invited to present ‘best practices in leading organizational change’ at the annual convention of a sock manufacturers association. It seemed their industry, like many others, was buffeted by foreign competition. While giving a talk to a large group was new to me, my boss thought it might be a stretch assignment to accept the invitation, so I did.

Rubberbands stretch

The event took place in an auditorium that looked as if it was lifted from my high school, which brought back scary adolescent memories. A motivational speaker preceded me. During her amusing talk she distributed rubber bands that she asked everyone to attach to their wrists. At various moments she instructed the audience to snap the rubber bands, which as you might imagine creates a sharp pain.

I watched in awe from the side of the stage as I heard the sound of 150 rubber bands snapping, accompanied by gleeful laughter. How did she get them to do that over and over again, and enjoy it? And, how was I going to follow her? I started to sweat, my heart sinking and racing at the same time. She left the stage to thunderous applause.

My host then introduced me as an expert on organizational change. I walked on stage carrying a bulky flip chart easel, recognizing too late that I was exposing my now-sweaty armpits by carrying the damn thing.

The room quieted as I started talking about the challenges people experience when adjusting to difficult, life-altering change.  While I riffed on some adaptation of Kubler-Ross’s work on death and grieving, I realized I was dying right in front of the sock manufacturers.

They listened in stunned, uncomfortable silence right after Ms. Sunshine had made them forget their troubles. And who could blame them: these were folks who worked in an industry that was stable for the past 100 years and was now being outsourced to Asia; why would they be interested in being further depressed by some so-called expert on organizational change?

But these were nice, down to earth people, and despite going down in flames I finished to applause that was, let us say, compassionate.

What I realized as I drove home from the conference was how in tune the motivational speaker was to the group’s emotional state and how out of tune I was. I had used analytical frameworks to address an emotion-laden subject. My audience and I were engaged in parallel conversations in two separate languages.

This experience had a profound effect on me. The most important thing I learned was to ‘meet them where they are’ first if you want to take them somewhere else. Motivational speakers are very effective at this, because they mine the collective feelings of a group more than their collective cognitive state.

The way I manifest this principle in my work is as simple as it is essential. If I’m instructing on a leadership topic, I find a way to work from the group’s experience base rather than foisting something new on them first. If I am working with a team, I begin from the group’s self-assessment of their issues rather than providing ‘helpful models.’ And if I am coaching an executive, I first help the individual assess whether they are attracted to coaching or feel pressured into participating.

People stretch too

A few years after the sock manufacturers, a client asked me to lead a large two-day conference, on my own. Talking for that long? Isn’t that a filibuster?

But we designed the conference to ensure the participants would engage a lot with each other, so I wouldn’t talk for more than 30 minutes at any time. Even so, I felt a stinging flashback from the sock manufacturers. But as my daughter says, “YOLO” (You Only Live Once). Or is it “YODO?”

In a huge ballroom at a high-end hotel in Orlando, the client set up a stage and spotlights.  Peppy music blasted from giant speakers, and they played promotional videos on huge screens at each side of the stage. Pretty intimidating!

Coincidentally, the theme of the conference was leading organizational change. But this time I turned Kubler-Ross upside down (sorry Elizabeth). I discussed how they could use their own positive experiences, personal relationships and pride as levers for leading change.

We started with change success stories. We discussed how they have already made positive changes in their own lives and we explored how these changes occurred.  The participants realized from their own experience that ‘resistance to change’ is a common, but limiting assumption of the change process, and that change and growth could really be considered synonyms. We then applied those lessons to their current challenges. All I did was ‘take them where I found them,’ and they did the rest.

And it seems I didn’t bomb, as evidenced by being invited back the following year for an encore. At this rate, maybe one day I’ll become a motivational speaker. But until then, I’ll leave the rubberbands home.© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008