Two antennae, one mouth

Two antennae, one mouth


Remember that old game of beetle, when you roll the dice to see which body piece you can add? If I recall correctly, the head needed two antennae, (including ears!) and a mouth. Funny how, in our lives of communication, we reverse the proportions! Some years ago, I was playing a different high-stakes game in a business takeover……

I was 25,000 feet up in the air when the idea struck me. There had been something different about the latest invitation to visit the offices of the company I was acquiring. Most of the communication flow so far from the company had been antagonistic, competitive and aggressive.

The invitation yesterday was ominously welcoming. An insistence to drop everything and come up ‘just to see how things are going, and to give you a lunch ‘

I made it to the airport just in time with an armful of hastily assembled papers, to catch the red eye shuttle. The delights of a coffee and biscuits breakfast were now in front of me (no expenses spared in this takeover!)

The project and its status circled in my head : how the new company was fighting to find its new home in the bigger set up (I understood that - I had been there before as a small minnow swallowed by the whale) ; the expectation of the Board to have secure better positions in the bigger company; their hope that they would be still running their own business, now with greater funding ; their view of me as ‘I’m from head office and am here to help you’ , the unwelcome intruder coming to break in and steal the family silver ; the politics raging within my own company about how the new business would be absorbed and who would be running it – I certainly had no promises!

So nothing much riding on this for me – just my career, my income, house, wife and three children!

It was a lonely seat on the plane, lacking clarity, security or trust.

Hmmmm. Some tweak on the antennae made me dig out my papers and select some charts that summarised current progress and the next steps…then I could savour another ginger biscuit

The car was there as normal to pick me up from Arrivals. I would have 20 minutes in the company of one of the shrewdest sources of information – the driver, divulging more than he should to this alien intruder. He was remarkably open about the state of the business and the people running it ; perhaps he had some scores to settle .

Unusually the Board were there to greet me as we swung into the car park. Could they have seen the sense of becoming more acquiescent and collaborative? Unlikely. I probably wouldn’t.

I was hustled through to the board room ‘just for a chat before lunch’. Questions rained in like a rifle ambush about all that was happening, when it would be happening, and who it would be happening to. I defended the enemy fire with the shield of politics and the armour of diplomacy. ‘I know more than I can tell you, but less than you think I do’ was a useful refrain; and I’d learnt the humility of saying ‘I don’t know’

Clearly the Board thought a meal would be more satisfying than my answers, so after half an hour of sparring it was off to lunch, today to be held in the canteen rather than sandwiches round the table. Along the carpeted corridor, down the uncarpeted stairs that marked the transition to the factory, through the swing doors. The canteen was surprisingly empty for a lunch time…but apparently, we weren’t stopping anyway.

With sly smiles and encouraging nudges, the team hurried me to a door I hadn’t seen before and swung it wide open Before me were assembled the managers, staff and factory employees, about 150 people, all well primed and ready for the foreign invader, looking to put him on his mettle. The Head of the Board introduced me, although I suspect they already knew who I was. He was lavish in his estimation of what I knew and what I was going to tell them. He certainly raised expectations.

With a deep breath I took the stage, aware that the Board were no longer behind me, but had taken the first row of seats; they were looking in mirth and anticipation. To their disappointment, I was not looking annoyed, surprised or disquieted (though pleased they couldn’t see the water stain growing in my armpits under the jacket). I silently gave my antennae credit for taking those charts out on the plane.

After 20 minutes summarising what the charts did and didn’t say, I remembered the old saying about ‘one mouth and two ears, but we use them in reverse proportion’.

Time to stop talking and, to the amazement of the Board, to open the forum into a question and answer session.

Experience had shown me that this is where the greatest value lies. People like the chance to have a shot, not because they expect to get a revealing answer but so they can impress their colleagues. Once upon a time, I thought the game was for me to give a smart rapid answer as if I knew everything; then I realised, not only the impossibility of that for me, but also how low this left the questioner, diminished in their colleagues’ eyes : ‘stupid question, he batted that away quickly, didn’t he’. Practice had shown me the benefit of another route : complimenting them on the question and asking them to expand on it. Not only did this buy me time to think of the answer, but also the questioner was left feeling boosted and high in esteem. ‘Good question, he wanted to know more about it’

Antennae, ears and mouth. In that order.

Keeping the beetle head in proportion, helped me in corporate life, and became even more of a watchword as a portfolio professional. Things developed better if I was sensitive to client’s needs (and the opportunities for further business), listened to their brief (and what lay underneath) before selling a service, fed back and listened again to ensure clarity.

People enjoy being listened to; it makes them grow in confidence, security and trust. Listening to them makes them feel bigger……

David Ogilvy had a relevant saying : he was an advertising agency guru in an age where attitudes (and words) were less pc than today. When a branch of his agency was opened across the world, the new MD would be surprised to receive a set of Russian Dolls, and a handwritten note from the man himself. As he set out the ascending (or descending) row of dolls on his desk, the MD would read :

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.

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