A few weeks ago, I was preparing a customer meeting with a colleague. The goal of the meeting was to present our leadership programs. I didn’t feel the need to prepare a lot. I like to go into meetings without presentations, leaflets or other formal material. For me it’s about connecting personally. I ask open questions and explore the context up to the point that I can connect my own story to it. The formal stuff can wait.

My colleague reasoned vice versa: the client asked information, so she wanted to provide information and prepared a slide deck. I’m no sales specialist or customer relationship expert, so I went a long with her and inserted my own slides. We went into the meeting and it wasn’t very comfortable. I got frustrated because we got stuck in the content of things, and my colleague wasn’t comfortable either because she felt I wanted things to happen differently.

Last week the same question arose when discussing in a work group how to manage the design process of a new leadership program. Should meetings be very well prepared with a strict agenda and clear roles and responsibilities? Should we do a lot of analytic work to understand the context and demands? I pleaded differently. I wanted to skip formalities, minimize the analytics and maximize time for exploration and sensemaking. I also advocated strongly the “we build the bridge as you walk on it” principle (Quinn, 2004). A few certainties were enough for me: a target delivery date, some milestones and common working principles. You could call this a holding environment (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).

Thursday I presided the jury for the Antwerp Young Entrepreneur of the Year. The four candidates had to present themselves and their company and again the topic arose. Two of them chose for an informal approach, two had a very well crafted presentation. What would you prefer or recommend to someone? What would convince you more? I noticed that I barely watched the content of the formal presentations. I was observing the non-verbal behavior and looking for connection, emotion, and clues of credibility, passion, values.

Reflecting on these incidents, it seems as if managing the formal side of things is no longer enough to be succesful in the workplace. Of course plans, presentations, budgets, proposals, reports remain important. And a lot of people still focus only on these formalities. But their impact to convince, motivate, inspire, call for action seem to decrease. The story behind the formalities, the underlying dynamic of projects, the emotional connection between people have become more important. Probably this has to do with the increasing pressure and complexity in work environments. It’s no longer possible to “manage” things. We want to skip formalities to go faster and to be more flexible.

There’s no one rule or guideline. I understand that skipping formalities can be considered as lack of professionalism or even laziness. And without formalizing things, there’s lack of transparency which can lead to unfairness and lack of accountability. But from the leadership point of view, formalities are probably more an obstacle for change then an enabler.

Any comment?

Heifetz, R.A. & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press.
Quinn, R. (2004). Building a bridge as you walk on it: a guide for leading change. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

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