Julia's firm had worked intensely in preparation for this meeting with the VP. He was new and hadn't been involved in the project up to this point. Her client, Bill, said that the VP was a "real pro" and was extremely demanding. The contract required three solutions, but with this new VP she thought it would be best to over-deliver, so her team did five. Each solution followed the brief, but emphasized a different aspect.
On the way to the meeting Julia felt confident. She knew her stuff; the work was great and she was over-delivering to boot.
Bill met Julia in the lobby. He was clearly nervous as he led them to the executive conference room.
Julia had never been to the executive floor. She'd worked with Bill for a year and their meetings had taken place in the small marketing conference room.
Julia carefully spaced the five presentation boards on the conference table before the VP whisked in. "Good morning, team. What do we have here...." Bill said, "Hi, Geoff, this is the product introduction I briefed you on yesterday and..." The VP waved his hands for Bill to stop, and moved toward the table.
Glancing at the first board he said, "I hate it."
Stepping to the second one, again, "I hate it."
And the third, "I hate it."
Bill and Julia were stunned.
Then Geoff moved to the forth concept, "maybe."
Finally, standing over the fifth concept, "I love it."
Julia felt ill. She knew she had to respond, and quickly.
"Geoff, I'm Julia Jones of Jones Design. It would help if you could be more detailed with your thoughts about the concepts. Start with number one."
"It's too basic."
"What do you mean by basic?"
"The typography is too simple"
"Yes, it is simple. Our goal was to be clear and to the point. We also drew heavily on your corporate brand standards and...."
Geoff interrupted, "Look, I don't have time for this. Let's go to the concept that works, or almost works." He picked up the "I love it" board. "Go with this one, but give it more breathing room."
"Breathing room? Do you mean more white space between the elements? Help me understand your thoughts so we can hit your targets," Julia said.
Geoff rolled his eyes. "Bill, you know what I mean. Now, I have another meeting." Geoff left the room. The whole meeting had taken five minutes. Julia was in shock.
"I'm terribly sorry," Bill said. Geoff came to us with a great reputation, but, he's been so busy that I've barely had a moment with him. Yesterday he told us that he hates our brand and wants to redo it. I thought he'd take more time before making sweeping changes, but, clearly, he means business." Bill went on to outline what he thought would please the VP.
Julia and her team reluctantly made and presented the changes several days later. Bill thanked them, but seemed distracted. Later that day, Bill called. He said that their fee would be paid in full, but that he'd been told to fire them.
What was really going on?
A meeting in the C suite was a clear signal of Geoff's need to display his power. Normally, this meeting would have been scheduled in the marketing area.
Geoff had no reason to pay attention to Julia's efforts as he'd already decided to rebrand the company and probably had another team in mind. The real reason for the meeting was to demonstrate his dominance over Bill and the marketing group.
What could Julia done differently?
Julia lost control of the meeting when she placed the boards in full view on the conference table. The exposed boards allowed Geoff to sweep in for his rude critique.
If she had kept the boards covered, she could have maintained control by first introducing herself. A simple introduction would have slowed him down, or forced him to be even more outrageous. There are limits to how badly someone can behave in a corporate setting. If he'd been much worse than he was, Bill would have been forced to intercede.
After her introduction, Julia could have retained control by saying, "I can see that you're short on time. This presentation will take 25 minutes. Is that okay?" This question would force the VP to make a choice: spend the time, move the meeting to another time, or allow the project to go forward without him.
By maintaining ownership of her team's work Julia could have changed the tone and, perhaps, elevated the VP's view of her.
Months later Julia got a LinkedIn notice from Bill. He'd left the company and had a great position with a promising startup. Julia called him immediately. He told her the VP had been fired. He also told her how embarrassed he was about what had happened.
Best of all, Bill told Julia that he was very proud of how she handled herself that day and wanted her firm to develop the brand for his new company.