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Panelists Take Heed

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
September 2, 2019

We often see senior leader panels at various events—all-hands, or something more intimate like a classroom or a smaller gathering of staff. Bringing together leadership can open an opportunity for vigorous discussion of major issues. It can also foster a climate of informed debate in the hopes of furthering the agency’s mission.

Or not.

Often these panels yield far less. And while hearts may be in the right place, the problem is that we often see those very same senior leaders inadvertently create an environment where there will be nothing of any real value created as a result of this interaction.

So, senior leaders, take note:

What you do – File into the room with no interaction and proceed immediately to take your place behind a table, sitting and waiting to be introduced.

What you should do – Interact and engage with every person in the room before beginning the panel. Unless the crowd is more than 30 people or so, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. This dynamic is far more important for building trust and making a connection than any other single factor. A handshake and a warm smile goes a very long way in establishing rapport and exuding authenticity. People will remember this about you.

What you do – Begin by brazenly proclaiming, “You can ask me any question!”

What you should do – This rarely works, but it makes you feel validated. What you fail to recognize is that by virtue of the position you hold, the organizational culture and the tenets of basic human fear, it is unlikely that many are going to be bold enough to ask very difficult questions unless you build a climate of trust. You can only do that through connecting with the audience.

What you do – Talk too much and give your resume.

What you should do – Listen. People in the room already know your background, your bio, your accomplishments. Unless the expressed purpose of the panel is for you to tell your story, don’t. Re-counting your pathway to glory serves no purpose other than to bolster your ego. It also robs you of a rare opportunity to hear things you need to hear. There are more important things to be discussed, why not get to them?

What you do – Fail to understand your audience.

What you should do – Remember that in all likelihood, you were in an audience just like this at one point in your career. It is not your responsibility to rest on your laurels. It is your responsibility to pave the way for everyone else in the room to become as awesome as you! Take this responsibility seriously.

What you do – Remind people in the room that it is their responsibility to make change and be innovative.

What you should do – This is especially common after leadership trainings or workshops. People already know what they’re accountable for. They are looking for a way to do their job better. Chances are they’re not being heard, or there are barriers in their way. Build a discussion about what type of hurdles are in place that are keeping the bright minds in the room from being able to implement their ideas. Then—very importantly—commit verbally to doing something from the senior level to help bring these obstacles down.

What you do – Pretend to be perfect.

What you should do – Be vulnerable. Tell a story of failure or struggle. Show some empathy. And by all means, have a sense of humor. It is crucial to remember that what you know and the title that you hold are not who you are. People in the room want to know who you are first. Everything else follows than that.

There is no doubting that senior leaders have an extraordinary responsibility. And to be fair, audiences don’t always understand the intricacies and challenges of the senior’s job. Our leaders fight for resources, protect us and deal with political turmoil. But that’s part of the deal, and panels, all-hands and the like are not always designed for this type of exchange. Make this about your audience, not the complexity of your work.

Creating venues where groups of people gather, dedicated to a common mission and ready for engagement, are very valuable to organizations. Many time audiences are made up of professionals who have worked together for a long time, are committed, and have come up with creative and innovative approaches to solving agency problems. Make these panels work for all by paving the way for these solutions.

Author: Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. Dr Malone is a retired Navy Captain. His TEDx Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at http://tedxtalks.ted.com.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone



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