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Public Speaking During Times of Business Unrest


I know the meeting was in December, but I can’t recall for certain the year.

Roger, the president of our division pulled us all together to speak to us.  He’d had to rent the ballroom of a nearby hotel to accommodate the several hundred people who made up the group.

Roger wasn’t especially comfortable with public speaking.  But what he had to tell us was important and would impact each of us personally.  So Roger was willing to face a public speaking situation to tell us the difficult thing he wanted to tell us.  Roger told us that change was ahead within the company and that he expected that there would be layoffs in the coming year.

I was new to corporate America at the time.  The idea of layoffs terrified me.  I remember what it felt like that day to be his audience and hearing Roger say these words.

The reason for sharing this story isn’t to directly make a point about me that day.  Rather, it’s to talk about Roger’s speaking role that day.


The Importance of a Leader During Business Unrest

During Roger’s meeting, I didn’t feel fortune.  But I was.  We all were.  In none of the other corporate organizations I would eventually be a part of, would a leader do what Roger did that day.   Roger was willing to communicate difficult news directly to his team.  Despite his own discomfort at public speaking, he knew this was too important a message not to be delivered face-to-face.

As I read recently the announcement of yet another company acquisition, I reflect back at what Roger did that day.  If you are a leader who is going through a difficult time in your business, perhaps you can learn from Roger’s difficult public speaking challenge.


Be Direct

Roger could have beat around the bush and plied us with visions of unicorns and rainbows.  He didn’t.  He told us there was going to be layoff.  He told us what he knew and he told us what he didn’t know.  By being direct then, Roger established trust with us in his audience.  In the months ahead, we continued to trust him.  Were we distracted by not knowing our fate?  Yes.  Did we work harder to help Roger?  We did.

Times of organizational change such as an acquisition, a downsizing, a change in business direction, are the time your staff needs you.  But it’s also when you as a leader need them.

At the time, we knew Roger would be honest with us and would help us as much as he could.  As a result, we were willing to go further and work harder for him.

Be direct so that your staff will trust you and want work harder to help you too.


Be Transparent

*Lawyer disclaimer – I am not a lawyer.  I’m sure your corporate lawyers will tell you what you read below is lousy advice.  It’s my opinion.  Ask your lawyers but remember, they’re advisors.  They advise you on the risk.  You’re the leader.  Weigh the risk, then make up your own mind what’s the best thing to do.

When I was in management and we were heading toward difficult times I remember hearing things like, “We can’t tell people what’s going on because, blah, blah, blah, stock prices, or blah, blah, blah, corporate proprietary, sensitive information.  As a manager of the company, you have a legal obligation not to share what you’re being told with your staff.”

I’m sad to say, I pretty much complied with what was asked of me as a manager.  I like what Roger did better.

By being transparent, we didn’t have to guess.

Rumors start.  Someone overhears a conversation.  Someone put together pieces of information based on meetings they’re a part of.  People figure out when something is up.

The natural human tendency is to imagine the worst possible scenario.  By Roger being transparent and because we knew the truth, it wasn’t as bad as we might have imagined.  And we could prepare ourselves and our families for what was to come.  His transparency seems so much more humane than the secret keeping ways that I experienced in subsequent years and positions.


Be Human

Be willing to be vulnerable.  People want to know that the challenging time is difficult for you too.  Don’t burden your staff unnecessarily with your own neurosis.  But don’t be stoic and unfeeling either.

Roger had built this division of several hundred people.  He’d developed relationships and gone through many business adventures with individuals in the ballroom that day.  It was painful for him to know that people would be losing their livelihoods.

By being human, it just made us want to support him all the more.  We knew he would not be taking his decisions lightly.  Roger cared about us and that went a long way that day and in the months that followed.


Transitions Are Difficult – and Inevitable

Things did change in that division after that December meeting.  Layoffs did come.  But so did other exciting opportunities.

Change in organizations is inevitable.  But when you’re in a leadership role, the way you handle those difficult discussions, the way you speak publically in front of your staff, can make a positive difference in how you transition through the change.

Take a lesson from Roger.  Speak to all your people.  Be direct.  Be transparent.  Be human.

And whatever happens, you’ll know you did the right thing as a leader.


Tell Your Stories in the Comment Section Below

Tell us how a public speech from a leader during a time of business unrest made a difference, positively or negatively, in your work life.