Confessions of a benefits manager: Moving the goalposts

Candid finds herself in the role of facilitator at a top management conference, which calls for some delicate group discussions

There are three words that leave me trembling with fear: top management conference. There – just writing it makes me feel slightly wobbly. Every year, the top 200 managers in the company are invited (well, forced) to gather together for this loathsome super-meeting. Only in the last couple of years have I been included in this heady crowd, but still I’m sure I must be number 200 in the executive ranks.

This year I am pleased to see there is nothing on the agenda that Big Bad Boss could dump on me to present. But, as usual, I relax too soon. It turns out that the Highest Being (our CEO) wants this to be a ‘strategic’ meeting, though he must know his executives are about as strategic as a bunch of toddlers in a sweetshop. He has decided that, on the last day of the conference, we all have to work on our goals for next year. I cringe. I can see where this is going: break-out sessions, flipcharts, and presenting back to the wider group. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Then, just when I think it is as bad as it gets, it gets much worse. The HR team have to facilitate the break-out sessions. Yes, all of HR, not just the training department – who do that sort of thing every day – but all of us, myself included.

There aren’t quite enough facilitators to go round, so I get not one, but two groups: communications and legal. The training folks assure me all I have to do is help them prepare to present.

There are three days of the conference. On the first day, we sit in a large room, which is so air-conditioned I can see my breath. We need it cold to keep awake while we listen to various speakers from the Higher Beings. I can tell you exactly what they say: blah blah blah blah blah. This goes on for nine hours – I kid you not.

On the second day of the conference, there are more presentations (blah blah blah blah blah). A couple of external speakers arrive just before my head started lolling, but then it is back to the Higher Beings for more insight (blah blah blah blah blah). I look around and try to figure out if anyone is actually interested. Most people look like they are trying to stay awake, just like me. Ten hours of my life are lost.

On the third day, we have a scintillating meeting summary from the Highest Being (blah blah). He then announces the goal-setting sessions and asks all the facilitators to stand up. I reluctantly get to my feet. The groups should follow their facilitator, who will take them to their break-out room.

Ridiculous five minutes

That is all very well, but I don’t know where the room is. We spend a ridiculous five minutes looking for it. When we get find it, it is tiny with one large circular table in the middle. How are two groups supposed to work in here? Adrenaline pumping, I suggest we move the chairs around to make two separate areas. Some of the legal guys oblige. Then the head of communications arrives in a cloud of Chanel No 5 and suggests the two groups work together. On different department goals? The head of legal points at me, and says I told them they had to work separately. I can see I am going to be popular.

Finally, they sit down in their respective groups and I hand out the goal sheets. One of the legal guys says they have done theirs already, and points to a list on his laptop. There are about 25 goals. I suggest they try to get it down to eight and figure out how to present them back to the wider group.

I move over to the communications team. Ms Chanel No 5 is tapping away on her BlackBerry and the rest of the team are arguing about what day they should have their team meeting. I interject to say we have only 30 minutes left and maybe it is more urgent to work on their goals right now. Ms Chanel looks up and says their discussion about the team meeting is very important. I say the CEO is shortly going to ask a few groups to present their goals and they need to be prepared just in case. She looks at me and says quite firmly: “There is no way I will be asked to present.” I wonder how she can be so confident. Is there more to their relationship than I know?

Ms Chanel suddenly realises she has to at least go through the motions of setting goals, perhaps because, at that moment, the head of HR pops in to see how it is going. She gets me to copy their goals from last year onto a flipchart. On the first goal, they get into an argument about who should travel to Shanghai to do it. Everyone on the team thinks they are the best person to go. Ms Chanel just lets them bicker.

Should I intervene? It doesn’t seem my place to tell her team what to do. I point out they have 15 minutes left. One of her team tells me, in a belligerent tone, that they completed all their goals brilliantly last year, so there.
I go back to the legal team. They are debating too, but much more quietly. They ask me a question on goal-setting which I can’t answer. I feel I should know; after all, I work in HR, I am their facilitator, and a ‘top’ manager. So I do what all Higher Beings do – I make something up.

Next time…Candid renews the medical plan.

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