Jurgen has what it takes. He works for a large consultancy company and shows high potential. I have trained him, and others like him, for the next step in their careers – that of partner in the firm. We work on how to convey authority in a personal way. We practice how to calmly fill the space around you. Because a boss is unhurried and moves through the corridor as a reassuring figurehead.

I have a weakness for Jurgen. He is in his late 30’s, he’s smart, and thinks so fast his words sometimes come tumbling out. Although he is an impressive figure, blond and very tall, he clearly prefers to be an unassuming presence.

He struggles with speaking more slowly, pausing, and taking the time to really look at people. It makes him uncomfortable to sit at the table with ease, move deliberately, and calmly build up his reasoning. He just can’t believe we won’t lose interest but will feel even more engaged in his story.

At the end of the training, each participant has the opportunity to make a presentation to the management of the firm. This allows them to show what they have to offer. Although it is not an interview or sales pitch, it does influence their reputation and there is something at stake. Will they be able to show who they are, what it is that makes them tick, and how will they connect to what’s going on in their audience? I am especially curious to see which personalities will emerge under the pressure of the moment.

When the time comes for Jurgen to give his presentation, he’s not there. He calls from his car to say that he will be there shortly and I see several eyebrows being raised in the waiting audience. Nothing is said. It’s only when he arrives that he really blows it. He bolts into the room, his shirt untucked, quickly shakes hands with everyone, and asks in a lighthearted way whether we managed to spend the extra time usefully. He grabs his stuff in a hurry and when the chairman asks him how much extra time he thinks he will need now that he is late getting started, he dismisses the offer and says that he will make up for the lost time. He manages to do just that. He shortens his story and races us through it. I bite my tongue and hold my breath.

The feedback is sharp and relentless: “…. too fast, too casual, we feel we’re not being taken seriously. The story has no depth, is barely clear and you don’t show authority… Also, you could have given some more attention to the fact that you were late, maybe apologized, explained why you were late, and asked whether the delay has caused any disruption of the schedule.” Jurgen is dazed as he listens to the comments.

Then the chairman makes a proposal to Jurgen, “Would you like to come in again, greet us calmly, and give us an overview of your presentation?” Jurgen looks guarded. It seems he would like nothing better than to crawl away and hide in a small dark hole. But the chairman explains that he expects a completely different Jurgen will appear, and adds that he would very much like to meet that person. This is an offer Jurgen can’t resist, so he accepts the invitation.

With his back straight and his head held high, Jurgen reenters the room. He takes his time, looks at us all, and without the jovial smile on his face says “I’m sorry I’m late.” He calmly puts his briefcase down and shakes hands with each one of us, taking the time to make eye contact and greet us individually. The mood in the room changes completely. We relax and look at him in anticipation.

On my way home, I’m still feeling thrilled. How brave of Jurgen to seize the opportunity to do it over, especially in that situation! The pressure was high to begin with, became higher by his arriving late, and was increased even further by the feedback. And yet Jurgen found it within himself to walk into the room differently, be there and make contact. Yes, Jurgen has what it takes.

Published in ‘Management and Consulting’, February 2011