Surviving the corporate wilderness

I learned a lot in my brief stint as a Boy Scout.

Surviving the corporate wilderness

I was briefly in the Boy Scouts when I was a kid. It was the 1970s. I never came close to making Eagle Scout because the uniforms were so uncool that I left shortly after achieving the rank of Tenderfoot.

However, I learned a lot in my brief stint as a Scout. I could build a fire with just one match, tie sturdy knots, and even lash branches together to drag a wounded colleague off a trail.

One of the most valuable aspects was when they issued me the "Boy Scout Wilderness Survival Kit." For an 11-year-old, this was among the coolest things I had ever seen. It had a knife, fish hooks, waterproof matches, even painkilling pills. I felt that if my airplane ever crashed in the wilderness, I could survive indefinitely.

Unfortunately, this survival kit did not prove useful in my corporate career (except for the painkillers). Once I began wearing a suit to work, it became clear I needed a new survival kit for the corporate wilderness. I often found myself trapped in the wilds of an awful meeting, in great peril and unable to find the way back to my office. It was unnerving to be confronted by a hostile beast, only to learn I was frightfully unprepared.

So after years of navigating through treacherous terrain, I've assembled my own survival kit consisting of five critical phrases that can be deployed in challenging situations.

Feel free to use these phrases, but note they require practice and skill. They can also cause real damage if used improperly.

  • "I'm just trying to understand your core strategic objective." This is like the Boy Scout pocketknife - it's a must-have that can help in many situations. Not only will you appear focused and alert, but the person you are addressing will be eager to respond and demonstrate how smart she or he is.
  • "Excellent question. It's exactly what we're grappling with." This is a highly useful tool for a variety of corporate survival situations, including pacifying an egomaniac, acknowledging a problem without admitting you don't know the answer, and, most of all, defusing a potentially hostile encounter.
  • "Have you been able to codify those results?" I don't actually know what this means, but it sounds really smart. Be careful, though. This phrase must be used with caution as there is a small, but very real possibility someone will ask you to clarify the question. If that happens, you're in deep trouble.
  • "Unfortunately, I have a conflict." It's a terrifying experience to emerge from an awful meeting and then be asked to attend another one. Having a conflict excuses you from some of the most gruesome assignments imaginable.
  • "I defer to Sue's expertise before I share my opinion." It's always nice to have camouflage if exploring dangerous terrain. This phrase allows you to hide unobtrusively while gauging the reactions in the room. It has the added benefit of making you look gracious as you hand the problem over to Sue.

These phrases seem simple and effective, and they are, but they must be used sparingly and only when necessary. They will lose effectiveness with overuse.

Finally, you should always have a fellow Boy Scout in the room, as the 12th requirement for the rank of Tenderfoot is: "Demonstrate how to care for someone who is choking."

You never know when you'll need this kind of assistance.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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