"Don’t worry, Carl. It’s only a courtesy meeting."
Should I have known better? When the sacrificial lamb is sent into the lion’s den, is he told it’s for a courtesy meeting?
We were extending a program that broadcast news and entertainment on large TV monitors to airport travelers as they waited for their flights. The current contractor wanted to renew its contract; meanwhile, a major cable network and others submitted strong proposals. When the current contractor was again selected, the cable network was very unhappy. After enduring much importuning, our chairman consented to the network’s request for a courtesy meeting.
When the time came, I gathered my papers and headed to the meeting. To my surprise, I was going alone: Neither my manager, nor any other manager in my department, came with me to a meeting that included our airport’s top executives.
Four of us represented the airport: our general counsel, whom I knew well; our executive director, Bob, whom I had met a few times; his assistant; and our chairman, whom I had never met and who cordially shook my hand. On the other side of our large conference table were the people I had been dealing with—Bill, the cable network’s president, and his general counsel. Bill was a big, garrulous man with a wide smile, a Southern drawl, and a friendly handshake. This contract was obviously important to him; he had come to our selection committee’s interview with the finalists.
The courtesy meeting instantly turned into a tag-team wrestling match, the network executives attacking by turns with questions intended to overturn our selection. Unfortunately, the questions were directed at me, and I had no immediate superiors at the table providing cover as I tried to return their fire. And after the initial introductions, not one of my colleagues spoke. The executive director, Bob, listened impassively. So did the chairman. Our general counsel—a close friend—turned his eyes down whenever I looked across the table. I silently pleaded for someone, anyone, to say something.
The attack continued. "Now, Carl, how can you possibly say that they promised you better programming than we can give you?" was typical of the sarcastic, strident tone. They challenged me on every major aspect of the project, one question after another. I acknowledged that they had some strong points—their unrelenting attacks had begun to wear me down. I couldn’t tell whether they were scoring any points with my executives. I was uncomfortably perched near the far end of the table, forced to peer around our chairman, who was sitting next to me. He never turned around to face me while I defended the program.
The network execs kept hammering me on one particular point—that they proposed to pay a higher concession fee, by using ad revenue from the broadcast service. It was then that I reminded Bill of the comment he had made at their presentation: "I don’t know if there’s a business here, but we’ll sure as hell try." This hadn’t instilled confidence with our selection committee, particularly as our present contractor had actually built a business over the years.
At last, Bill turned away from me and, looking at our executive director, made his final plea: "Bob, you know we’d do anything for the opportunity to make this work for you guys. All we ask you for is a chance."
I braced myself. It was like waiting for the decision to be announced at a prizefight. I could just hear Bob say: "I see your points, Bill. I’m going to cancel the selection and reopen the process." Instead, Bob replied in an even tone: "Well, Bill, that’s good to hear. However, I recall a few years ago, when I was still at the convention center, you guys didn’t even respond to a similar program we were trying to do."
The air went out of Bill’s balloon. He stammered, "Oh…yeah, well…." Then he stopped and sat down, defeated. I was stunned. It was suddenly quiet. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Our general counsel finally looked at me and nodded. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had escaped the lion’s den intact—and with a valuable lesson learned: Never go into a meeting assuming it’s trivial. I was lucky that Bob turned out to be a stand-up guy.
It was a quick denouement. Bob stood up, extended his hand to Bill, and thanked him for coming in. He encouraged him to submit proposals on future airport projects. Then he said, "Bill? Can I talk to you for a moment?" and led him to an adjoining room.
The rest of us stood around making small talk, with a few reassuring "Good job, Carl" comments. Then Bob came back into the room by himself. He walked over to me and said, "You won’t be hearing from them again."
"Oh, yeah, I don’t think so," I replied rudely, still in a bit of shock.
Bob repeated, "You won’t hear from them again." He was right.
About the Author
Carl Selinger is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum. His 2004 book, Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School: Skills for Success in the Real World (Wiley–IEEE Press), is still selling strong and was recently republished in Chinese.