A common job interview question is: “What’s the most challenging workplace situation you’ve faced, and how did you handle it?”
That’s an easy one for me. I remember the situation very well and have never had anything like it happen since.
The president of the agency that brought me to Nashville and I were on a trip to South Carolina for a new business opportunity with a business-to-business manufacturing company that needed public relations assistance.
We happened to be traveling on a day when a hurricane was hitting the East Coast, and while it wasn’t threatening our area, we were getting a lot of rain and strong wind, which made for a pretty exciting ride in the small plane that was taking us from Atlanta to an airport in the Carolinas.
When we arrived at the manufacturer’s headquarters, we were ushered into a small conference room where the president and I sat across the table from the company’s CEO and a couple of other executives, one of whom was the plant manager.
After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we dimmed the lights for our power-point presentation, and the president began giving an overview of our agency’s capabilities and clients in his deep Southern drawl.
After about 15 or 20 minutes of this, he turned the presentation over to me while raising the lights, saying, “And now Don is going to tell you about some of our business-to-business clients.”
As I pivoted in my chair from facing the wall where the presentation was projected to look directly at the three men, I noticed something peculiar.
The guy across the table to my left—the plant manager—was sound asleep.
He was having a nice rest, making that sort of heavy breathing/whistling sound when he exhaled.
Although he was sitting upright in his chair, he looked very comfortable in his slightly slumped over position. In fact, I think he had entered the Rapid Eye Movement phase of his nap because he was really out.
Well, this was awkward.
I was supposed to be making a presentation to a guy who was sound asleep.
We had flown from Nashville around the edge of a hurricane for this meeting, and now one of the three people I was presenting to was in dreamland.
I didn’t know what to do.
What I wanted to do was reach across the table and start shaking him, saying, “Wake up, you sluggard! You’re ruining my presentation and making me look bad in front of my boss!” (Who, I note in my defense, was the one that actually put the guy to sleep before I said a word.)
But of course I couldn’t do that because this was a prospective client. I had to be nice. And polite. And flexible.
The CEO, who was sitting next to him, and the other man to my right were staring at me with a frozen look of anguish.
On the positive side, I clearly had their undivided attention. But it became equally clear that they weren’t going to bail me out by waking him up.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye and caught a priceless expression on the face of our agency’s president. I was hoping for some non-verbal guidance, but he was no help at all.
His eyes were wide and he gave me a look that said, “I don’t have a clue what to do, you’re on your own.”
All four of us in the room knew that the fifth guy was out cold, but no one would acknowledge it.
So, in this surreal environment, I started talking through my portion of the presentation to the men who were still awake.
But it wasn’t quite that simple because every so often the guy who was asleep would roll his head and make sort of a snorting sound with his mouth half open.
I was sure I was going to break out laughing at any moment and lose the business.
But through all this, nobody said a word. I somehow maintained my composure and the other two men kept their eyes riveted on me the entire time. The whole thing was a little unnerving, but I managed to get through it.
Just as I was finishing up, the sleeper awoke. He looked a little startled and tried to act nonchalant, like he’d been with us the entire time.
The men thanked us for coming, and then the well-rested plant manager gave us a tour before we packed up and headed back on our return flight.
The cherry on the sundae was after all that, we didn’t get the business; the company chose another agency out of Atlanta.
It wasn’t my best presentation, nor was it a winning presentation, but it’s the one I remember most.
photo credit: Museum of Photographic Arts Collections Nicolaas Henneman Asleep, Lacock or Reading, England via photopin (license)