The Wilsons Tackle Engagement


  Dinner Skyping

It was Saturday morning, and the Wilson kids were off doing the kinds of things that high-achieving kids do on weekends.

        Jess was at the dance studio for five separate rehearsal sessions: jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, tap, and her solo performance. (Jess was the only one in her dance troupe to be so honored.) This time of year, Skipper’s Saturdays were devoted to bowling practice.

        It was another set of parents’ turn to do the driving (Skipper only had a learner’s permit), so as soon as the kids had left the house, Matt began transferring a cache of high-powered-management-consulting items from the back of his SUV to the kitchen: tripod, flip chart, markers, as well as his all-time favorites – packages of sticky notes and colored dots.

        He had asked Jen to gather up the F-MOS files and research reports from his office and spread them out on the kitchen table. Pointing to what Matt had dragged in from the garage, Jen asked, “Do we really need all of that stuff?”

        “Tools of the trade, my dear,” Matt replied. “Tools of the trade.”

        Those aren’t the only tools in the kitchen right now, Jen thought. But what she said was, “Matt, I’m not your client, I’m your wife. And besides which,” she gestured to the table, “haven’t we got everything we need right here?”

        Although this was a disappointing development (Matt did love his sticky notes and colored dots), he remembered a bit of the advice he had so often given to clients – “You’ve got to pick your battles.” – and decided not to press the issue.

        Another thing that Matt’s consulting experience had taught him was that clients could often be anxious in the early stages of an intervention, so it was good practice to try to lessen the tension a bit by starting such sessions with a joke. “So,” he began, “the Jesster is the only one with a solo in this year’s recital. I guess that makes it a solo solo!” It was not the first time that he had used this line with Jen; he felt it was a sure-fire part of his repertoire.

        Jen felt differently. “I hate it when you call her ‘Jesster.’”

        “But what else would I call her when I’m making a jest?” Matt beamed while making a set of shoulder-high quotation fingers.

        “Yeah, right,” said Jen, turning her attention back to the materials on the table.

        Matt was undaunted. “Okay!” he said, clapping his hands, then rubbing them briskly together in eager anticipation. “Let’s review the bidding from last night!”

        Jen found this level of manic glee more than a little tough to take at such an early hour, but she bit her tongue.

        “Right,” she began. “We discussed this year’s F-MOS results and the fact that we’re still coming up short on the Intangibles.”

        “Exactly!” enthused Matt.

        Jen’s teeth applied just the slightest bit of additional pressure to her tongue as she continued. “We reviewed some of the steps we had taken in the past to get things to go more in the direction we want them to go.”

        “Move the needle,” said Matt.

        “What needle?” asked Jen.

        “Ah!” Matt said. “I’m sorry. Move the needle is the term that big corporations use when they talk about getting different results. I shouldn’t use that kind of jargon with you.”

        Jen didn’t like being patronized. “Yeah, fine. Move the needle. Find the needle in a haystack. Get a tractor to pull the needle out of your…” She caught herself and bit down just a bit harder. After using a napkin to check to see if she had drawn blood, she continued. “Anyway,” she began, with just the slightest exasperated emphasis on the first syllable, “we decided that the first Intangible we should work on is Engagement.”

        “Excellent summary!” said Matt. “Let’s begin brainstorming some ideas for how to increase the level of Engagement around here! I’ll capture them on the flip chart!”

        Jen was not pleased. “I thought we decided not to use that thing? It’s taking up half the room! Can’t we just sit at the table and talk, and then write things down on this?” She held up a pad of lined notebook paper.

        “Now, Jen,” Matt began, in what he thought was a soothing, but was actually an even more patronizing, tone (Jen checked again; still no blood), “I don’t tell you what the pH level ought to be when you’re transplanting an arrangement of hydrangeas accented with fleurs-de-lis, do I?”

        “Fine,” Jen replied, unable to suppress a sigh. “Use the flip chart.”

        “Great!” Matt said, removing the cap from a black, flip-chart marker. “Let’s brainstorm away!”

        Jen quasi-enthusiastically dove in. “To move the needle on Engagement, we need to increase the opportunities for interaction with the kids. We need to find more and better ways to connect with them and make sure they feel more a part of things around here.”

        “I couldn’t agree more,” Matt said.

        Jen looked as though she were about to say something, then gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

        But “almost imperceptible” isn’t good enough when there’s a high-powered management consultant in the room.

        “You’ve got an idea,” Matt encouraged. “Say it.”

        Jen began, tentatively, “Family meetings?”

        Matt leaned in just as he had been taught in facilitation-skills training lo those many years ago. “Say more.”

        “Well, since Engagement means more interaction, I was just thinking that a family meeting would be a good way to go.”

        They were still in the brainstorming stage, so Matt didn’t want to sound critical. “That’s a great idea,” he carefully began. “Do you mean a new family meeting in addition to the family meeting we have every night?”

        “We do?” asked Jen, puzzled.

        “Sure,” he replied. “Our family dinners! That’s why I always Skype in when I’m on the road with clients!”

        “Oh, right,” Jen said. “Dinner Skyping. The kids are big fans of Dinner Skyping. And do you want to know the kids’ absolute favorite part of Dinner Skyping?”


        “They especially like the way you have us set up Skipper’s iPad in front of your place at the table so that we have to scrunch in at the other end to make sure we’re all in the shot.”

        Matt beamed. “And you were skeptical when I suggested it!”

        Jen thought: For such a hot-shot management consultant, you’re not very good at picking up on sarcasm. But she didn’t say it. Instead she said, “I’m talking about family! You know, aunts, uncles, grandparents?”

        Matt liked the idea. “Cousins, too?”

        “Sure, why not.” Jen replied.

        “Just first cousins?” Matt asked.

        “First cousins, second cousins. We can invite friends of the half-brother’s nitwit third cousin’s cable guy as far as I’m concerned.”

        Matt could be oblivious when it came to picking up on exasperation, too.

        “Well,” he said, “there are practicalities to consider. We have to draw the line somewhere. And why do you keep dabbing at your mouth with that napkin?”

        Caught in the act, Jen replied, “Uh, just a couple of toast crumbs, that’s all.”

        Satisfied, Matt continued. “Another practical consideration is the size of the geographic area we want to cover. We don’t want people to have to fly in for the family meeting.” He picked up the F-MOS three-ring binder. Finding the section marked Cross Tabs, he read for a moment before saying, “We don’t seem to get a lot of F-MOS responses from people beyond a fifty-mile radius anyway.”

        “We don’t seem to get a lot of F-MOS responses from beyond the walls of this house,” replied Jen. “What we’re talking about here is the Engagement level of our kids, not your half-brother’s step-uncle’s godchild from Altoona.”

        Matt was puzzled. “Are you saying that it should just be the four of us? Don’t our dinner meetings cover that? Especially when they’re augmented by our best-in-class Dinner Skyping program that the kids like so much?”

        “No,” Jen replied, not bothering to ask what on God’s green earth Matt had meant by best-in-class. “I’m saying that even if we’re only talking about our kids’ level of Engagement, by bringing everyone together – from within, say, a fifty-mile radius – for a family meeting, that will engage our kids more fully.”

        “Okay,” said Matt. “But if we’re going to do this, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Agenda. Communications plan. Rent a space. Catering. Can you provide the centerpieces?”

        Centerpieces?!?! was Jen’s thought before she said, “I s’pose so.”

        “At cost?”

        “Sure,” said Jen. “Why the hell not.”

        “Nice!” Matt replied. His mind was racing as he energetically wrote on the flip chart. As the sheets filled up, he tore them off and stuck them to the front of the kitchen cabinets. “One thing the meeting has to have is breakout sessions. There’s no better way to engage people than to have breakouts!”

        “What will the breakouts be about?” Jen asked.

        “We’ll figure that out later,” Matt replied. “We just need to make sure we have them.”

        “What else can we do other than family meetings?”

        Matt had an aha moment. “Aha!” he said. “Skip levels!”

        “What do we want Skip to level?” Jen asked.

        “No, no,” Matt explained. “Not Skipper levels. Skip levels! A series of meetings in which people normally two levels apart in the organizational hierarchy interact directly. Since the grandparents are going to be here for the family meeting, we should leverage that to make sure the kids have some time with them without us – skip levels!”

        “Believe it or not, that’s actually not a bad idea,” Jen said. One could have been excused for detecting a drop or two of sarcasm. Unsurprisingly, Matt had not.

        Matt added Skip Levels to the brainstorming chart. “What else?” he asked.

        “Well,” Jen said, “if Engagement is about interaction and connection, another way we can draw the kids in is by sharing with them the results of our businesses.”

        “Excellent idea!” Matt enthused. “After all, they’ve got skin in the game!”

        This time Jen was more horrified than skeptical. “They’ve got what!?”

        Even Matt picked up on this. “Calm down,” he soothed. “That’s just another big business expression. It means they’ve got a stake in things – that it’s the money provided by our businesses that pays for the dance lessons and the bowling games and the what-not.”

        “Don’t forget the iPad for Dinner Skyping,” Jen said, switching from horror back to sarcasm.

        “Exactly,” Matt replied, oblivious as ever. “So once a quarter we should bring the kids in for a briefing on our quarterly results. Lots of charts and graphs and spreadsheets.”

        Once again, Jen was reluctantly impressed. “Wouldn’t it reinforce Engagement levels if we also posted a few key business metrics on a daily basis? So that they would have a sense of how things were going in close-to-real-time?”

        The flip-chart paper on the kitchen cabinets gave Matt an idea. “We could hang whiteboards showing the trend of each of those metrics on the front of all of the cabinets!”

        Jen was surprised to find herself really getting into things. “We have to call a meeting with the kids to tell them about this meeting so that we can tell them about the family meeting and the skip levels and all of the other things coming down the pike to ensure that they’ll be more fully engaged!”

        Putting down the marker, Matt sat down at the table and took Jen’s hands in his.

        “If we do all of those things, there’s no way they can think that they haven’t been includedthat they aren’t involved that there hasn’t been a lot of connection and interaction!”

        Jen was with him all the way now as she added, “When they fill out next year’s F-MOS, they can’t say that we haven’t engaged them!”

        As she said this, Jen stood up. Matt quickly followed her lead and extended his right arm for the high five he assumed was forthcoming. But Jen’s abrupt standing was less a burst of enthusiasm than it was the effect of three cups of coffee.

        She made a beeline for the bathroom, leaving Matt with his arm frozen in the air, like a baseball pitcher at the point of release. Realizing what had happened, he awkwardly lowered his arm slot and patted down a non-existent cowlick.

        “Good work!” he called to Jen.

        “You, too!” said Jen, closing the bathroom door behind her.


© Copyright 2015, by John Guaspari


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