How to be impactful in a conference room

Michel Bloch Andersen
Scanpix
Cool business women: In the first issue of the series of articles ‘Cool business women’, Lise Korsager Ørtoft shares, how she has learned how to become a force to be reckoned with in a conference room through her experiences with client meetings. It’s a talent that helped land her a spot in the Danish newspaper Berlingske’s Talent 100 list last year.
Lise Korsager Ørtoft
  • 2016 – : Vice president, Deloitte Corporate Finance
  • 2015: Senior associate, Deloitte Corporate Finance
  • 2013: Associate, Deloitte Corporate Finance
  • 2013: Cand.merc. Finance and International Business, Aarhus Universitet

Lise Korsager Ørtoft has sat through some awkward meetings in her time; the kind where time passes at an agonizingly slow pace and you feel as though you’re getting nowhere.

“Where do you want to take your business?” she would ask.

“Forward,” would be the reply.

Followed by a deafening silence.

A whole conversation marked by open, probing questions shot down by short answers.

“To be honest, I’ve been in situations where the flow of conversation was really fragmented; I’d ask a question, they’d answer, and then they’d just wait for the next question. We’d never really get to establish a dialogue,” says Lise Korsager Ørtoft.

But she’s turned her experiences from situations such as those into her advantage.

Through her time in Deloitte, she has developed a number of techniques to take charge of the conversation and create a dialogue in a conference room without coming off as abrasive and controlling. It’s become a toolbox that she can dig through to steer conversations with customers into the direction she wants.

You can read more about the contents of that toolbox later in the article.

Tough as nails and great at reading people
At Deloitte, Lise Korsager Ørtoft advises clients on the sale and acquisition of companies. Her clients are often family-owned businesses, where their way of doing business is deeply rooted in the corporate culture and things are done in a very specific way.

In the meetings, Lise is thinking with her sales cap on while the owner on the other side of the table is often thinking in terms of daily operations. It’s important to explain why she and her team propose analysing and presenting the company in a different way than the owner and board regard it on a daily basis, she notes.

“If I were to think back on an example of a good meeting, it’s one where we had a constructive dialogue and where the company felt comfortable opening up to me. That’s when we’re able to ask the critical questions that may sting a bit, but where the client takes them the right way and understands why we need to ask them.”

Lise Korsager Ørtoft actually enjoys posing tough questions to her clients.

 

A good meeting is one where you walk away thinking it had a good energy and informal atmosphere and where you feel as though you got something out of it. You have made progress in relation to the purpose of the meeting.

It’s one of the reasons why she earned her spot on Berlingske’s Talent 100 list last year, where she was described as being creative and tough as nails in negotiations while also possessing an extraordinary knack for reading people.

Even though Lise Korsager Ørtoft doesn’t see herself as the loudest voice in the room, she does make an effort to stick to her guns when she’s convinced that she’s right about something. That’s where the creative, tough-as-nails part of her starts to shine.

I know myself that if people are genuinely interested in what I have to say, I also feel more comfortable sharing more.

“It’s important to be comfortable sticking your neck out and asking, ‘couldn’t you do it like this instead?’ and then stick to your position and defend it until everyone else has had some time to process and discuss it. At the same time, it’s also about being humble and open to ideas proposed by other people – it’s the sum of the dialogue that results in the best solution,” says Lise Korsager Ørtoft.

Sometimes, a meeting takes an entirely unexpected twist, which forces Lise to adapt her questions to the course the conversation has taken. No two companies are alike, and even though you’ve seen the winning formula that works for one design company, it may be more appropriate for another company in the same industry to move in another strategic direction, she pointed out – and that’s where she puts her people-reading skills to use. She picks up on the interesting titbits that emerge during the conversation while also remembering to listen closely so she can ask follow-up questions.

“It’s about being genuinely interested in the company and the people sitting across the table from you. You have to listen to what they have to say and accept that the arguments they put forward may not necessarily lead to the outcome you’d initially imagined,” she says.

In order to strike a balance between being tough when necessary on the one hand and listening and being open-minded on the other, it’s crucial that the atmosphere of the meeting allows for such frank exchanges of opinion.

To engineer such an environment, Lise Korsager Ørtoft makes use of her toolbox:

Lise Korsager Ørtoft's toolbox

Before the meeting

Before the meeting, it’s important to consider what items on the day’s agenda the client may be interested in getting some clarification on.
In Lise Korsager Ørtoft’s experience, addressing the client’s considerations early in the meeting results in building up a good relationship with them faster.

She also prepares questions that she herself would like answers to. She does so by asking herself the following: What is it I want to have them clarify? Why is it important? And what questions will I ask to get that clarification?

“It’s important to figure out what you want to get out of the meeting and to chart the right course towards that outcome. What kind of dialogue do I want to get people involved in? What would I like to have them contribute?” says Lise Korsager Ørtoft.

‘Welcome’

When Lise Korsager Ørtoft takes her seat across the table from the client, she starts by establishing the framework for the discussion points they have to get through. She explains how she will structure the meeting and what it will conclude with.

“It ensures that they know what we’ll be doing that day – and why,” she says.

Involving the attendees

Once the meeting kicks off, Lise Korsager Ørtoft makes a point of getting everyone around the table involved in the discussion. If one of her colleagues brought up a good point ahead of the meeting, she tries to draw that colleague into the discussion.

“It’s about getting everyone involved – on both sides of the table – so as to avoid a situation where it’s just two people carrying the conversation,” she says.

One of the ways she does this is by saying that “By the way, X mentioned that…”
This gives her colleague an entry into the discussion and allows them to contribute to it – or not, if he or she would prefer not to. Either way, the client has been made aware that they’re sitting across from a team in which everyone is contributing somehow, and that it’s not just the people who speak the most at the meeting who matter.

“When everyone’s involved in the discussion, it brings up some different perspectives and results in a far better dialogue on the subject, and ultimately, that’s how you arrive at a better solution,” says Lise Korsager Ørtoft.

When the client takes the floor

If the client brings up an unanticipated topic during the discussion, it’s important to listen and consider what they’re saying. It may sound like common sense, but you can quickly make a dent in your professional image if you momentarily drift off and the client later says, “I already said that five minutes ago.”

“Instead of being rigidly locked to your agenda and objectives, you need to be agile and open to adapting the agenda over the course of the discussion. Otherwise, there’s a high risk that you create a bad atmosphere, and the company also loses the same feeling of ownership of the result if it’s something we’ve forced on them,” says Lise Korsager Ørtoft.

Back on track

Fortunately, there are ways to get the discussion back on track. Lise Korsager Ørtoft’s method is to deliberately avoid asking questions that are too open.

“Open questions can work fine in some situations, but at the same time, they can make the course of the conversation unpredictable. If you want to clarify a specific issue, the key is therefore to ask a series of specific questions that you can seek further elaboration on later, ensuring the conversation takes the right turn from the get-go,” she says.

‘Meeting journed’

Lise Korsager Ørtoft wraps up the meeting with a summary of the agenda. She reviews whether they managed to cover all the items on the agenda and summarises the key takeaways from the meeting.

It’s important to agree on what should happen next before leaving the meeting room. What should the result of the meeting be used for? Have all the issues been addressed and discussed, or is there some follow-up work that needs to be done? Should you schedule another meeting?