Leaving Footprints – Is Bigger Better? – by Sean O’Neil

I’ve always been intent on leaving a big footprint wherever I go. I insert myself forcefully into a group interaction – a work meeting or a sales call or a cocktail party conversation. And despite the blustery title of my book and my in-your-face online presence, I tend to think of my insertions as almost always well-received and positive.

I bring in people from the fringes.

I tell a good story to make them laugh or think.

I pick up on a subtle conversational theme and connect it to something broader.

I like to think I leave those meetings and sales calls and cocktail parties in a better place than before I arrived.

But do I? Is it possible that in leaving these large footprints I steer the discussions off their natural course? That they serve to redirect attention to me? (You need not know me well to know how much I value attention on me!) Are others annoyed that their footprints are washed away by mine?

My parents had always left large footprints wherever they went, and I suppose I always thought bigger was just, you know, better.

But recently I was in a group work setting and took careful note of a colleague I rather respect. She’s what one might call a small footprint person.

During the meeting she observed everything intently and didn’t appear to miss a beat. She drew her own conclusions, but shared them sparingly and only when they were requested or absolutely necessary to bring the group back. When she spoke others in the room hung on her every word. What she said was impactful and thought-provoking and efficient.

She seemed comfortable letting discussions take their own course, even if they went where no one imagined or hoped they would. Some of these discussions eventually recovered and returned to the track, but others languished and drifted into nowhere – until she eventually spoke up and gently rescued them. Perhaps most shocking to me, a handful of people dominated the discussion while the others sat back and fiddled with their smart phones.

This woman not only made tiny footprints – she made relatively few of them.

I was initially compelled to jump in and “rescue” her – what was she doing? But she seemed ok letting them stay in their comfort zones. This was, after all, how they worked without us consultants there. And, to be sure, the experience for those in the meeting was qualitatively different than if I had done my big footprint thing. But was it worse? Less productive? More unsatisfying for those involved?

I don’t think so. Or at least I can’t say so with any certainty.

I wouldn’t expect me to be leaving small footprints any time soon – just not sure I have it in me. But my colleague helped me develop a newfound respect for the smaller footprint, and the skill of leaving fewer of them. People have been figuring out their own stuff for years without me – I might actually add more value sometimes by listening and analyzing before jumping right in with my own fat feet.


Sean O’Neil is a workplace and team dynamics expert. He is also Principal and CEO of Bare Knuckle People Management (www.bareknucklepeoplemanagement.com), a sales and management training firm with clients that include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, News Corporation, First Data, ADP, Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Oakland Raiders. Sean and John Kulisek co-authored Bare Knuckle People Management: Creating Success with the Team You Have – Winners, Losers, Misfits and All, which was published in May 2011. Sean has contributed to or been featured in, among others, The New York Times, the Wall Street JournalSelling Power MagazineCNBC.comLeadership Excellence MagazineTraining MagazineThe Dallas Morning News, the Sports Business Journal, and Incentive Magazine. Sean appears regularly on radio and television programs, including Fox Business Network and Imus in the Morning, mostly about workplace communications and management issues. Sean is a nationally-recognized speaker on everything concerning people and the way they interact with each other. He can also frequently be seen pacing the sidelines of a youth team he’s coaching.


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