“The Tonight Show” Moment

You know the moment, when a meeting or offsite johnny-carsonveers off toward the absurd. That foreseeable second when someone brings up a topic they think is relevant to the purpose at hand, but isn’t. Or someone starts holding forth on ancient history that only serves to pull you back to non-resolution instead of progress. Regardless of form, this moment makes the session impossible to continue and makes your peers shift in their seats and begin checking their smartphones.

I call this “The Tonight Show” moment.

A few employers ago, I was part of a leadership team that met every Wednesday for four hours, straddling lunchtime. As a team, we got along very well and were pretty open with each other. If someone needed to call bullshit, they did. At least once a month, we would bump up against a tangent or a reminder of past precedent that would cause an immediate reaction among the team. “Not that again!” or “Can we focus here, people?” I took to chiming in with a line or two from “The Tonight Show” theme to punctuate that we were veering off track. I mean the old school, Johnny Carson, there-is-nothing-left-to-say-so-have-Doc-play-us-out “Tonight Show” theme.

Meetings, offsites or any kind of professional get together runs the risk of hitting “The Tonight Show” moment. As William Daniels, senior consultant at American Consulting & Training noted in a Fast Company article on meetings almost 20 years ago, “Meetings matter because that’s where an organization’s culture perpetuates itself.” Bingo. In spite of large-scale culture initiatives, websites, behavior booklets or Town Hall meetings, the crux of a company’s culture comes alive whenever a group of colleagues get together ostensibly to accomplish something. It is here that the real attitudes, agendas and actions of people are displayed, often so readily that you have to be sleeping to miss them.

And it is here that a goldmine exists to bring the meeting, and by extension the company, back on track. The BBC calls the mismanagement of this precious time “Meeting Malpractice.” I call it lazy leadership.

The fix in tactical terms is well-documented: determining a specific purpose and objective to accomplish, prudently drawing up a list of attendees, creating a relevant and pre-distributed agenda, ensuring clarity on decision rights and process, practicing solid time management, skillfully using the “parking lot” for tangential items, and clearly cataloging follow-up action items if needed.

The fix in strategic terms requires active leadership. We assume that whomever calls the meeting is the person best equipped to run the meeting. That should not be the safe assumption. The truth is, some people are skilled at managing an agenda, keeping the discussion on track and handling de-railers – who can be people higher up on the corporate food chain – with ease. Some people are not. It’s dangerous to assume that the person who holds the agenda can do it all. I’ve seen careers literally torpedoed by how a colleague handles a meeting. Absolutely unfair, I agree. But a reality, all the same.

How can a leader prevent “The Tonight Show” moment?

  • Prepare the Tactics (see above).
  • Rehearse the Flow: Make sure you know how you want to handle parking lot items, actively keep participants on track and bring the discussion back to purpose and objectives.
  • Brainstorm the De-Railers: You usually have a sense as to which meeting attendee is known for his/her skill at pulling things off track. Spend a few moments with a trusted peer or advisor on how to manage this person before they manage your meeting right off track.
  • Lean on Friends: Ask one or two friends in attendance to jump in when things begin to go sideways, preferably someone who is at a higher level and organizationally respected. Having secret back-up takes the pressure off and fosters a more productive meeting dynamic.

Ultimately, you want to leave “The Tonight Show” moment at it’s best time slot – after the evening news and before lights out.




  1. Deborah Primiano April 7, 2015 Reply

    Great insights and a good reminder that everyone has a role to play at a meeting. If you accept the invitation, you should accept the responsibility to contribute effectively.

  2. Chris Rhatigan April 10, 2015 Reply

    Spot on article. We’ve all encountered this. It may take a tad more time, but usually it can be nipped in the bud.

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