Most of the pivotal moments in your career are likely to occur in meetings – whether formal or impromptu. Unless you’re an inventor, research scientist or artist, you’re rarely going to be having those pivotal moments alone.
That’s because people have to see you doing things, demonstrating your capabilities, being that confident contributor in order to know what you’re capable of. And it’s that visible evidence that helps them imagine you in other important contexts – such as presenting to the Executive Committee or influencing the direction of a big client meeting.
Jack Welch made some excellent points about this in his recent article, “How Those Totally “Useless” Meetings Can Make or Break Your Career”. And if you think you’ve been in a lot of meetings, just think about how many he’s been in! In particular, Jack talks about changing your attitude towards meetings, coming prepared to add value, and appraising your own performance after the fact.
The “litmus test”
To give you an example, when I was forming a view on whether someone (let’s call him Ted) was ready for promotion to executive director (a mid-level officer), I needed to know Ted could lead from the front (as in Joan of Arc leading the charge).
One of my informal “litmus tests” for this was whether I could imagine Ted being in an Organizational Meeting (that’s what we called the kickoff meeting for a deal and it would be attended by the client as well as all the banks involved) and coming out ahead, or at least neutral, relative to the other banks.
And guess what? The internal morning meeting was where I saw Ted in action, and therefore formed most of my impressions. So Ted had a daily opportunity to show me what he would be like in a big meeting. Sadly, Ted didn’t understand this and flunked the unspoken “litmus test” and remained a VP.
As an aside, I should mention that it’s only in hindsight that I see this “litmus test” so clearly. At the time, these were just impressions I was forming in the normal course of business and too vague to articulate even if I had wanted to. It makes me realize that our stakeholders probably have these unspoken “litmus tests” going on in the back of their minds too, and it’s worth figuring out what those might be!
Don’t think you’re at home
So I’m with Jack on this one. When you’re in those internal meetings, don’t think you’re “at home” with “friends and family” where you can wear your “comfy clothes” and curl up on the couch.
These are golden opportunities for you to shine, or disasters waiting to happen. Either way, it can be a subtle thing that you don’t even realize is happening until it’s much too late.
So, if “run of the mill” internal meetings can be opportunities as well as challenges, how can you be strategic in approaching them?
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How to be strategic about meetings
Here are four ways to go about it.
Change your mindset about meetings. You could think of them as:
- Platforms to show what you are capable of… particularly to people in senior positions who may not get to see you in action with your clients. Internal meetings are a proxy for how great (or not) you are with external constituencies such as with board members or clients. Put yourself in the meeting leader’s seat – what do they want to know from you?
… and to build relationship… Speaking from experience, it can be a little “scary” to run a meeting for the first time and any “help” from the audience is greatly appreciated. And even if your meeting leader is an “old hand” at running meetings, it can be simply annoying when the group is not cooperating. Again, putting yourself in the meeting leader’s seat, what would be helpful to them in terms of making the meeting more productive? They will appreciate it even if they don’t formally thank you.
- “Observatories” where you can watch and learn – how your colleagues handle difficult situations, get themselves in trouble, and extricate themselves. You get to learn their hot buttons – and they get to learn yours too. You might even be lucky enough to get a master class on how to diplomatically tell the boss that her plan will have some negative consequences while leaving everyone’s egos intact. (By the way, the easiest way to do this is to put it in the frame of, “the situation has changed, and I wonder if adjusting XYZ would help us get to the result we want?”)
Before you go to any meeting, decide what you want to get out of it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Who will be there? And is there something you want to have a sidebar about with them? Does one of them need to see you in action being strategic, or inquisitive or showing some other capability that matters in advancing your career?
- Why are you there? What’s your role? Your contribution? It’s like a pot luck dinner – everyone brings something to the table. Some possible roles include:
- Leading the discussion
- Taking notes – but be careful not to get trapped into doing this when you become senior especially if you’re female
- Supporting role – where you have one piece to contribute or where you know the answers at the next level of detail and can chime in at the right time
- Devil’s advocate – be careful to couch this one in constructive terms and to think of it as helping to pressure test the argument. Done properly, you won’t get a reputation for being a naysayer, but be careful and don’t get trapped in this role either.
- Observing the dynamic, whether to simply watch and learn, or to provide your impressions and feedback to the meeting leader afterwards
- What points do you want to make/contribute? What do you want to learn? (Think of this as the “give vs get”.)
- And, of course, do your research – if you read about my recent “Meeting Disaster”, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t put this point first!
3. Show up
- First, it’s about actually going to the meeting. If you need to be there, then show up. Both physically and mentally.
- Be on time – it’s a sign of respect. I used to be 10 minutes late to everything. Then I realized that if I could be consistently 10 minutes late, that meant I could be on time if I just got started earlier. It meant telling myself “no, you can’t do that one more thing! Go NOW!”
And if you know you’re going to be late, be properly late. Let the organizer know beforehand – it makes you look like you’ve got things under control – and take 10 seconds to compose yourself before you walk in rather than dashing in looking frazzled.
- Dress appropriately – this is mostly for your own benefit. You know how awkward it can feel to be dressed in black tie for what turns out to be a casual event or in your shorts and T-shirt for a formal dinner. Being dressed appropriately eliminates one element of worry and makes you feel stronger, more powerful. And that’s the kind of confidence you want to have going into any meeting with colleagues or clients.
4. Actively participate
- Be on the lookout for those pivotal moments when you can make a great contribution, whether that’s sharing some information you know and that’s relevant to the discussion, or asking a question that leads to a more productive line of debate. While you don’t want to dominate the dialogue, you do want to speak up enough to be seen as adding value.
- Experiment with participating at different points in the meeting – are you more comfortable speaking up
- At the beginning so that you can overcome your anxiety and get used to hearing your voice in the room, or
- In the middle when the discussion is in full flow and it’s easier to add a point or elaborate on what’s been said, or
- Toward the end when it’s time to summarize, synthesize and agree next steps
Work on developing proficiency at all three. It will make you more versatile and comfortable in any situation, which is what’s expected as you become increasingly senior.
- Be an active listener the whole way through. Not only will you be able to add more value (because you’ll know what’s going on) and frame more effective questions, you’ll enjoy the process more when you’re present (in the mindfulness sense).
- Look for the “nugget” – when you come away with at least one key takeaway, then you’ve made the meeting worthwhile. Make it your challenge to find that “nugget” in every meeting you attend.
- Model your behavior in client or external situations so people can get a sense for what you’re like “in action”
Embrace those meetings
Remember that when you hide your light under a bushel – as in keeping everything behind the scenes so people have to “take your word for it” regarding your capabilities – you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.
So, embrace those meetings. Make the most of their platform and observatory qualities. And step outside of yourself to get perspective on how you are showing up.
Your career could take an accelerated turn for the better and you’ll learn more as well as feel more energized in the meantime.
So, what will you do differently to take advantage of your next meeting?
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