Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Meeting Mailbag

Career questions. Everybody has them.

Hopefully you can discuss them with a mentor, a trusted manager, or a trustworthy group of friends. If you have no better options, however, you can always ask a long-winded, self-absorbed blogger. To establish my blowhard blogger credentials, I’ve shared my opinions about the importance of perception, committing the three most common mistakes,  successfully getting noticed, escaping the pigeonhole, talking to management, working with executives, and handling career honors.

The result? We have questions from our readers. This time we’ll cover the meeting questions.

Q: I’m terrible at meetings. Nobody listens to me even though I’m right most of the time. How can I get better at meetings? Product Manager, Hopkinton, MA

A: First, let’s be sure you really are terrible at meetings (though that “I’m right most of the time” gives me confidence that you are.).

  • When you begin speak, do people use that as a trigger to go on an unofficial bathroom break?
  • Do people never respond to what you say and act as if everybody had simultaneously gone comatose while you talked?
  • Do you hear groans or sighs when you begin to talk?
  • Do you see everybody suddenly pick up their phones while you’re speaking? Do you have a paranoid sensation that they’re mocking you via text? (Note: It’s probably not paranoia.)
  • Do you find a lot of decisions are made in “hallway conversations” and the number of meetings is reduced?

Sabotage Meeting pic 1If you answer yes to most of these questions: congratulations, you are really, really bad at meetings! (None of these are exaggerations. They happen in most big meetings I attend – to people at all levels and in all job roles.)

Now that we know you’re the “Batman vs. Superman” of meetings (lots of noise, no impact), how do you improve your performance at meetings?

First, understand what type of meeting it is, so you can act appropriately.

  • Decision Communication – Everything has been decided. Focus your feedback on improving the implementation of the decision. Everything else is disruptive. Disagree and commit.
  • Decision Discussion – There has been a preliminary proposal, and the presenters are seeking new information or perspectives. Your goal: convince the decision makers to meet with you after the meeting. Focus on concise and positive input that brings something new to the discussion (Shockingly, people tend to avoid those who are relentlessly negative and antagonistic.). If you try to go too deep in the meeting, you will be creating a “rat hole”. If you stray off-point, you’ll be pegged as passive-aggressive.
  • Topic Introduction – The presenter is trying to establish a basic, shared level of understanding. Your goal: ensure that you’re involved in the preliminary proposal. Focus your input on either establishing your credentials in the area (briefly and without ego) or making it clear that your team/group is integral to the decision (either implementing or being affected by it). Pushing for a decision will make you look rash and bossy.

Second, regardless of the type of meeting:

  • Brevity – Do you find it annoying when somebody drones on during a meeting? It’s just as annoying when you do it.
  • Relevance – Do you hate when people talk without adding anything new or applicable to the discussion? People hate you when you do it, too.
  • Be Positive – Do you resent people who ridicule your ideas (and, thus, you) in public? When you do it, other people fantasize about you getting stuck in never-ending bug reviews. [NOTE: You can be positive, even when critiquing an idea, by genuinely wanting to help the presenter succeed, rather than trying to prove your superiority. Intent shows through.]

Finally, there are a few habits to break immediately:

  • Body Language – Do you bang your head on the table, slump in your chair, or roll your eyes at the presenter?
  • Tone of Voice – Do you sound critical or condescending? Do you sigh deeply before you talk, as if everybody else’s stupidity wearies you?
  • Talking over others – We all know that you’ve just had the most brilliant thought since Vin Diesel thought of adding The Rock to The Fast and Furious. It’s clearly more important than whatever others are saying. So why bother listening, or even letting them finish?

Sabotage Meeting pic 2If so, you’re in good company – I’ve done all of those things. Now stop being disrespectful, annoying, unprofessional, and immature. Nobody will take you seriously when you act like a spoiled child.

One of my worst meetings – we were prioritizing management features for a product I’d led. The management team was just trying to understand the product (Topic Introduction). Unfortunately, I expected them to be experts and that the meeting was to ratify decisions (because I didn’t ask). After spending the meeting interrupting them, rolling my eyes, and insulting their lack of knowledge of the product, I concluded by spectacularly banging my head on the table 3 times. Word of the meeting spread quickly. One of my mentors asked if I’d taken up day drinking. The management team asked for a different liaison. For months people behaved differently around me – less open – because they feared I’d melt down again. And I gave myself a really bad headache.

You can learn to be good at meetings. It all starts with common sense, respect for others, and taking an extra moment to think about how others will perceive your actions and words. In other words – it starts with trying.

Q: I’m in Quality Engineering (e.g. Test, Automation). My manager got me invited to design reviews, but I don’t know what to say. The developers say that I’m not adding value, and they don’t want to invite me anymore. How can I make an impact? Engineer, RTP, NC

A: This is the flip side to the meeting question above. Instead of being overbearing and obnoxious, you’re unsure and becoming a meeting wallflower.

Most of the previous advice still applies. A few of other things to add:

  • Prepare: Design review meetings are new to you. You’ll need to work harder to make your mark. Prepare a couple of points of feedback prior to the meeting (even if you have to talk with some developers separately before the meeting). That way, you’re confident that you’ll have an impact. It will relax you, so you can add even more value in the flow of the meeting.
  • Focus on your unique value: As the QE representative, the developers are expecting you to bring a different perspective – e.g. customer advocacy, automation requirements, testability, diagnosability, or cross-group impact. Therefore, focus on that; don’t try to be a developer.
  • Advocate for your group: You’re not just in the meeting for yourself; you’re representing your team. Therefore, find out what your group needs from the developers. That will help you prepare and add unique value.

Sabotage Meeting pic 3When I first started attending business planning meetings, I struggled to add value as well. Initially, I sat quietly. Unfortunately, I worried that I wasn’t adding value. Then I tried to contribute by offering brilliant advice about budgets, margins, and sales models. The “are you kidding me?” looks on everybody’s faces convinced me that I definitely wasn’t adding value. Finally, I found my sweet spot – helping balance present and future investment in product development and marketing. And in making sure that I tell more bad jokes than anybody else.

 

Conclusion

Meetings matter. Not just for getting work done, but in setting your public image. Good luck and keep the questions coming!

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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