Thursday, September 16, 2010

7 Tips for Department Meeting Rookies

The average employee will attend about *12 meetings per year. A few of these will be what’s typically called “the department meeting”. If you work for a smaller company, it may be a company, or a branch meeting.

I figure I’ve attending hundreds of these. So while those are hours of my life that I’ll never get back, I thought I’d share a little advice for those that are just starting their careers or new to corporate life. This advice is based on my own clueless and dumb mistakes made early in my career, as well as having the opportunity to work for a company that hires a lot of early career employees (and seeing them make the same clueless and dumb mistakes).

1. Stay awake.
The single most important reason you have been asked to this meeting is sit and to listen. In order to give the illusion that you are actually paying attention, you need to be conscious (unless you can sleep with your eyes open).
This is especially important if you are in the audience of one of those big official conferences or meetings that are often videotaped. You don’t want to be that person that a cameraman with a sense of humor decides to zoom in on.
If the person sitting next to you is starting to bob and weave, be a team player and give them a nudge.

2. Preparation.
By preparation, I mean preparation to stay awake (back to tip #1). Do not underestimate the endurance required to stay awake for a one hour (or longer!) meeting. Think of church; or an 8:00am class after a late night. This is why companies put coffee in corporate break rooms. If coffee’s not your stimulant of choice, then “do the Dew” or a can of your favorite 5 hour energy drink.
Beware of meetings right after lunch, or if the lights dim and someone fires up what looks like a death-by-PowerPoint presentation. If you still find yourself nodding off (and oh, it’s a losing battle trying to fight it), then get up and fake a trip to the restroom. Better to suffer the embarrassment of a weak bladder than being the star of that corporate video.

3. There really are stupid questions.
The first thing you will hear from the person in front of the room is “We want this to be interactive – there are no stupid questions, so ask away”. Don’t take the bait. A stupid question will make you look stupid, no matter what they tell you. A single good question, on the other hand, can make a good first impression. However, don’t overdo it. Limit it to one – anything more comes across as grandstanding, or being socially clueless.
If the meeting is almost over – and the speaker says “well, we have time for one more question” – DO NOT be that person. That silence you hear is actually everyone holding their breath, hoping no one is going to ask that one more question.
If you leave with legitimate unanswered questions, ask one of your co-workers or your manager after the meeting.

4. Where to sit?
The back of large meeting rooms usually fill up first. Sometimes, the speaker will make everyone move to the front seats, so you end up looking like a slacker when you have to get up and shuffle to the front. I recommend the middle rows. It’s close enough to hear and see and shows commitment and interest, but far enough away to avoid looking overly ambitious.
Although you won’t see “reserved” signs on the first couple rows, they are not for you. Just like weddings and funerals, there’s often an unwritten rule that those rows are for the immediate family.

5. Keep your phone in your pocket or purse.
I know, I know, these things are addictive. I have a hard time not taking my IPhone to bed with me. However, to those running the meeting, staring down at your lap and Twittering will come across as rude. Same goes for the earbuds – take ‘em out.

6. Do some live social networking.
Department meetings were invented before Facebook and blogs, but for some reason, companies still like to have them. Take advantage of the gathering to do a little networking and relationship building. Arrive a few minutes early and hang around a few minutes after the meeting. Introduce yourself to at least one person you've never met. If you’ve never met the speaker, introduce yourself (with a nice firm handshake) and let them know what you thought of the meeting. Speakers are always looking for feedback – as long as it’s positive.

7. After the meeting.
The real meeting always happens after the meeting. That’s when employees gather in the hallways and back at the office and tell each other what they really thought and ask questions they knew enough not to ask at the meeting. It’s tempting to want to join in with the criticism, cynicism, or sarcasm. Keep it to yourself, or save it for happy hour with a few trusted co-workers. A good rule of thumb: always assume anything you say will at some point get right back to your manager or management. A little aspiring leader advice: be the person who everyone looks at to see how they should react - then be the positive optimist. Whiners suck the life out of everyone around them. Leaders energize those around them. Sorry, couldn't resist a little serious leadership development advice.

There you go. Career enhancing advice that I bet you didn’t get in your MBA program or new employee orientation. Use it to get ahead of your sleeping or clueless co-workers, or be a team player and share it with them.

How about you? Anyone have any sage advice to offer on department meeting?

*Totally made up crap.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting advice on attending meetings. Many of these do remind me of attending classes. In my education, I may have heard some of these tips once, but these are truly something every meeting rookie and even every student should hear.

In addition to phones, laptops should not be in meetings either. It is very distracting seeing the person in front of you checking the weather on his computer, while you are trying to pay attention to the presentation.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jennifer -
Thanks. I guess there are some similarities with classes.

Klaus Hammer said...

good write-up. I only am a bit torn about #3.
leaving with legitimate (and important) questions unanswered sometimes can be frustrating. especially when the management tries to avoid certain questions, i.e. during a change period...

I believe that there are circumstances, where you are better off asking bluntly what you (and maybe half of your colleagues too) want to know.

just my 2CP :)

Tim Griffith said...

1. Loved your "statistic" - I laughted out loud when I checked the footnote :)

2. I'd love to see a post on the flip side, about how "management" (i.e. leaders) can make these meetings a better use of everyone's time (no more death by PowerPoint, more authentic communication, etc.)!

3. One tip I might add for the rookies is this: remember that you were invited for a reason - someone wanted you to know something. Challenge yourself to find at least one "golden nugget" that will impact what you do when you get back to work.


Dan McCarthy said...

Klause -
OK, right, questions are fine. But let's do the math. Let's say, 50 people in the audience for a 90 minute meeting. Let's say 30 minute of that is Q&A, which is more than typical. A question can take about 2-5 minutes to answer. So you ask 1 question – that leaves time for about 5-10 more. But – you still have questions – so you ask another. Now, you’ve used up possibly 1/3 of the question time. The meeting has become all about you. So I stand by my advice – 1 good question (that you think could be common) – but save the rest for later, when you can get individual attention.

Tim -
Great tip (#3)! Forces you to listen and engage. Thanks.

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Once upon a time, in a far away place (large corporation) I was in an organization where the VP held lots and lots of meetings. He also fell asleep a lot while running the meeting; rumor had it that he was narcoleptic (this is a true story). What is protocol when the person running the meeting falls asleep at the front of the room? We simply waited for him to wake up. I thought you'd appreciate a challenging question to respond to :).

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -
I I didn't know you I'd think this was a joke. OMG! If it was a medical condition, what else could you do? Although that poor man should not have been allowed to run his own meetings.
This sort of reminds me of a time when I went to see Steven Covey speak. There were moments where I thought he was sleeping.... but I think it was just for dramatic effect. (-:

ESchwarzrock said...

I have a few I would add. Don’t talk about things that most people in the meeting already know. It’s time consuming and wasteful. You’re upsetting people, and now a majority of the room isn’t listening anyways so you’re really just talking to yourself. Also, I would add not to point out specific people for conversations irrelevant to the meetings topic. At that point you talking directly to someone and the rest are wondering why you’re not capably of waiting till after the meeting to host your one on one conversation. Great blog. Thanks

Dan McCarthy said...

E -
Thanks for those two additional tips.
Just a point of clarification for all.... my tips were not for ALL meetings- like project or staff meetings - they were for large, department meetings. In project or team meetings, there is lots more room for discussion and conversation. When you attend one of these meetings, you are EXPECTED to contribute, not just sit and listen and maybe ask 1 question.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the meeting tips. I also agree with the post about not bringing laptops. During meetings, the Internet can be a huge distraction. I am not sure what would happen if the Information Technology Department decided to disconnect the wireless at one of our monthly staff meetings. I am not sure if this would cause more people to pay attention or more people to leave so they could complete whatever they had scheduled to finish during the staff meeting.

I would comment longer, but my boss is walking towards me and I have to hide my screen. I should have sat further back for this meeting.

seanwhitlock said...

Thanks for your post and the tips. It's funny that through the sarcasm you realize how much of a dog and pony show a lot meetings end up being. I've worked for several companies that seem to have meetings, just so they can say they had a meeting. I'm probably setting myself up as that guy who sucks the life out o the room, but I think I productive meeting should keep people awake anyway, and emails and weather on our blackberry wouldn’t be on our minds. In my experience, important meetings will have me focusing well before the meeting, and give me some genuine information that will benefit me, and ultimately the company. Thanks for the break from typical posts on this kind of topic.

Dan McCarthy said...

Ricky -
Thanks. Of course, the exception would be reading Great Leadership at meetings. That's OK. (-:

Sean -
Thanks. You know, I really did try to break away from the usual "all meeetings are a waste of time" post. There's more than enough advice on the topic of how to plan and run better meetings (although much of it seems to be ignored).

Dan Zaccagnino said...

This post was a little on the less serious side, which leads me to believe that’s how some meetings are. It is good advice for rookies though. Staying awake is a given, and I do agree with you that there are stupid questions. Whenever a fellow student or co-workers would ask a stupid question I always think omg. Is that person for real? Some meetings I used to go to were around an oval table and my company always ordered food, it was our "safety meetings" the third Thursday of every month, so you had to sit with your bosses. Also I agree with #7, I would always hear people talking about how useless the meetings were, afterwards, and managers always found out who said it.

Casey O'Looney said...

Dan, I loved this blog post. The content is funny, but true! I particularly liked #5 and #6. Put the phone away! Seriously, if I sit through one more meeting where people are paying more attention to their phone than the speaker I'm going to scream. It is so rude to the speaker and those around you. Also, loved the point about doing real life social networking. Get to know your co-workers. Sooner or later you are going to have to ask them for a favor and it helps if you know who they are.

Again, great post!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad you brought up Tip #3. I find that many employees aren't aware of this. Some people think that if they ask a lot of questions that they will be noticed and stick out from the crowd. I think they believe they will be able to use this to their advantage in the future. This is very annoying during meeting time and makes the person stick out in a bad way. I am also a big believer in Tip #7. The time to criticize your work, co-workers and boss is not when your at work. Save that conversation for later. Nothing good can ever come out of doing that. And, even when your not in the workplace, it can still come back to co-workers. So always be careful what you say. The only other tip I would add would be "Don't act like you're smarter than you are." People can see through your BS when you ramble on in a meeting. And you may become the topic of many of these "After-work" conversations.

Dan McCarthy said...

Dan -
Good, I'm glad you liked it. Behind the humor was some serious advice.

Casey -
Great, glad you enjoyed it and could relate to a few of the pointers.

Derak -
Good point about not letting your hair down too much after work, and thanks for the pointer about not using meetings to show everyone how smart you are.

Newsboy said...

I think I'd add: Take very deep breaths and control yourself.

During my time in "Corporate World" my business partner and me would be brought down to HQ for meetings that would go all day and were a complete waste of time. I probably save my career by keeping myself from exploding all over the senior managers nonsense and the only thing I can think of that helped was my wife's advice - "Take deep breaths, count to 10, then count to 100."

So if you wander into the meeting from hell that goes on and on and on, just remember that it will end, eventually. And maybe you can still contribute something.

If all else fails, while taking notes, play "Corporate Bingo" and see how many buzzwords get dropped. Just don't yell "Bingo".

Dan McCarthy said...

Newsboy -
Good advice from your wife, thanks.

Chris RH said...

I appreciated the advice on meetings. When you just enter the workforce, one of the first novel tasks you need to do is to attend meetings. Many of the suggestions would seem like common sense or routing etiquette, but its always surprising how many people don't realize what they are doing at meetings. Of course as you mention it is even more important to be self-aware as meetings are one of the few times that so many people may be paying attention to you.

Dan McCarthy said...

Chris -
Good, glad I could help. I like your point about self-awareness too.