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.