Use These 7 Tricks to Win Meetings and Get Promoted
Rest assured, there is a list of tricks that you can use in meetings later in this post. But, before you get to the buzzfeed portion, please indulge me for a few paragraphs that will help determine whether you’re the sort of person that really wants to take this advice.
A while back, I took some material from my in-progress book and turned it into a post in which I offered a different set of names for the MacLeod hierarchy. For the sake of expediency, here’s the pyramid I created with those terms.
In any company that scales beyond just a few people and starts to include overhead roles, it becomes nearly impossible to assess the impact of any individual on the company’s revenue (if anyone’s interested in hearing me expand on that assertion, let me know, and I’ll add a draft for that). But we don’t let that stop us from manufacturing performance evaluations to the best of our abilities. Interestingly enough, performance evaluations of opportunists at the very top and of line level pragmatists at the very bottom tend to be the most straightforward.
Top level opportunists (C-suite folks) are evaluated in the same way as head football coaches. Company does well? Accolades and bonuses. Company does poorly? Golden parachutes. It’s not as though C*Os are singly responsible for all aspects of performance, but they are the one neck for shareholders or board members to choke.
Line level pragmatists are folks responsible for cranking out widgets, so they tend to be evaluated with metrics, such as “widgets per hour.” Speciously, we assume that moar widgets == moar revenue == moar good, and thus are content to conduct evaluations of widgeteer performance with reductionist proxies. At least, we do that for widgeteers not on the middle management (idealist) “track.” When they get on that track, we evaluate them differently, as I’ll describe a little later.
With idealists in the mushy middle, there’s no simple arithmetic for performance evaluation. These positions tend to be evaluated by how fervently they accumulate carnival cash (i.e. how dedicated they are to demonstrating loyalty to the company and its culture). Oh, superficially, there are KPIs for middle managers related to budget, growth, etc, but it’s hard to measure overhead people for departmental performance, and it’s hard to measure holistic performance for only part of the whole. To put it another way, a middle manager can preside over poor performance and blame it on his team or another manager, and then shuffle off to some other assignment for a fresh start. Middle management ‘performance’ is mainly a matter of marketing, messaging, and maneuvering (i.e. pure office politics).
Middle management is populated mainly by idealist lifers and, to a smaller extent, by opportunists just passing through. If you’re sincerely reading a post about “winning” meetings as career advice, don’t worry about the opportunists — they’re on their way through a glass ceiling that will never let you pass. Set your sights instead on middle management as an end goal. The people who make careers of middle management are idealists, and idealists tend to groom future middle managers on a “we can smell our own” basis. This is why “dress like your boss” goes over so well on LinkedIn and career advice sites — it’s advice to help you smell like you belong. Don’t believe me? Have a read about “(idealist) bosses tell us 11 things that will get you promoted.” “Smile” and “don’t miss the company party” make the cut, but “be competent” and “earn money for the company” do not. Go figure.
But as far as actual tactics go, “dress like your boss” and “put in extra hours” (and “smile”) are really pretty banal. I wrote about that once. If you really want to signal to career middle managers that you’re also a career middle manager, you can be much more subtle and effective. To my regular readers, this may sound like satire, but it really isn’t. These are actual tips that will work, ripe for the picking if you’re the sort of person that wants to pick them. And, frankly, it’s because this kind of buffoonery works in an office setting that I’m writing a book about how I think we can reclaim control over our careers.
Meetings are where you should focus your efforts if you aspire to middle management, since the conference room is to middle management as the octagon is to Ronda Rousey.
1. Be punctual about how late you are.
Go to any corporate meeting involving multiple levels of the organizational pyramid, and you’ll notice that people enter roughly in reverse order of importance. The peons get there on time, and the more ‘senior’ line level employees come in a minute or two late. Managers bustle in 5 minutes late, noses in their phones, and VPs stalk in 10 minutes late with purpose, not bothering to try to seem busy. Being late is power signaling because it literally communicates “I am so important that my time is worth more than everyone here’s combined.” This lesson carries over to flatter meetings as well where junior widgeteers arrive on time, senior ones stroll in 5 minutes late, and leads do their best VP imitations.
For any given meeting, you need to plan out how to be later than people at your level, but not later than superiors. Being later than superiors is an intense power play that you don’t want to make very often, if at all. It’s high risk, and high risk is more the opportunist game that you don’t want to play. But showing up at the same time or before people at your level indicates to anyone watching that you’re not very important. Of course, there’s a tactical problem here, which is that if you beat your manager to the meeting, your fellow widgeteers will notice that you’ve arrived in a more important timeslot than they have, but to the managers, you’ll all just look like a bunch of indistinguishable peons.
The best possible play is to stake out a location between the conference room and wherever your manager will be coming from. Wait outside while everyone else goes in, and then engage your manager in quick conversation to allow you to walk in together. You will violate no unspoken protocol and both your manager and your (soon to be former) peers will see you walking in like a boss.
2. Proximity matters.
As long as you’re walking in with your manager, do your best to sit near him. Seriously. This isn’t rocket science.
Sitting near your manager will get him used to having you within close speaking distance and available for small talk during lulls and asides in the meeting. It also creates the impression among your peers that you stand higher than them, which will cow them into listening to orders that you give outside of the meeting room.
This is something that only requires a little bit of jockeying for at first. Particularly in long-standing, recurring meetings, people tend to sit in the same place at each meeting. Pee on that fire hydrant a few meetings in a row, and the other dogs will get the hint.
3. Mind your posture while you posture.
Much like lateness, posture in meetings is a subtle indicator of status. But, unlike lateness, posture isn’t common in idealist and pragmatist circles, nor is there a particular, set posture that you should adopt. There was a TED talk a few years back that asserted that “power poses” actually boost confidence in situations, but it appears that might not actually be true. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Power poses make sense to adopt, potentially, but only when meeting with people at your level. Power poses are good because they communicate that you own the place, but the most important thing to do in meetings of peers is be different than your peers. If they’re all sitting, stand. If they’re all standing, sit. If they’re all leaning forward, kick your feet up on another chair. If they’re all reclined, lean forward and pound your fists on the table occasionally.
The game here changes if you’re meeting with superiors of any kind. In that case, mimic the posture of your superiors, particularly if your peers are adopting a different posture.
4. Give orders your boss can’t countermand.
This sounds crazy at first, but bear with me. Imagine if everyone were settling in for a meeting, and you piped up with, “I think we should pause for a moment of silence to honor those who have succumbed to cancer.” That would be deeply weird, but, if you did it, everyone would almost certainly go along with it, even on up to the boss’s boss’s boss. Weird as it may be, everyone just kind of has to go along with it or be known as the person that thought 1 minute of a status meeting was more important than cancer. It is entirely possible to toss out conversational trump cards that win you the hand on the table immediately, so to speak.
To use this yourself, don’t be weird and don’t offer sentimental non sequitur. Instead, do something that seems magnanimous. As everyone settles in for a meeting, pipe up with, “I’d like everyone to take a minute to recognize Barb for her contributions to refactoring the data access layer this week. I think we should give her a hand.” Everyone will just do this. On your end, you’ve done two things. First of all, as I said, you seem generous and gracious. But, more subtly and importantly, you’ve demonstrated that you can order everyone in the room to do something. And, best of all, for this one, you can certainly do it when superiors are in the room. Sooner or later, idealists in charge of your promotion will recognize this as ‘leadership’ and promote you, but, until they do, this is one of the only opportunities you’ll have to order everyone around, bosses included, unopposed. Don’t whiff on the opportunity to do this.
5. Use media liberally.
Scout out the conference room that you’re going to be in, and see what’s available there. Whiteboard? Flip chart? Projector? Whatever it is, formulate a plan to do some kind of ad hoc presentation. Keep this in your back pocket and be ready to seize center stage. How are you going to do that, you might ask? Use a trick that politicians use: the pivot. Brainstorm a series of topics that will likely come up at the meeting and rehearse how you can interrupt and give a quick presentation. For instance, if you have a slide deck called “how to manage a smooth deployment” and the subject turns to whether an upcoming deadline is realistic, say, “a key part of managing a deadline is making sure deployments are smooth. Actually, come to think of it, I have a quick slide deck I’d like to share on that.” Don’t wait for agreement — just grab the cable, plug your laptop in and let ‘er rip. People will probably be grateful for a few minutes to space out, and you’re making it clear that you’re the sort of leader that presents in meetings.
Giving presentations in and of itself is something that middle managers value, since it’s a relatively self-affirming narrative to think that a lot of people don’t rise above “widgeteer” due to a lack of people (presentation) skills. If you throw in vaguely economic concerns, you’ll also gain a reputation for being focused on “business value,” unlike your vision-less, geek peers. And, being a known “Power Point Guru” certainly can’t hurt your campaign.
6. Play the leadership card. A lot.
Earlier, I talked about the “management track,” saying I’d get to it later. You want to be on the management track and not the “widgeteer” track, obviously. At some point in a career review, someone has probably asked you about “tracks” and which one is for you, but that honestly doesn’t matter too much. The more important consideration is where the organization values you. If you’re really good at widgeteering, they’ll value you as a widgeteer and resist promoting you into management. This is actually pretty rational; if the company comes to depend on a productive line level employee, why rock the boat? Keep paying that person more and keep asking her to crank out widgets.
You don’t want to be stuck on that track; you need to flip the metaphorical track switch to head toward management. A big part of this is not being known for being especially productive at widgeteering, but instead being productive in “supervisory” roles. So, in meetings, find ways to drop a lot of casual references to reviewing other people’s work, helping people, leading by example, staying late to “put out fires,” clearing bottlenecks, and associated other things that managers tend to do. You can stretch the truth a little, particularly if it’s flattering to someone who could be called upon to corroborate later. If Joe and you stayed late the other night, BS-ing and complaining about people’s work, you might say, “That reminds me — Joe and I stayed late the other night reviewing the team’s code and discussing some improvements that I’m going to write up and oversee.” If pressed, Joe will back you.
7. Have a bailout plan.
If you’re aggressively pursuing 1 through 6 and making a splash, you’ll definitely push the envelope here and there, and there’s always the risk, even if you’re careful, of being called to the carpet. A boss might ask you not to interrupt or you might come in too late and draw a remark for being sloppy about punctuality. You can absorb such a comment, but it’s clearly a setback, even if temporary. You’ll have to make a judgment in the blink of an eye, but if you don’t want to suffer the setback, keep a nuclear option in your back pocket.
For any given meeting, spend some time brainstorming the main problem with the meeting. Is the agenda not focused enough? Has it gotten stale, occupying every Wednesday from 3 to 5 PM for the last 3 years? Are there satellite people present that aren’t really necessary? Whatever it is, know it cold for any meeting. Then, if you’re called to the carpet, you can say, “I’m sorry, Bob, I know I’m late, but I have to be honest — I’m just not sure that this meeting is valuable to Initech anymore. It’s gotten stale over the course of time and there are way too many people on the roster now.”
It’s a bold play, but it earns you some definite cred if it goes well. Everyone complains about meetings, but you’re showing that you have the leadership and the guts to call out a meeting that’s not a good use of time. And now, you have the perfect cover for whatever your boss just objected to — you weren’t being obnoxious or irresponsible as much as you were passionate, frustrated, and trying to shake the group out of its rut.
Note that this is not a guarantee of success, since it’s a risky proposition, but it’s worth a shot if you’re in a corner.
Bringing It All Together
If you’re looking to work your way into management, there is no venue more important to your career than the meeting. It’s not easy to go from doing line level work to inhabiting the manager’s schedule one conference room and one hour at a time, but hopefully these tips can help you make the transition. They’ll never get you to the top of the company or make your wildest dreams come true, but they’ll eventually help you have a shot at Junior Vice President, and that’s good enough for you.