In-person meetings are my best window into how the client organization works. I am always looking for the risks in the room. I could assume the best, but that hasn’t tended to help in the past. Sometimes paranoia pays.
Phone meetings still frustrate me. I don’t know which is worse: sitting at your desk alone trying to follow along and participate, or sitting with others while people roll their eyes at what’s being said. Or the worst of the three: backchat texting while the meeting is going on.
The most important thing you need to know about meetings is that you have to be at the meeting.
Not planning ahead what you’re going to say.
Not brooding on what dude across the way said to you last meeting or the pissy email he sent you.
Make sure you prepare for the meeting. Know your subject, do your research, practice your presentation. Failing that — and we have all winged it at some point or another — clear your mind so that you can be entirely present in the meeting and capable of observing and responding in the moment. That is the basic requirement to be able to read what is going on and participate.
You do not need to be at every project meeting unless you are the Project Manager. Life is too short. When you opt out of the half-hour/one hour/two hour meeting, take the 10 minutes to read the minutes.
Note who is running the meeting: Is it a project manager, product manager, project manager on behalf of a VP, who? That will give you a sense of the real accountability for the project and product. It should align with the RACI.
How do people introduce themselves? Are they “the VP of Banking”? Do they “support the Banking business”? Do they “lead the Banking team”? I could be describing the same person in all three cases. That will give you a clue about how they see themselves and what the corporate culture is around leadership.
The most uptight organizations usually start the introductions with the highest-ranking person in the room. Smart corporate workers will cue their introductions based on how that person introduces themselves. Not so politically aware people and renegades will bash on without regard to the hint they’ve been given.
Most places will start intros with the person to the left of the chair, and go around the room. In my experience, people who introduce themselves by name only, in situations where you can’t possible know their title, are either very green, or trouble. Green will be obvious. Others are, in essence, either asking you to ask them for their title thereby garnering extra attention in what should be a pretty standard meeting procedure.
Is there an agenda? If not, you’re either working with a high performing team who knows the process cold (rare), or get ready to spend a lot of time spinning your wheels. This one is worth noting during preliminary meetings before you submit your quote on the job.
Is the agenda followed? If not, what’s the context. Most common is a situation where the agenda writer underestimated the amount of time required to cover a particular topic. To watch out for:
- Was a critical topic introduced that has to be addressed immediately? This happens.
- Was the agenda writer unaware of what should be on it? Some bad role assignments happening there.
- Is someone attempting to take the meeting or project in a different direction for another purpose?
Now, what are people doing? The highest-ranking person in the room should be following every word. If not, why are they there? If it’s just for show, you have another clue about how the organization works and what it values. I have no problem with an exec leaving part way through a meeting if they’ve accomplished what they needed to do.
You don’t want an exec in the room when they’re not needed. What if they feel compelled to offer an opinion or tell the team what to do? Get them out of there!
If people are multi-tasking, then they’re not really participating in the meeting. Create an atmosphere where they can leave.
Who is doing most of the talking in the meeting and how are people reacting? Anyone can talk for a long time. It matters more whether people care about what they say or are they rolling their eyes or avoiding eye contact or trying to interrupt them.