Breaking Down Meetings

As an undergrad, meetings in the traditional sense, are not prevalent.  You, of course, have lectures to attend which are, technically, meetings.  But your responsibilities at a lecture are quite different than a meeting.  There is the occasional group project meetings or a meeting with an advisor.  These meetings are what I deem as more “traditional” meetings because they consistent of smaller groups and there are more clear objectives for what you will be discussing.  A lecture is, generally, fully controlled by the professor and the students do not have insight into the topic, which is why they are there.

Corporate America meetings are similar to the “traditional” meetings as outlined above.  These meetings typically consist of smaller groups of 2-8 people.  The meeting’s participants understand the topic and are able to fully contribute and understand the discussion.  There are times, especially as a new employee, where you will not have a full understanding of what is going on in the meeting - and that is OK.  In situations like this, it is critical to ask questions to make sure you understand the topic and any next steps.

The best way to approach meetings as a new employee in Corporate America is to have the mindset of “I’ve been meeting with people my entire life.”  Its true.  You meet with people to hang out, discuss projects, talk about common interests, and more.  Meetings in Corporate America are more formal than this, but there is no point to overcomplicate them.  Meetings are simply a gathering of people to discuss a topic to reach a common goal.  

Meeting with Higher-Ups

Having a meeting scheduled with a Vice President (VP) or other higher position is intimidating.  They are more successful in their career, make more money, and have no problem voicing their strong opinions.  This, especially the last point, can be challenging to deal with in a meeting.  Take a step back from corporate hierarchy when you are in these situations.  The VP that is voicing their opinion in a meeting, which may be contradictory to your opinion, is working in the best interest to do their job.  You are too.  The VP is also, at bare minimum, a human.  You are too.  All humans have feelings and make mistakes, even VPs.  Once you come to terms with the fact that everyone you are working with is a human (assuming you don’t work with robots), it will make these intimidating meetings less intimidating.    

As a new employee, nerves play a big role in meetings that involve higher-ups.  Going into one of these meetings, think about why you are truly nervous.  Are you worried about...

  • being asked a certain question? 
  • being wrong? 
  • saying something that makes you sound unintelligent?

All of these causes for nervousness can easily be squashed.  Think about all possible questions and your responses.  If you are voicing your opinion, it cannot, by definition, be wrong because it is an opinion.  A full understanding, through preparation, of your topic will allow you to contribute intelligently to the conversation.  I’ve noticed the presence of higher-ups is really what the cause is of most of the nerves in these meetings.  Them simply being there is enough to scare people.  In those meetings, act like you would as if you were in a meeting with just your manager, whom you should be comfortable with.  Having that mindset will allow you to relax, contribute successfully, and get over your nerves.

And, lastly, higher-up employees were once new employees too.

Meeting Remotely

As we are a digital society, it is often not possible to meet with everyone in person.  This creates the need for a digital solution, remote meetings.  There are two remote meetings methods I am familiar with: phone conference and video conference.  As a new employee, you have surely already participated in both of these at some point, even if it was a video conference with your extended family on Thanksgiving.  Both phone and video conferencing are great tools for creating a smaller community, as they bring people together.  Though there is potential for awkward situations that can raise questions as a new employee:

  • Two or more people start talking at the same time.  They stop at the same time.  Then say “[other person], you go.”  Everyone else on the line sits there awkwardly… The best way to handle this situation, when you are one of the two people talking, is to continue to speak and not stop.  It may seem like you are interrupting, but you are working to keep the flow of the meeting going
  • Someone has their phone on mute when they are expected to be talking.  The mute button is critical for phone and video conferencing, as it ensures optimal audio quality by muting background noise while not talking.  A lot of times people forget to take themselves off mute when they are talking.  This is OK.  Just take yourself off mute and say “Sorry, I was on mute” and keep talking
  • Someone does not have their phone on mute and is having a side conversation.  This is a sin of remote meetings.  There is an expectation that all participants will be focused, which is something that only you, individually, can control.  Having a side conversation not only draws your attention and focus away, but also distracts from everyone else and adds literal noise to the conversation.  Video conferencing helps ensure you are more focused as there is clear visibility into what everyone is doing
  • Your phone cuts out and hangs up.  As a new employee, you may be scrambling to dial back in, as you do not want to get a reputation as someone who just leaves meetings whenever they feel like it.  Technology issues happen.  Accept it.  No one can blame you if your phone cuts out.  Plus you don’t have control over it anyways  

A remote meeting should be treated just the same as an in-person meeting.  Try to keep the flow moving as best you can during these phone or video meetings to reach the meeting objective.

Telling Others “I Don’t Know”

There will be questions you get asked in meetings that you truly do not know the answer to.  It is OK to tell others you do not know the answer and that you will find out and report back.  It is not OK to make up an answer to the question.

There is no shame in not knowing an answer.  It is unrealistic for you to be a walking encyclopedia that knows the answers to every question you may be asked.  Some questions require a bit more thought and research in order to provide an accurate response.  Take advantage of that.

Making up an answer, however, is hugely detrimental to you.  It places you in the habit of making up answers.  That may not impact you right now, but further down the line when the stakes are higher that will come back to haunt you.  Plus, if you are caught making up an answer, it will make you seem like a liar or a careless worker. 

Speaking Up

When I first started my job I was so worried about being wrong or off-base in meetings that I usually wouldn’t say anything.  I would sit back and wait for one of my colleagues to step in because, I assumed, they knew what to say.  What I didn’t understand is there will be a point where I have to contribute, as I am the one who knows the most about the topic.  Sitting in silence is not going to solve your issues or move projects along, plus it just serves as a wall for you to hide behind.

Speaking up in meetings is important to do for a few reasons:

  • It shows others you are engaged
  • It allows you to contribute to the group’s results
  • It gives you ownership of yourself and what you are working on

Showing others you are not afraid to speak up as a new employee and, potentially, make mistakes, is a great trait to have.  You will accelerate your growth and relationships if you start doing this early.  I lost out on this opportunity in my first year at my company because I was hesitant to contribute to conversations in meetings.  As a result, I had to work much harder to show others that I have a voice and am not afraid to share my thoughts and opinions.    

Meeting Agendas

Every meeting must have a meeting agenda in order to truly be effective.  How are you supposed to have an effective meeting if you do not know what you are going to talk about or work towards without an agenda?  When sending out a meeting invite, be sure to include an agenda.  If you receive a meeting invite, be sure to ask for an agenda if one is not present in the meeting invite.  

Here is a meeting agenda template that I use that has worked well:

  • Meeting Purpose: This is the reason why you are meeting
  • Meeting Objective: This is what you will be accomplishing/deciding in the meeting
  • Meeting Agenda: This is a bulleted list of items you will be discussing en route to accomplishing the objective

Using this template allows all meeting participants to have an understanding of what they will be discussing.  And it sets the stage, with a meeting objective, to accomplish a goal, rather than meet just to meet.

Thought Starters

  • What tools do you use to have a successful meeting?
  • What challenges have you faced in having a meeting with a higher up?