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Meeting Etiquette


So it happened again… As it has happened many time during my 35+ year career…

But let me set a scene.

We have been called to a meeting. My peer and I walked in and set down. Jill was the countrywide lead for one product and I the other. The finance folks had some questions for us about the assumptions in the latest planning exercise.

Now this was one of those one off exercises that anyone in the corporate world is probably familiar with. Some higher up had asked to stress test certain things in the plan and wanted to extend the plan out a few years. There had been some executive changes and they were trying to understand a few things in the current economic environment. In short, a bit of a “what if” exercise.

But true to this the finance folks were now trying to understand what they had been given so they could explain things when asked. Totally reasonable.

We don’t regularly deal with this group so we started off with the obligatory introductions and niceties.

They laid out their concerns and started asking questions. The questioning started generically. Since Jill and I had coordinated on assumptions, we looked at each other and shrugged. Jill started answering and I chimed in as we bounced answers between us.

As the meeting progressed I started to notice an interesting phenomenon.

As the meeting progressed the finance folks started to direct more questions to me. Even physically shifting in their seats to look at me and turning away from Jill. At first I thought it was my product they were interested input even as the conversation shifted to Jill’s product they kept looking at me with the questions. I would look at Jill perplexed and she would answer, getting clearly more frustrated.

This has happened a lot in my career.

They obviously thought that Jill reported to me. People naturally assume that the guy is in charge. I have seen Senior Vice Presidents get ignored for the guy in the room … even though that guy reports to them!… levels below them!

Finally as this got worse I looked over at Jill and we stopped the meeting and re-introduced ourselves. I emphasized Jill was the lead for her product and I was the lead for the other and completely separate. I underlined that Jill was the expert in her area and they should go directly to Jill for those answers. I also made sure to specifically explain the reporting structure of the department. Jill and I were peers and reported to the same person - who was not present.

It of course got awkward. The Finance folks stumbled. Some more questions were asked.

As questions came I changed how I acted. I would only answer those on my product. The questions that were on Jill’s product I would physically turn to look at Jill. But I would not say a thing. It helped to emphasize her role. General questions I would look at Jill and ask “you want to field that?”. I would only answer if she deferred. Again emphasizing Jill’s equal role.

When the meeting ended there were.. of course… remaining questions. Finance still turned to me to ask when they would get answers. I sighed. She just shook her head. I told them that Jill was the expert on her product line and that Jill and I could coordinate and we would get them something in the timeframe.

I didn’t say I would get them the answers, I said WE would coordinate. In my view, the plural is important. It underscores that equality.

I reached out to Jill after the meeting and apologized. I asked if I had overstepped but that had ticked me off and I felt the need to say something. She was good with everything and was also ticked off. She had encountered this before and appreciated I had said something.

It’s a tricky situation. You don’t want to accidentally put someone on the spot. But you want to make sure they are respected at the same time. You have to measure the situation and the people involved. But generally I have found that doing something is better than not.

And yes it can be awkward. But changing behavior requires awkward sometimes.

Even small things make a difference. Shifting in your seat to use your body position to create space for someone to talk. In virtual meetings, specifically indicate that someone is the expert.

As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

All the best,

Dave Terné

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