Recently, I was asked to join a senior management meeting that involved people who were much above my pay grade. The host thought my attendance would serve 3 purposes: (1) provide support for tough questions asked regarding my business area, (2) provide me with a good development opportunity / visibility, and (3) (of course as the most junior person in the room) record meeting minutes and action items (When can robots take over this function?).
Where to sit?
I entered the room and scanned about 15 participants in a semi-circle. That guy has 20+ years of experience, and that guy probably has the CEO on speed dial, and then there’s me who joined the company a year ago fresh out of business school. The first question I asked myself was: “Given my support / development / note-taking role, where should I sit?”
At first, I played it shy and tried pulling up a chair at the side. Then, I caught the eye of a familiar face and took the opportunity to catch up by sitting right next to him…which also happened to be the middle of the semi-circle. Nothing like a note-taker in a power seat.
When to speak?
Throughout this multi-day meeting (yes…another issue for another time), I struggled with deciding when to speak and when to keep my trap shut. Fundamentally, the struggle was between my support / note-taking role versus an inclination to assert myself as a competent business leader versus a risk aversion to not look like a babbling idiot.
Learning from this experience and other meetings, I realized that there are a few appropriate and important times to speak up when you’re the most junior person in the room:
1. Speak when spoken to (of course!): In a super senior meeting, these opportunities can be as rare as a faithful NBA player. However, the key is to pay attention and be prepared since there’s nothing that spells F-A-I-L like responding with “Um…sorry….I wasn’t listening. Could you please repeat the question?” You can also prompt someone to ask you a question. For example, if you want to pipe up, then make eye contact with the targeted inquirer, lean forward, and slightly open your mouth like you’re about to speak (and not in a creepy, drooling way).
2. Chime in regarding an issue clearly in your business area / expertise area: This is a bit more challenging since you don’t want to get on a soap box just to show off your knowledge. You should also be the expert in the room. For example, it’s probably not good to lecture your most senior sales guy about sales pipeline when you’re a HR person. Lastly, like pick-up lines, timing and delivery are key! I can’t count the number of times I started in a high pitch voice with “Um…Well…” only to be instantly cut off by someone louder and more confident. Yes, it feels like you just got stuffed in a locker.
3. Pipe up when a decision impacts your business and team: As a meeting participant, I think you have a responsibility to represent and defend your team and their work when other members are not present. For me, this is definitely the trickiest, especially when you have your boss, boss’s boss, and boss’ boss’ boss, etc. all in the same room. These people on the totem pole should be looking out for their team / business. Therefore, your comment should provide a different perspective or more value than what they can offer. I also find that you should pick your battles. Letting a few small fish slide can be worth it if you save your political capital / comment for a big fish (e.g., snagging resources for an important project). My issue here is when I get too worked up. “What do you mean you want our team to scrap 3 month’s worth of work?!? My
kids team worked their behinds off on this.” Yes, mama bear-ing the most senior person in the room probably isn’t the best career move.
4. Break up group think: Our human desire to conform can be so strong that even remarkably smart people can agree to poorly thought-through decisions. If an executive says “let’s jump off a bridge” and the second in command agrees, then probably the rest of the group would go along. I find that this is particularly the case in Asian working cultures where many teams / organizations are still quite hierarchical. Therefore, speaking up to not voice your own opinion, but instead to solicit dissenting opinions of others can add tremendous value in an overall decision-making process.