David F. D’Alessandro alerts us in his book Career Warfare that meetings are the stage on which you build or destroy your brand.
Weekly staff meetings can be particularly dangerous. In effect, you are meeting with the people who will be competing with you for raises and promotions in front of the person who decides how much money you make and whether your career goes up or down or out. Regardless of how polite or how helpful your peers are, the environment is essentially predatory.
So what do you do when the boss turns to you and says, ‘How are things progressing in your department?’ Do you hog the spotlight out of a desire to outshine everyone else? Do you decide that this is the moment to argue for something you really want from the boss, a new direction for your department? Either one would be foolish. Both are contrary to the basic premise of a staff meeting.
Staff meetings are a classic show-and-tell with one purpose only: They are an efficient way for the boss to find out what is going on.
If you decide to use a staff meeting to argue for yourself or for a project, you are turning a meeting designed to serve the boss into something self-serving and you will not be popular for it.
If you are smart, you say the minimum necessary to suggest that you are making progress without being specific, and you make yourself look like a team player by thanking everyone in the room who has given you any help.
Staff meetings are also the wrong occasion to undercut a peer. The last thing the boss wants to see is the kids fighting. Second, if you build a reputation as someone who takes the gloves off at a moment’s notice, you hardly seem circumspect or discreet — qualities you had better attach to your brand if you want the boss to trust you. Third, if you embarrass someone in a meeting, you will make an enemy forever. Fourth, you will create a reputation for treachery even among your better peers.
In the end, organizations are most comfortable with people who are not openly confrontational, but who demonstrate through achievement how much better they are.
The real combat meetings are those that involve money or approval. You need to be prepared for all meetings, especially combat meetings. It is not enough just to gather the information to make your case. You should also do your best to know the people who will be in the room. Who’s smart, who’s not smart. Who’s powerful, who’s not powerful. Who has an agenda, who doesn’t. And you need to be mentally ready for the possibility that someone will try to sabotage your plans.
Of course, the greatest danger in combat meetings is that you will sabotage yourself. This happens when you are either unwilling to admit victory or unwilling to admit defeat.
In the first case, you have basically won your point and the boss has understood what you were arguing for right away and has said, ‘You know what, you’re right. I agree with you.’ But instead of saying a gracious, ‘Thank you,’ some people will go on arguing, either because they haven’t finished using all the points they have prepared or because they decide to bludgeon everybody with their intelligence. People who do this wind up boring their bosses and tempting them to change their minds.
When the boss says, ‘Not only do we not have $4 million for this project, but we think we are going to have to ask you to cut $4 million from your budget,’ you have a choice. Do you go on arguing? Do you take a moral stand? If the decision has truly been made, you will only add some unpleasant attributes to your brand: recalcitrant and difficult.
Or do you accept the loss? Do you say, ‘I get the message. I’ll come back in a week, and I’ll tell you what I can’t cut and what I can and what the consequences are’? In this scenario, something in your boss’s tone tells you not to fight the inevitable, so that is exactly what you say. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your brand is to accept bad news gracefully.