Our talents are recognized in the organization, so much so, that in a meeting somewhere among the executives they remember how marvelous we are and invite us to the next meeting to hear our opinions. The meeting is scheduled at a vacant time slot on our calendars later in the week. We arrive at the meeting a few minutes early to which a few people are already present and welcome us into the room with smiles, offer to get us a coffee (okay that’s a real dream), ask about how our project is going and have we progressed against an earlier challenge for which they had provided some thoughtful advice. We take a comfortable empty seat at the table, are able to contribute to some of the small talk about the latest strategies for the business as we were cc’d on an earlier mail thread. The meeting starts by the director in the room providing a brief overview of the topic to be discussed and then we all have an opportunity to contribute our thoughts and ideas, and ask inquiring questions in a friendly supportive manner. The execs decide they’d like me to to own the project, and offer support with their people and resources to get it done, and to not hesitate to call them if we have a question.
Oh, dream on! Like that’s going to happen. Though don’t forget the dream as when you are a successful
leader you can work to encourage your organization to provide a supportive environment like this, but in the meantime here are the potential challenges you’re going to face and some suggestions for how to handle
Can you negotiate the meeting time?
How many times have you had something else planned and someone schedules a meeting over your time, or puts it in late or too early in the day? Now think how many times did you ask if it was possible to change the meeting time? Negotiation is something women don’t do well, and this task is a negotiation. It’s always worth asking if there’s another potential time slot. While you can ask the execs when they might be free, its also useful to work with administrators to get times moved around.
Do you have the right information to be prepared for the meeting?
May be its okay not to prepare because you know it all, though this isn't generally known to be a female position, however pro-actively asking if there’s anything you should be familiar with or take a look at ahead of time can be helpful. Perhaps there are some mail threads or presentations they’re going to assume you’ve seen that you should see ahead of time - ask for this information ahead of time.
Do you enter the room with the attitude of belonging there?
This may sound like an unimportant behavior but it can make a difference and is within your control. When you go to the meeting, walk in with confidence and be ready to engage. There are some actors who say they create their characters from the floor up – they put on the right shoes and figure out how a character would walk and take it from there. So how would a confident trust worthy leader enter a room? Don’t hesitate on the way in or laden yourself down with bags, or laptops. Walk confidently into the room like you belong there –because you DO belong there.
Are you ready for the ‘How’s it going?’question?
While we’d love to think our managers know how to talk to us and show an interest in our work, it doesn’t always happen and they'll often throw us the ‘how’s it going?’ bone question. We should always be prepared to answer that question. You can have responses that range from your thoughts on the company strategy, asking them for their perspective on future based on something you’ve considered, or update on your project. The key is to provide a response that will encourage them to ask another question, or allow you to ask questions about the business. Stop right now - if an senior exec asked you, 'How's it going?' what would you say? Get something prepared now, and be prepared to use it.
Do you take a seat at the table?
If there is a seat at the table, take it and be near where the action is happening. If you don’t it will limit your ability to participate in the conversation – women have enough challenges in getting heard in meetings so if you choose to sit away from the action you’re going to make it harder for you to participate. These are the ways we can painfully hold ourselves back on a daily basis.
Do you speak clearly and directly?
Many women tone down their language to be inclusive, non-judgmental and offer up opinions in the forms of
questions and litter dialog with qualifiers. "I was thinking may be, perhaps we should go forward with the plan Tom was suggesting if we think it's a good idea? unless others have other ideas?" We need to work on speaking in direct sentences and communicating what we mean, and getting it right first time. It takes practice.
Can you handle interruptions and re-track derailments?
There’s always someone in the room who wants to share their opinion, shoot holes in your opinion, or decides any time is an opportunity to show how clever they are. Women are frequently talked over, or when they speak up are not heard, ignored or not responded to, only to have a man say the same thing a minute later and have others engage in dialog. Some techniques for managing this were given in a previous article. It’s important to have a strategy or plan for how to manage it when it happens. Don't be afraid of trying different approaches.
For ideas: You can't be heard if you're not making a noise
Will you step up and take on the new project?
If you want to take on the new project then ask for it, if they ask you say ‘Yes!’ You are not to make suggestions of other people who could do it, or maybe you could do some of it, or you need to review other work items before saying yes. If this is an interesting project that is something you want to do and have career progress potential then seize the day. Women are their own worst enemies in not saying yes to opportunities because they want to be certain they’re good enough, doubt themselves and think someone is better, or don’t want to appear eager. Take a risk, have confidence – DO IT!
For example: Hear Ginny Romerty experience doubting herself, and she's now President and CEO of IBM!
Do you know how to ask for support to get the work done?
Once you have the opportunity to lead the project, we’re not done yet in terms of overcoming challenges. Just because you’ve said yes to the work, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for support to get the work done – do you need people, budget, equipment? What will it take to get the project complete? Start setting the expectations that an ask will be made soon once you’ve thought through the work. Again this is negotiation, women don’t do this well, so if it feels uncomfortable you’re not alone – ask and worst that will happen will be ‘no’.
Have you identified someone who could give you occasional pointers?
If this is a project that you’d benefit from strategizing with someone, ask for help, someone to bounce ideas off. It could be a formal arrangement, or you could informally ask someone to give you some pointers. You don’t have to go it alone and have all the right answers –this is when you strategically move to finding and using mentors, and perhaps even the person who gave you the opportunity could spare a few minutes.
For ideas: Getting what you need - a valuable lesson in using contacts
Will something need to be prioritized to give you time for this?
Cool you’ve landed a new project but what happens to your already full plate? Think of ways to prioritize, delegate, or lower the expectations on the delivery. The last two options here are again ones women struggle with but are essential strategies to use in order to move ahead. You are not letting people done in using any of
these techniques you’re making trade-offs to give the business what it needs AND you’re helping the business take advantage of your talents in new and progressive ways.
It’s no wonder when reviewing this list that our dreams of engaging in a meeting can sometimes turn into a stressful nightmare. However, I hope you realize that every one of the steps above is yours to practice and improve – you have the power to master these skills that can make a difference in how you’re perceived and the opportunities that come your way. So now you’ve been provided with the anatomy of a meeting and where gender comes into play you can roll up your sleeves and start to make progress by picking ONE of these areas to work at. A career is not a sprint but a marathon so you have time to master skills as you move forward. We’ll keep providing ideas on how to master these skills here in future posts.