Column: Tactics Around the Table

Friday, September 11, 2009
Do you do enough to prepare for important meetings? Sure you may read the required reading and make sure you get there on time, make sure you know who else is coming, but how much effort do you really put into setting yourself up to be the person leading the charge coming out of the meeting?

You know the person I am talking about - the one who gets pulled into other related fora because the puller can sense her grit and determination; the one who people stick around to talk to after the meeting.

I'll be honest, if you don't want to be that person, this column may not be for you. If, however, you do want to be that person and want to take your game to the next level, then you may find some of what I am about to share useful. Furthermore, I know that this kind of preparatory work isn't warranted for every meeting you go to - it's up to you to decide which ones you should be putting the extra work into.

A word of caution: some of the language here is colloquial but as always, I am sharing this in the spirit of scheming virtuously. I know there is a lot at stake here, and I wouldn't want you to misconstrue my attempt to make this column entertaining as a gross simplification of what could be some very important lessons regarding tactics around the table.

Pre-Meeting Reconnaissance

As with anything, your preparatory work should start before you step into the meeting room. Of course you should read whatever documents are being presented, discussed, etc., but you should also be taking the time to figure out who all the players are around the table - who wrote what, what circles they run in, what they have influence over, how they relate to the other people around the table, and anything about their work history that may be helpful.

I am generally pretty good with keeping most of that type of information in the back of my head, but I am not afraid to bring it in writing to a meeting should I need to verify or contextualize something on the fly. If you choose to come prepared with these types of background materials it should probably look akin to a cheat sheet: small, cryptic, and not easily decipherable by a passerby.

Approach on Arrival

Whether or not you realize it, the dynamic of the meeting is always influenced by the physical arrangement of the meeting space and how people choose to make use of that space. You should aim to use both to your advantage whenever possible. There are a number of ways to do this, but my approach is to be one of the first to arrive. This provides me the opportunity to survey the space, talk to people as they arrive, and determine where I should sit based on how the room is filling up. This is a delicate balance because you don't want to get squeezed out.

You need to make some determinations about who you want to be able to see clearly around the table, who you want to be able to make eye contact with.

This may also give you an opportunity to defuse potentially adversarial situations by adopting a position next to the person you figure may take a contrary position (based on the work you’ve already done about who does what, etc.), or break up teams that are likely to have differences of opinions. Both of these actions can considerably shift the power dynamic away from the table, which easily lends itself to adversarial positions when looking across the table.

Likewise, if you are calling on allies, then you may want to position yourself in a way that calls them in from around the room. This provides people with a sense that your position is well supported around the table. The same amount of support, geographically concentrated at one spot around the table, is much easier to dismiss than support of equal magnitude that comes from all directions.

Mapping the Room

Sit down, draw the table, label the players and map out the interactions. Observe the people as much as the discussion, start to pay attention to body language because writing down exactly what people say is often far less important than writing down a key point and knowing who nodded in quiet agreement, who shook their heads in disagreement, who wrote down notes, and who didn’t.

Over time, these observations can paint a very detailed picture of how business proceeds (or doesn't proceed) around the table, and can provide tremendous insight in to how to maneuver within the relationships (amicable or adversarial) in a way that best ensures that your voice is heard and your opinions considered.

Making a Contribution

Make it good, use everything you have learned to your full advantage, and anticipate the responses of others.

Linger Afterwards

Make sure you are one of the last ones out of the room. Stall if you have to - gather your things slowly, check your blackberry - and allow people to come to you should they desire. Don't be afraid to time your elevator ride down to squeeze in a couple of words with a key person around the table. Often the meeting after the meeting is more important than the meeting itself.

Seek Feedback from Those You Trust

Don't be afraid to ask those you trust how you performed in the meeting: what you could work on, what worked, what didn't. They may be able to provide you with some useful feedback to help you streamline your approach or give you additional intelligence that will inform your actions at future meetings.

Rinse and Repeat

Remember this is an ongoing and iterative process, don't stop learning, applying that knowledge, and scheming virtuously.