1. A member of a small, independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces (n);
2. Referring to actions or activities performed in an impromptu way, often without authorization (adj.)
Either definition applies to cool leaders who often become frustrated with the slow, inefficient procedure-laden modes of operation that typify many medium and large-sized organizations. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of cool leaders is that they seem to be able to get things done their way in spite of corporate environments that stymy the efforts of others. In order to accomplish your goal strategies inspired by guerrilla operations may be necessary. In this (purposefully irregular) column I’ll share with you in to a series of tips, tricks, and modes of operation that have proven successful for me and that I’ve honed over twenty years of employment at all levels of a large, inefficient, slow moving, and extraordinarily bureaucratic institution affiliated with the UK Civil Service. In this inaugural column I’ll get right to heart of matters with a perspective on corporate meetings.
Meetings are to corporate leaders what battlefields are to military strategists or what a chessboard is to a grand master: a place not only test one’s skill and tactics against one’s opponents in order to achieve some pre-determined goal, but also to experiment with new approaches, insights, and manoeuvres. The classic guerrilla strategy here is to know the landscape better and in more detail than the other side.
All meetings have an internal dynamic set dominantly by the personalities around the table as well as by the purpose of the meeting. The first thing cool guerrilla leaders need to realize is there is no such thing as an unimportant meeting. It doesn’t matter whether the meeting involves 2 people or 20. It makes no difference whether the topic on the table is the future of the company or the color of the carpet in the lobby. Meetings are where decisions are taken and opinions formed: opinions about you based on what you say and how you say it; opinions that will influence how others around the table will regard what you say at future meetings, and opinions that will leak out of the meeting to influence those throughout the company. Meetings are serious business. They need to be treated seriously.
However, this does not mean the cool leader should adopt an air of extreme seriousness at all corporate meetings. Far from it. Cool leaders exude an air of unruffled comfort, relaxation and humour at all times. Serious points are made most effectively in meetings by gathering the meeting participants close to you intellectually and using a variety of skills to get them to see things your way. This is analogous to positioning your pieces to mutually reinforce one another on a chessboard or to have relief columns standing by close to a battlefield. Anger and/or lack of confidence always go down poorly in meetings because they push people away from you. Information, anecdote, humour and a comfortable personal style will usually go down well because they are attractive; they pull people in toward you and your positions.
Of course, meetings come in all types, sizes and purposes. But the one thing they have in common is information. Meetings are where information is exchanged. Information is the currency of each and every meeting you will attend. Accordingly, if you want to influence the outcome of a meeting, you must come kitted out with information of relevance to the meeting. This means doing your homework before the meeting. Not just knowing what the titles of the agenda items refer to, but knowing what they mean to the corporation, what they mean to its customers, what they mean to the people in your team (who’s interests and/or priorities you are representing) and, most especially, what they mean to the other managers who are sitting around the table. Information is an absolute necessity. If you don’t have information — preferably unique information — to contribute to the meeting you should think twice about attending and about why you don’t have this information.
But is information enough? No it is not. Information is only the basis for attending a meeting. Information gets you in the door. Your goal as a cool leader is not merely to attend the meeting, but to come out of the meeting with something for yourself, your team, and (ideally) for your company. In order to do this you must not only go into the meeting with information. You must also go in with ideas. Ideas are what give information meaning.
You’ve seen this before. Recall the last time you were confronted with a set of seemingly unrelated facts and then someone gave you an idea that revealed the relations between those facts, relations that had eluded you up to that point. Suddenly everything made sense. The picture was resolved. Its message was clear. Recall how attractive that realization was. Naturally every idea you have won’t achieve this level of clarity. But even a partially worked out idea that makes sense of a few facts is better than no idea at all. Moreover, the inherent attractiveness of partially worked out ideas encourages others to contribute their insights, knowledge, experience, and information to yours, and so moves them toward your arguments and point-of-view. In the end it doesn’t even matter whether your original idea is changed. If a consensus around a particular understanding of the information is achieved and/or a course of action agreed the meeting will have been a success and your role in initiating that process remembered – even if only at a subliminal level. Over time, it will be realized that the meetings you attend tend to be successful thereby making your presence at meetings desirable. Senior management will see you in a positive and effective light and colleagues will wonder how you do it.
It all starts with information and ideas. If you have those you can end up owning the meetings you attend irrespective whether you’re the chairperson who called the meeting or just an invited participant. If you don’t have them someone else might, in which case you will have lost an opportunity.
One final point about meetings. No genuinely cool leader likes to sit through meetings with participants who are not up-to-speed with the material under discussion. Anytime you attend a meeting — especially meetings in which you are responsible for one or more items on the agenda — make it a habit to submit a background paper laying out the facts as you see them and, if possible, describing your ideas, proposals and/or recommendations. Doing this will force you to come to grips with the information to hand, to develop your own ideas about it, and to have both fresh in your mind when you walk into the meeting room. In my experience few others will have taken the time to read your paper in detail prior to the meeting, an oversight that, as often as not, will become obvious to their detriment during the course of the meeting. Those who do read your paper will often tip their hand regarding what they think of your information/ideas prior to the meeting which, in turn, will help you in countering or supporting them during the discussion as needs be. Everyone will recognize and note the effort you’ve put into the meeting whether they have read your material and agree with your position(s) or not. Submitting background papers on a regular basis will help you stand out in the crowd of would-be leaders and provide you with a reputation as someone who is on top of their game, brimming with useful ideas, and not to be trifled with, which is exactly the image you want to cultivate. Most importantly, your paper will encourage the meeting (or at least your part of it) to conform to your agenda and go where you want it to go rather than surrendering the initiative to someone else.
Do this for all meetings, even one-to-one meetings with your supervisor. In fact, do it especially for those meetings.
Alvin Tostig is a sometime contributor to this blog.