Thursday, July 20, 2006

What's the deal with...Meetings?!

I’ve been in a lot of meetings in the half decade or so that I’ve been in the working world. There are of course, bad meetings and good meetings. Bad meetings are dastardly affairs, often involving folks wearing turtlenecks talking for the sake of hearing themselves talk. These sorts of meetings are particularly pernicious since nothing gets done. My friends can attest that I’m not morally opposed to “nothing getting done”, but in the past that has resulted in me staying up very very late making sure stuff does eventually get done.

A good meeting, however, can be an excellent experience. You and your team are trying to make an important point, and the entire meeting is a structured exercise to convince your client/customer/partner that your point is correct. You could be convincing them to enter a new market, buy your product, or give you financing. Generally, your “opponent” in the meeting will resist your rhetorical advances and the meeting becomes a drawn out struggle, not unlike a football game. You advance ten yards, then they push you back a few, you keeping pushing on until you score.

In this kind of meeting, you are either a “lineman” or a “quarterback”. A lineman is responsible for all the blocking and tacking that allows you to advance a few yards at a time. The preparation of the materials, the presentation of the facts, and the defense of its validity all falls to the lineman. Being a lineman is a grueling job and one I know quite well.

Al Pacino described what it’s like to be this guy before a big meeting quite well in the movie “Any Given Sunday” [I don't know why Al was talking about meeting etiquette in a movie about football]:

I don't know what to say really. Three minutes till the biggest battle of our professional lives. It all comes down to today. Now either we heal as a team, or we're gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, till we're finished. We're in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here, get the sh*t kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch at a time.
….
On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the f*cking difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying! I'll tell you this - in any fight, its the guy whose willing to die who's gonna win that inch.

Frankly, I get tired just thinking about fighting over all these inches! It’s taxing work. In theory, part of the reason for going to business school is to learn how transform your self from the “lineman” to the “quarterback”. The quarterback is the one who has the power to move the ball, 20, 50 yards at a time. He or she might be the CEO, the Managing Director, the Head of Sales. Sure he/she needs all the blocking and tackling in place, but his job is to throw the Hail Mary when the opportunity presents itself. Throwing this knockout punch (sorry to mix metaphors, well not so sorry) is largely a rhetorical technique that the quarterback has perfected. The quarterback comes in many forms, here are a few:

The pensive oracle
This quarterback thinks he’s so sneaky, but I see through his little act. In a three hour meeting, he’ll spend about two hours staring out the window as if to say, “Hey don’t mind me over here fellows, I’m above the fray”. As the debate reaches its crescendo, he’ll turn to the audience and say, “It seems to me [insert obvious thing that everyone in the room can agree on], perhaps we should [insert simple activity that everyone can agree on]”. Amazingly, this seems to quell everyone in the room and set the course for the last hour. During the last hour of the meeting, our friend the Oracle can take a nap with his eyes open.

The visceral character-attacker
I’ve seen this fellow at work during meetings about personnel when you’re deciding whether to hire a candidate. People will be buzzing about, making arguments about the candidates pro’s and con’s. This guy will inevitably be against the candidate and say something like “I wouldn’t hire this guy to mow my lawn.” [This was actually a real quote!] Everyone in the room is instantly silenced. What do you say to something like that... “Well actually, he was a member of the Outdoors Club so he probably could mow your lawn quite well.” It’s very difficult to rebut these character attacks [I think politicians have noticed this fact].


The assured know-it-all
This guy is at the top of his game when there is a bit of confusion in the room. He’ll let Camp A and Camp B flounder over an issue back and forth until they’ve confused the heck out of each other. At this precise moment, he’ll pounce and say with all the smugness he can muster “Back in my ill-informed youth, I was of the opinion of [Camp A]. However, because of [X,Y,Z] I’ve disabused myself of that notion. [Camp B] is well intentioned, but ultimately misguided because of [X,Y,Z]. In fact, the only possible answer is [C] because of [X,Y,Z]”. The most infuriating thing about this guy is he’s usually right and therefore quite effective.

The hop-up excited and draw on the whiteboard guy
Eureka! This quarterback has had a moment of blinding insight that must be shared with the whole room. He runs to the white board and proudly draws a triangle. That’s it, the answer is a triangle! As the audience bathes in the glow of insight, the quarterback further articulates his point with wild gesticulations, further whipping the audience into a frenzy! Oh my!

The homespun wisdom guy
Ah shucks! This gentleman tries to lull you into a false sense of security by pretending to be illiterate. But don't be fooled, this unfrozen caveman lawyer is smart as a whip. This guy has a lot of good quotes, but my favorite is when he uses the Henry Ford quote, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. This is such a good quote on so many levels. I love you homespun wisdom guy! Down with market research!

Anyhow, these are my business meeting role models. Go figure.

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