Meetings: How to Skip Them and What to Do When you Can’t

Companies tend to overbook employees with meetings and the higher up the rank you go the more meetings you usually have to attend. A lot has already been said and done in terms of the reduction of the number of the meetings, many jokes and memes have been circulating online talking about the infamous meetings. But the overall state of the meeting situation remains the same. The truth is: meetings are both useless and essential. They are useless because they waste your time when you would rather do something more productive, you are following someone else’s agenda and not getting or giving anything productive or anything of value. On the other hand, they are useful because in order to make decisions people need to meet and talk. As simple as that. It is about a dialogue, it is about a healthy challenge of different stakeholders and it is about developing one or multiple strategies and directions. It is an art to have a productive meeting. No matter how robust and thought out your meeting agenda is, no matter how good your meeting facilitator is –often it will not go as planned. Whenever you have more than one person in the room there are numerous things you need to take into account when planning a meeting, especially if these people are a part of senior management.

In the first couple years of your Finance career, your role in the majority of the meetings will be one of a calculator or an assumptions wiki. Picture a forecast review, a product manager is presenting his numbers and marketing plan to senior management. Your CEO has a quick “what if” question — your job is to provide the calculations for that what if scenario. Even if someone else has done the calculation faster than you — do it anyway because your job is to also validate someone else’ calculations. Do not forget to speak up. The next question from the CEO/CFO could be around the plan assumptions for a particular event or a trigger. You should know the answers to questions like that, as you were the one who put the plan together. Speak up or validate if you are not the first to answer.

What to bring to the meetings:
Always have your computer, your phone (for photos), a big calculator, paper, and a pen. Make it a habit, you never know when you might need any of them. The most obvious things you need to keep in your head: prices, discounts, levels of investments (OPEX), plan and forecast targets and major growth rates. For other details, it is OK to look elsewhere. Have cheat sheets with major indicators printed out and also available on your hard drive. The printed out cheat sheets are especially useful in meetings with “no laptop” policy. I find that Big calculators are great for quick simple calculations. Get one, your iPhone is not as good as a big calculator, plus it makes you look more professional instead of giving the impression that you are checking Facebook.

Skipping meetings:
You need to have some experience on the job before you can assess correctly whether a particular meeting is a waste of your time. So, attend all of them in your first 6 months. Then start prioritizing. Ask yourself: are there parts of the meeting where I can truly help by being there? Are there things that are going to be discussed that could help me do my job better? Will my contribution be valuable to my department, boss/his boss? Can this be done over an email/phone call? If you cannot answer the question — ask the meeting organizer what your role is. And always ask for an agenda.

Once your overall routine on the job is established assess all the regular meetings you are now a part of and see which ones are truly important. Discuss with your manager whether your presence is essential in all of them and try to get out of some of them. If it is a reoccurring meeting instead of skipping all of them try to attend every other one, or take turns with someone else in your department to ensure there is coverage. If people are throwing meetings at your calendar do not accept them blindly. First, have your calendar open but not visible to detail. Book most of your day yourself. Even if you do not have anything in particular planned out, block time on your calendar. Everything takes time — that report you must update, that forecast version etc., block time on your calendar, else others will and you will end up working late nights trying to catch up. In your first few years in Finance, you are working on a maker’s schedule, not a manager schedule.

Never sit in a meeting, especially a long one, without asking any questions or without contributing in any way. If you were not able to get out of the meeting then make it useful to you or make yourself useful to others.

Always have at least one question in mind before you go into meetings. That’s the basic minimum. You will notice that very often questions are being asked just for the sake of asking. This way the asker is establishing his presence, getting noticed and changing the room dynamics. Establish your presence as well. There are no stupid questions (unless you are truly stupid and if you having thoughts whether you are stupid then you are probably not). Though try to ask only relevant questions, be a professional. Say something like: ”Just for me to understand…”. If you do that it means (implicitly) that although everyone else in the room knows the answer you are important enough that they will pause and take the time to bring you up to date. It works. But for this to consistently work your other questions or statements need to bring value to the audience. Your participation is not only about clarifying things for yourself. So, contribute by asking challenging questions, validating calculations, and bringing your unique knowledge of numbers, assumptions, and inputs to the discussion. Sounds like a lot but all of this could amount to only a minute of you speaking in a two-hour long meeting.

When asking questions do not be argumentative. If there is something you disagree with, keep it professional - state your case without the other person feeling like he is being attacked. For example, if someone stated an assumption that is blatantly wrong and you know that for a fact, you can say something along the lines “ this was an assumption for prior plan, forecast, or something that was discussed previously, however, we ended up using assumption XYZ for the final plan”. This way you do not make the other person look like an idiot (even if they deserve to) and you correct the error. Not making others look silly goes for everyone regardless the rank — do not undermine those below you or above you.

When you know the meeting is not important for you but you have to sit there you can do 2 things: 1)make the meeting useful — see if you can stir the direction to the topics that you need to be discussed. 2) If there is senior management in the room — participate, contribute and get noticed. This is your time to shine.

If all else fails, work on your own things. If you can do that in a respectful manner — do it.