You may not love them, but you can't leave them: Meetings are as much a part of the workplace as performance reviews, watercooler chatter, and issues surrounding the shared fridge. While nobody has quantified the number of mislabeled bologna sandwiches, Accountemps research shows that the average finance leader spends nearly a quarter of his or her time in meetings. In a 40-hour workweek, that's more than an entire workday.
We've written about how to make the most of the meetings you lead, but you can also make the most of your time attending them. "Being an active, productive meeting participant can help boost your reputation around the office and can even raise your visibility with leadership," said Steve Saah, executive director for staffing firm Robert Half Finance and Accounting.
Do your prep work. Be sure to think about the meeting before it starts. Mark your calendar with the correct time and location and gather any paperwork or files you may need. Then, study the agenda and think about what you can add, said Dr. Jennifer Hunt, a physician and a certified leadership coach based in Little Rock, Ark.
"Write down succinct and clean sentences that represent your angle and the value you can bring to the discussion," she said. "Even if you don't use them, this pre-work will help you be more focused during the meeting."
Sit in the right place. Arrive with enough time to choose a seat at the conference room table that positions you to be in the eyeline of the meeting leader and to have a meaningful voice. Avoid the seats along the wall, said Mark McMillion, founder of McMillion Leadership Associates LLC, based in Clarksburg, W.Va., and co-author of Meetings: How to Make Them Effective!
"If you're relevant, you need to be at the table," he said.
Lauren Aldrich, CPA, an audit manager at Heard, McElroy & Vestal LLC in Shreveport, La. and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, said she sits near the facilitator to help her remain engaged while avoiding distractions. There is one spot to avoid, however. "The head of the table should be left open for executives or the meeting leader," Saah said.
Be mindful of how you're perceived. During the meeting, think about how you appear. Sit straight, lean forward, and pay attention to show that you're engaged, McMillion said. He suggested making eye contact with the presenter and taking notes instead of using a laptop or doodling. "It's a digital world, but writing things down" helps move them from short-term to long-term memory, he said.
Also, avoid using your phone for personal matters. "You can tell the difference on someone working on their phone versus texting their friend or updating social media," McMillion said, adding that holding the phone under the table isn't a solution. "You're never secretly looking at your phone," he said. "People know."
Of course, there may be times when you're waiting for an urgent email or phone call. In those cases, "let the meeting organizer know ahead of time," Saah said. "Set your phone on vibrate and put it in your pocket so you can discreetly check any notifications." If you need to have a conversation, quietly exit.
If no one else is eating at a meeting, think twice before doing so. "If it's a working lunch or a brown bag, that's fine," McMillion said. But "if you're chomping down on something and everyone else is not, you're an outlier, and you don't want to be the outlier in that way."
Consider your contributions. Aldrich suggested not being afraid to speak up to help keep the meeting moving along. "Many people are anxious about being the first one to contribute to the conversation," she said. "You don't need to have all the answers, but if you speak up others will likely follow."
However, be sure to keep comments related to the discussion and limit questions to those that create clarity, deepen the conversation, or establish the next steps, McMillion said. If you need to have a lengthy discussion, do that after the meeting, he added. Meanwhile, consider jotting down your thoughts before speaking, said Hunt. "This will help you say things more concisely and keep from rambling," she explained.
Also avoid arguments. If you disagree with a colleague, validate the other person's comment by repeating back what he or she said, and then introduce your viewpoint as another angle of the problem. "This can help keep tension at bay and encourage the conversation to stay productive," Saah said.
Remember that while you may think you're just part of the crowd during meetings, people are paying attention. "Even in large group meetings, your participation matters," Saah said. "Be present and give your full attention to the discussion." In fact, once you learn how to deftly navigate meetings, you may "find yourself looking forward to the next one," Aldrich said.
Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.