Have you ever worked with someone that has the most valuable time in the world? Someone that counts each precious minute in their presence as if you’re keeping them from something very, very important that they could use to solve world hunger or cure cancer? If you haven’t then you’re a very lucky person indeed. Sadly, almost everyone, especially those in IT, has had the misfortune to be involved with someone whose time is more precious than platinum-plated saffron.
That’s not to say that we should be wasting the time of those we work with. Simple things like being late to meetings or not having your materials prepared are easy ways to help reduce the time of meetings or to make things run smoothly. Those items are common courtesies that should be extended to all the people you meet, from the cashier that takes your order at a fast food establishment to the most powerful people on the planet. No, this is about something deeper and more insidious.
No Time For Hugs
I’ve seen the kind of behavior I’ve described very often in the higher echelons of companies. People that live at the CxO level often have very little time to devote to anything that resembles thought. They’re busy strategizing and figuring out ways to keep the company profitable. They don’t have time to listen to people talk. Talking interrupts their brain functions. They need time to think.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, ask yourself how many times you’ve been told to “simplify” something for a CEO when you present to them (if you’re even given the opportunity). I think this strip from Dilbert explains it succinctly:
The higher up the food chain you go, the simpler it needs to be. But if the CEO is the most important person in the company, how is it that you need to make things easy for them to understand? They aren’t morons, right? They got this job somehow?
The insinuation is that the reason why you need to make it simple for them is because their time is too valuable. Needless talking and discussion takes them away from things that are more important. Like thinking and strategizing. Or something. So, if their time is the most value in the room, what does that say about your time? How does it feel to know that your efforts and research and theorizing are essentially wasted work because your time isn’t as important as the person you’re talking to?
This is even more egregious when you realize that your efforts to summarize something down to the most basic level is often met with a lot of questions about how you determined that conclusion. In essence, all the hard work you did to simplify your statements is undone because someone wants you to justify why you go to that conclusion. You know, the kinds of details you would have given in a presentation if you’d been given the time to explain!
Solution: Five Minute Meetings
Okay, so I know I’m going to get flack for this one. Everyone has the solution the meeting overload problem. Standup meetings, team catch ups, some other kind of crazy treadmill conference calls. But the real way to reduce your meeting stress is to show people how valuable time is for everyone. Not just them.
My solution: All meetings with CxO level people are now five minutes long. Period. End of story. You get to walk in, give your statement, and you walk out. No questions. No long Q&A. Just your conclusions. You say what you have to say and move on.
Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? And that’s kind of the point. When you are forced to boil your premise down to something like the Dilbert smiley face above, you’re doing yourself a disservice. All the detail and nuance goes right out the window. The only way you get to bring it back out is if someone in the room starts asking questions. And if you don’t give enough detail they almost always will. Which defeats the purpose of boiling it down in the first place!
Instead, push it back on the CxOs with the most valuable time. Make them see how hard you work. By refusing to answer any of their follow up questions. You see, if their time is so valuable, you need to show them how much you respect it. If they have follow up questions or require more details, they need to write all those interrogatories down in an email or an action item list and send it to you so you can get it done on your time. Make them wait for the answers. Because then they’ll see that this idea that their time is valuable is just an illusion.
It sounds awfully presumptuous of me to say that we need to waste the time the C-level suite. But a little bit of pushback goes a long way. Imagine how furious they’ll be when you walk out of the meeting after five minutes and don’t answer a single question. How dare this knowledge worker not bend their calendar to my desire to learn more?!? It’s ridiculous!
How about wondering how ridiculous it is for this person to limit your time? Or to not know anything ahead of time about the topic of discussion? Imagine telling someone to wait until you’re ready to talk to them after a meeting starts because you are more important than they are! The nerve!
However, once you stick to your plan a few times the people in the room will understand that meetings about topics should be as long as they need to be. And you should be given enough time to explain up front instead of talking for five minutes and getting interrupted with a thousand questions that you were prepared to answer anyway if they’d just given you the chance to present!
Watch how your meetings transform from interrogation scenes to actual presentations with discussions. Instead of only getting five minutes to talk you’ll be accorded all the time you need to fill in the details. Maybe you only needed ten minutes in the first place. But the idea is that now your time and expertise is just as valuable as everyone else on the team, from the bottom all the way to the top.
There needs to be an obligatory “no everyone is like this” disclaimer. I’ve met some very accommodating executives. And I’ve also met some knowledge workers that can’t present their way out of a paper bag. But the way to fix those issues is to make them get better at giving info and at listening to presentations. The way is not to artificially limit time to make yourself seem more important. When you give your people the time they need to get you the info you need, you’ll find that they are going to answer the questions you have a lot quicker than waiting with dread as the CEO takes the time to think about what they were going to be told anyway.