As a young professional, you’ve probably been in this situation: You’re at a meeting and have something to say but wonder if you’re too junior, inexperienced, or new to speak up. Maybe you’re uncertain about whether what you have to say is actually a good point, or you’re afraid that the people running the meeting don’t really want to hear from you, even if they’ve openly encouraged questions and discussion. Or maybe you’re paralyzed by performance anxiety and worry that if you open your mouth, your voice will shake or you’ll embarrass yourself.
The problem, of course, is that unless you do participate, you won’t catch the attention of your senior colleagues who have the power to bring your career to the next level.
The first thing you should do is gauge your company culture. In some companies, participation from junior staff is essential, a key part of the career development process. In other companies, it might not be a big deal — or might even be actively discouraged. Take the pulse of your office. Get a sense from other junior folks and from your colleagues and mentors about the extent to which participation truly matters and is encouraged, where it is appropriate, and how to be heard effectively. Discern what quality participation looks like in your particular organization and team.
Once you’ve established when speaking up in meetings is helpful, prepare carefully. Keep an eye out for meetings on the horizon and review agendas. If you hear of a meeting that you think you should attend but haven’t been invited to, find out if you can join. (Some organizations are more flexible about this than others.) If you see an opportunity to add an item to an agenda that you’re comfortable discussing, suggest it. When you find a topic that you think you might be able to chime in on, do your homework on the issues involved and develop an informed set of questions or contributions in advance of the meeting.
When the actual meeting rolls around, look for ways to participate meaningfully. Find something to share that will make senior staff not only notice you but also see your potential. Don’t underestimate the experience that you do have, which might very well be pertinent to the situation. You can reference the projects you are currently working on: “I’ve been seeing this topic come up in emails with clients” or “Amy asked about how this affects the bottom line — our team has been working on this very issue, and here is how we resolved it.”
Keep in mind that while you’ll want to impress your senior colleagues, you’ll also want to avoid coming across as arrogant. One way to do this is to lean on evidence and preface what you say with a connection to the work you’ve done, such as, “I read a study about X…” This helps you sound impressive, and if people find it interesting, you can email them the link to the study afterward, which gives you permission to build valuable connections outside the meetings. Another way to show you’re smart, insightful, and prepared is to ask good questions. For example, you can try to clarify certain points for the benefit of others in the room. Sometimes asking the right question can be the best way to show that you understand the issue at hand.
Once the meeting has ended, don’t let that be the end of your commitment. Volunteer to help out with any additional work that comes up during the meeting. For example, if a senior partner wonders about whether there is a market for X, Y, or Z, or if a rival firm is already pursuing work in this area, offer to look into it. Participating in this way is a great way to get involved, get to know key people, show your motivation, and have something important to offer in the next meeting. However, be mindful of internal rivalries and territorialism, especially if the work you’re volunteering for is cross-functional or outside your defined job duties, or if you have a territorial supervisor. If you aren’t sure what you will be able to do, you might at least indicate that you are interested in partnering with another meeting participant for further “offline” conversations.
If there aren’t action items to take on, think about other ways to continue the discussion. After all, meetings are one part of a longer conversation. You might find a senior colleague you’re comfortable with and debrief with them, sharing your input and asking for theirs. This type of conversation can help you gain valuable insight into the political and power dynamics of the company and also show your interest and motivation to your senior colleagues. If this person takes you under their wing, they may be willing to set you up for success in future meetings, for example by providing a convenient entrée for your contribution or by remarking on your relevant expertise to the group.
Meetings can be time-consuming and stressful, but they provide a great opportunity for junior employees to gain knowledge, show their worth, build relationships, and get involved in the critical work of the organization. Don’t let your inexperience be a liability. Do what you can to be active and involved, and it should pay great dividends in the future.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review
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