As I watched the woman exit the overly air conditioned lobby, I smiled politely, but on the inside I was thinking, “Man, what a waste of time.” We’ve all been there: meetings that were anything but productive with contacts we’ll probably never call again. However, rather than write off such meetings, I have tried to pay attention to some of the things I found least productive in them to ensure that I don’t go out and do them to other people.
This topic has been on my mind because I recently met with the director of outreach at an organization where I volunteer. I actually suggested the meeting because the woman with whom I met was new to the position, and I wanted to keep assisting with fundraising events. However, I knew in the first couple of minutes that the meeting was going to be a waste of my time—and it was. The end result was that I not only felt disrespected in the time and expertise I was (incidentally) giving away for free, I felt less generous about wanting to help the entire organization because they had provided a point of contact who seemed unfamiliar with the culture of business in which you dress to impress, represent the business rather than yourself, and listen before talking—three rules I try to always follow myself.
Dress like you think the other person is important
Name one time that you’ve ever heard someone say, “Wow, that guy showed up wearing a business suit. It was so disrespectful.” You’ve probably never heard someone say that because it rarely happens. The reason why it doesn’t happen is because there remains a tacit understanding in western business culture is that the suit is still king (or queen) when you want to make a strong impression. You can rage against the machine and tout the virtues of a less traditional business culture all you want, but don’t do it when you’re meeting someone for the first time. It may sound simple, but it still amazes me the number of times that people have shown up at meetings in their commuter train sandals or hipster boat shoes with no socks. Overall, it’s fairly straightforward: If someone is worth your time for a meeting then they’re worth your time dressing to let them know that.
Remember the capacity you represent to the outside world
“So, let me go ahead and tell you a little about myself,” was the first sentence the director of outreach started off with during our meeting. I wanted to be polite, but it struck me as odd. This kind of rundown is fine on a first date, but I am not dating you nor undertaking a formal job interview. Leading off by telling me about the last three jobs you had before this one is neither useful nor interesting to me. Unless the role you now fill has changed the way your organization relates to fundraising, I do not want to hear how your career changed after your divorce. In terms of such experiences, I always try to remember that I am representing a particular function or capacity within the company—not myself. When I meet new people, they want to know what my position means for them, not what my personal life looked like prior to their meeting me. Don’t mistake being friendly with being personal.
The world is made up of give-and-take. You’re going to have to give something in order to get something and vice versa. That’s not news to anyone, but for some reason, the skill of giving/getting remains elusive for some. Furthermore, there are many in the business world who often lead with explaining what they want rather than ask what you envision giving. Undoubtedly, the degree to which the ask/tell conversation transpires depends on your business and the nature of the meeting (hostile takeovers don’t want to know what you’re interested in giving them because generally you want to give them nothing), but for most meetings I try to lead by asking about their needs, and then I follow up with my own business interests. It’s almost counter-intuitive, so it takes a lot of practice, but people are more responsive when they feel that they’ve already been heard.
Overall, I summarize the three basic steps for not wasting someone else’s time as Dress—Represent—Ask. There’s nothing earth shattering about these three things really. In fact, they are remarkably straightforward in their simplicity, but you’d be surprised how often they seem to be forgotten in practice.