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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Lead in a Meeting When You’re Not the Leader

If you view meetings as a necessary evil to suffer through, you might be missing out on the ideal setting to showcase your leadership skills.

As Luann Pendy, vice president of global quality at Medtronic explains, “Meetings are your greatest opportunity to be visible and show your organization what you bring to the table.”

Pendy should know. She oversees quality operations and is charged with ensuring that medical devices for patients worldwide are of the highest quality and reliability. “Meetings are how we get work done,” she continues. But she’s not always the one calling the shots. “I spend most of my time participating in meetings rather than leading meetings. I make it my objective to be a good meeting participant because then leaders want me to come to their meetings to help them.”

You see, to be recognized as an up-and-coming leader, you’ll need to provide evidence that you’re capable of delivering much more than your job description asks for. As Pendy puts it, “You can use your time in meetings to show your effectiveness, your intelligence, and your leadership skills.” It’s hard to showcase that potential when you’re sitting at a workstation, head down, doing your job.

Speaking up and contributing in meetings can be your best opportunity to shift others’ perception of you: from tactician to strategist, from task achiever to change-agent, and from doer to leader. With your teammates, management, and occasionally, key senior leaders in the room, meetings are a tailor-made platform for you to shape how others in your organization perceive you.

To take advantage of that opportunity, here are four of Pendy’s top tips for how to lead in meetings, even when you’re not the meeting leader.

1. Know Your Role

Prior to the meeting, study the agenda and understand your role in the conference. Pendy recommends considering several key questions, like: Why were you invited to the meeting? How does the leader want you to participate? What is the purpose of the meeting? What is expected of you?

Then, deliver beyond those expectations. “It’s very important to make sure that you fulfill the role that’s expected of you,” she adds.

For example, are you there to give a status update from your part of the business? Don’t just say, “Things are going well,” when you can bring facts and data to make your point with greater authority. Instead, say, “Customer satisfaction is up 3% over last month,” and give your analysis of why. Or if you’re coming in as an outside expert (e.g., as a marketing specialist attending an engineering meeting), try to bring a unique perspective, such as being the customers’ champion.

If you don't know your role, ask. At the very least, you’ll earn points for caring.

2. Speak Up

Several years ago, Pendy received feedback that she was perceived as hard to read and quiet in meetings, and, as a result, people found it difficult to work with her.

These comments were eye-opening for Pendy. “I’d go the meetings and be very courteous and respectful,” Pendy explains. “I was listening to what everyone was saying, processing it, and learning,” she said. By doing that, however, some co-workers felt that she wasn’t engaged or interested in what was going on.

“So I changed,” she recounts. She started speaking up and immediately started receiving more positive feedback. “Employees said, ‘Thanks for supporting me.’ My peers said, ‘Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your ideas.’ And the management said, ‘Thanks for leading.’”

Rather than wait for permission or an invitation to speak up, come prepared with the expectation that you will contribute. Brainstorm at least three talking points in advance, and challenge yourself to bring up each point during the meeting. It becomes harder to break into the conversation as a meeting progresses, so speak up early on to establish your “voice” in the room.

And if you don’t have suggestions that add value to the conversation? Speaking up to advocate for a co-worker’s point of view or asking a well thought-out question can go just as far.

3. Find Meeting Mentors

Pendy suggests finding a role model who navigates meetings well. “Find someone within your organization who is very savvy with corporate etiquette and successful at leading and participating in meetings. Observe them to see how their behavior contributes to their success,” she offers. “You’ll learn a lot about your organization’s culture and etiquette.”

For example, figure out how many questions and comments are considered appropriate, and what’s considered over the top. In some corporate cultures, questions are better received outside of the meeting, and if you’re working against that etiquette, you’ll find it difficult to succeed.

Or, for example, let’s say you see a more efficient way for a project timeline to be structured. It helps to know if meeting etiquette dictates that the change be made by group consensus then and there, or if you probably shouldn’t take up meeting time deliberating an issue that could be quickly handled in a private conversation.

By paying close attention to the unwritten and unspoken rules of meeting etiquette, you can lead effectively while avoiding missteps that could damage your reputation.

4. Be Present

If you were included on the meeting invite, you’re expected to be there to contribute. An important part of that is to sit at the table. “Oftentimes, I see junior employees come into a room where there’s a big, long conference table and try to find the chair in the corner away from the table,” said Pendy. “That doesn’t come across as being positive, confident, engaged, and enthused. The way to get a seat at the table is to show up on time or early so there’s an open seat.”

According to Pendy, your posture is important, too. “Put your elbows on the table—something your mother taught you never ever to do at dinner,” she recommends. Surprised? “When you’re in a business meeting, if you’re leaning forward and you’re putting your elbows on the table, it tells the group you’re engaged, interested, and have something to contribute.”

Harvard Business School associate professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk has gathered over 16 million views, popularizing the power pose—the “Wonder Woman” stance that boosts self-confidence while increasing others’ perception of your authority.

According to Cuddy, stand up to speak if possible, with feet comfortably apart, shoulders back, chin up, and expansive arms, so that your body language adds credibility to your message. It works when seated, too; sitting up straight with arms out increases the space you take up, which is a demonstration of power.

Finally, don’t leave the meeting without volunteering to lead something or take on an action item. You’ll guarantee yourself a spot on the agenda in the next meeting.

Photo of meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.