Winning at meeting

  • Subtitle: The Accidental Mentor
Written by  Posted Date: July 9, 2012
Lovers, not fighters

During the apogee of their empire, boomer lawyers fed their killer instincts by bringing political and military theories to the boardroom and the courtroom. Men and women in dark suits read Sun Tzu’s Art of War on commuter trains, and would be caught staring at their work colleagues like an imperial Chinese general contemplating a likeness of his enemy. They would spout quotations from Mao or Clausewitz about war without bloodshed, use buzzwords like “poison pill clause,” and do things to egg yolks to illustrate their points. In Wall Street, Working Girl, and The Devil Wears Prada, Hollywood provided the white-collar versions of Black Hawk Down.

It’s now 2012. Look around you. How many scheming “warriors” of the business world have survived? The Gordon Gekkos of the world have done their time inside and are now out on parole volunteering as charity fundraisers. Today’s professional business leaders find it hard to square plotting the crushing demise of an adversary or work colleague with rushing home to coach six-year-olds in the neighbourhood soccer league.

Conquest as the underlying philosophy of getting ahead is on the decline. However, the basic organizational structures have remained. What happens in “peacetime?” After times of “war,” technocrats become obsolete, and we witness the rise of consensus-builders.

To master the organization in which you are advancing your career, you must learn skills above and beyond technical knowledge. To get folks to do things, you must provide a vision of who you are and of what you do, and then lead a path forward. Baudrillard said in his tome on the psychology of persuasion, De la séduction, successful interaction with a group involves “a mastery and a strategy of appearances.”

An apex of consensus-builders

Pause for a moment and consider those who reach the top of any industry, and you won’t find anyone who actually manufactures a product, or provides service to the public. In an age of informatics, we love gadgets and make money managing knowledge. But how many of us want our kids to become computer programmers? Exactly. It used to be said that those who can do, and those who can’t teach. When neither canning nor doing matters, successful people look for something else. They meet. And no, there’s no chance of getting a hold of them, because important people are inaccessible (except at the next meeting).

If they are really good, they don’t just attend meetings, they win at meeting. To be good at meeting, you have to recognize that meeting is not a chore in your calendar but a gerund of an active verb. In the acting world, followers of the Method have all learned from legendary theatre coach Ute Hagen that “To act is to do.” Consider this equivalent in the professional business world: To meet is to engage. Unless you engage, you just have people sitting in a room staring between their legs checking their e-mails. Engage them. Don’t give them an opportunity to look down.

Come forward, be clear, lead the way

The following three questions define the structure of almost any kind of meeting. One could fill books on meeting tactics and psychology. For now, learn to ask these questions before every single meeting you attend. You’d be surprised how little awareness there is of these essentials, and how much people appreciate your ability to meet by governing yourself using this method. To illustrate how jurists should be experts at meeting, follow the courtroom examples in italics.

1.    Who are we?

We tend to over-analyze the basic identity question. It is easily confounded with question No. 2. As technocrats, we tend to define ourselves by function. If it’s a partnership meeting, call it that. If we’re including associates or staff lawyers, it’s no longer a partnership meeting. In a bigger law firm, the importance of the who-we-are question is essential to set boundaries. There’s nothing worse for a law firm than duplicated unbillable time.

You’re in a courtroom, tribunal hearing room, or mediation chamber. Who are we? We are jurists (i.e. lawyers and judges).

2.    What do we do?

We meet to decide. It is essential to keep it that way. If we, as a board or committee, roll up our collective sleeves to micromanage the procurement of anything from paper clips to network servers, we are duplicating the job of someone we pay to do that for us.

Because we all approach problems differently, getting a group to solve a problem only works at a high level. Once you get down to the nitty gritty, decisions are harder and meetings get side tracked. Be the one to raise your hand and say, “We’re here to make a decision. If we’re not comfortable with what staff have come up with, let’s send it back to them with questions. If we don’t like the job they’re doing, we get some new people to do it — not us.”

A hearing is a specialized form of meeting. Whatever your instructions are, the purposes of the meeting are to find the truth and to reach a resolution. You are sitting on the right as the plaintiff or mover, or you are sitting on the left as the defendant or respondent. The neutral jurist (judge, arbitrator, mediator) sits in the middle.

Your initial role, and that of your counterpart, is to speak. The judge’s initial role is to listen, to hear. Later on, these roles may be reversed, but a judge speaking first is not observing the purpose of the meeting. If this happens, oblige the judge and keep answering questions until she runs out of questions. Otherwise, you end up in an argument, not a hearing. The “hearing” as a meeting starts then and there.

3.    How are we organized to do it?

Success at meeting is not about getting your way. Rather, it is about ensuring that we, meeting attendees, do what you envision we should be doing. This description of organizational control provides a glimpse into the traditional leadership qualities of lawyers in our communities.

Our ability to get things done at meetings depends on two essential talents for any lawyer: (a) boundless imagination and (b) grip on reality. Mastery of the rules of a meeting such as parliamentary debating rules, corporate bylaws, and rules of court will provide you the ability to control or at least steer the discourse. But without the first two questions, a rules person can become marginalized as a pedant or a troublemaker (a recurrent negative image of lawyers). Leaders, on the other hand, determine who we are, what we do, then navigate how we are organized.

Every rule of a court or tribunal, every rule of evidence, and every tenet of the common law must serve the purpose of the truth-and-resolution purpose of a hearing. Knowing and following the rules allow counsel to use their inventiveness in argument.

Courts and tribunals are not legislatures. Know that, and you’ll figure out the incrementalist nature of the rules by which these bodies organize themselves. It is all about placing markers down to set boundaries.

If your case is clear, placing your case within known boundaries allows for a more certain outcome. If your case is less obvious, get the facts of your case closer to the boundary and argue why the boundaries should be expanded to include your case. Help the decision-maker see the envisioned outcome, and then apply the rules to get her there. Advocacy, like any other meeting skill, is leadership in peacetime.

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Lee Akazaki

Lee Akazaki is a bilingual civil litigator and a partner at Gilbertson Davis Emerson LLP, with a focus on commercial litigation, insurance and professional liability.  A past-president of the Ontario Bar Association, he advocates for a fearless and independent bar and the advancement of women and equity-seeking groups. His blog, leeakazaki.com, is devoted to mentoring new lawyers. He can be reached at lakazaki@gilbertsondavis.com and on Twitter @LeeAkazaki.

Column: The Accidental Mentor

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