How to ace important meetings
Navigate high-stakes meetings with confidence - From preparation to execution
There’s rarely a learning that prevails through all levels of seniority, but this one stood the test for me throughout my professional life.
How to approach meetings you absolutely do not want to fail.
Let’s map it out:
What is an important meeting?
Focus - Before, during, and after
Mitigate risk - Bring your umbrella
Paid subscribers: What are your tactical tips?
An Important Meeting differs from other “important” things in your life in that there is a set time when the meeting happens, and there’s little control that you have over that other than moving it around to another point in time, where the same applies again.
Important in that context means usually there’s something at stake for you.
The more people are involved, the more likely the meeting becomes immovable: you have to perform, whether you feel like it or not at that time.
The opposite of this would be eating something. It’s important, but since it’s not tied to a specific time, you can still do it whenever you feel like it. If you feel sick, you don’t have to or even want to eat.
With meetings, this luxury often falls away, so we have to adjust other dimensions under our control, and there are not that many of them.
And since we talk about “important” meetings, we should talk about what you can do efficiently as a mental model to increase your chance of success, whatever that looks like.
Practical examples of meetings that might be important to you:
A vital performance review coming up for your career with your manager
Budgeting approval for an entire division, you are responsible for requiring the buy-in from other managers
Getting funding from Investors
If it's used sparingly, the following process benefits people who are not natural planners (like me).
Excel where it matters.
Focus - before, during, and after
Sometimes, it’s straightforward what you want to achieve:
I want to get a promotion.
I want to get my budget approved.
I want to get money.
But the above are more general meeting visions, not goals.
Writing down the top three goals for an important meeting beforehand makes sense. Not too many; less is fine if it’s straightforward.
Depending on the meeting it also matters a lot WHEN you write these down. For a performance review 15 minutes before the meeting is too late. It might need to happen weeks before at least.
I will touch on how and when I personally identify those meetings later under “Leah’s checklist.”
Good goals bring you closer to what you want to achieve, but you must be realistic about them. I treat those differently than the regular agenda topics you might use to check meeting progress.
While “I want this promotion” or “We need to get funding” sounds really nice, More granular, realistic step goals make sense:
Goals need to be influenceable. Otherwise, the meeting preparation is not necessary and is purely informative anyway.
In a meeting where a decision is delayed (typical for investor meetings, after the meeting they reconvene and decide afterwards) we want to make sure that we understand exactly what the other party expects during that meeting. Wrong assumptions on our end will cost us a lot because we’ll talk about things that simply won’t matter that much to them.
In a performance review, where you talk with your manager about your performance the decision might be almost immediate but also way before the meeting. Your manager has to think about your performance before and invested time from their side.
Sitting down and thinking about their timeline and what they have to evaluate you on clarifies your goals and the actions you might have to take, but it’s also to tailor your goals to their behavior.
Goals can also deal more specifically with your own shortcomings:
If you tend to get defensive when criticized or don’t listen to people enough before you jump in with solutions, preempt it with a goal that addresses this.
Goal setting examples:
Performance review discussion:
[ ] Set reminders for performance review process timeline (when does the manager have to submit etc.)
[ ] I ensure my manager knows about my achievements throughout this year. I am sending a simple summary of what I did 2 weeks ago. Check one week before the meeting whether they read it.
[ ] Don’t get defensive!
[ ] Clarify the timeline of promotion, salary change, and steps needed for the next level
[ ] Summarize actions from meeting back to manager. Agree to written summary of what I need to move further ahead.
[ ] Start of meeting: Let them explain what a good investment is. Repeat back to them.
[ ] During the meeting: Our ARR and CAC numbers are not great. Preempt that discussion, be transparent, and show an action plan. Nathan warned me that this will need addressing.
[ ] 15 minutes before end: Open for Q&A and nail follow-up actions, including timeline; don’t go over time!
Putting these goals to use
If you are someone like me who likes to take notes during meetings, whether in Notion, Slack, or a piece of paper, make sure these goals are visible on the same medium.
The purpose of them is not to see whether you have reached them but to pull yourself back to your focus constantly. As you take notes, occasionally check whether you’re getting closer to your goals or whether you are getting sidetracked.
This is especially important when emotions are involved; when we get defensive about criticism, valid or not, we start to protect our own feelings by shutting down and losing sight of the bigger picture.
Another good side effect is that if your goals are prepared in advance, you know whether the material that you bring to the meeting sufficiently addresses what you care about.
If you set your goal to discuss the complex topic of critical metrics with an investor, then prove that you thought about it by preparing enough material in case the questions go deep.
Try to address your goals whenever possible first in meetings. We have a nasty habit of running overtime in meetings, and discussing the stuff that matters to you in the last 5 minutes (before lunchtime or other important meetings) is a rookie mistake you don’t want to make.
Mitigate Risks - bring your umbrella.
Surprise and buffer management are there to mitigate risk:
Avoid being surprised
Risk management is critical when we deal with multiple stakeholders in a meeting, especially if they are above us:
Identify and talk to the decision-makers beforehand if you can. This might not always be possible, but the reassurance that you will bring in broad strokes to a meeting is a worthwhile investment in a short chat message.
“Hey x, I plan to bring to our meeting <insert summary> next week. Is this what you’re expecting?”
It sounds all very basic, but the things that hurt me the most in meetings was when I assumed I was aligned with someone, when I wasn’t.
Not every leader will give you this much time beforehand, but asking this simple question doesn’t hurt. It also helps them to sneak in last-minute requests that they didn’t think about too much.
That’s a good thing, you want that extra request before, not during a meeting.
Always assume misalignment. It costs you very little to ensure you’re 100% on the same page with someone. It doesn’t mean that you agree on a difficult decision, but at least you’re talking the same language and expectations are towards the same thing.
It also helps to surface what their most contentious points are beforehand. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.
This reduces the risk of you getting surprised negatively.
Avoid surprising others
You want to deliver especially bad news proactively to people. It should be no surprise to anyone in a group setup when you deliver bad news unless you have a very open company culture. You be the judge.
Otherwise, you risk rash decisions out of an emotional state because you made someone look bad in front of others. If you are failing, for instance, a deadline you promised about an important project, the people affected by it the most should know beforehand (and as soon as possible).
A lot of people don’t do that but spend time justifying themselves. “The dog ate my homework” is not helping. You’re putting people in a tough spot before others and care more about whose fault it is rather than the outcome. This is the fast track to get on the shitlist of someone.
Give people a chance to be angry beforehand, if necessary, so that they can cool off. This might require a meeting with an individual beforehand or a discussion over Slack, whatever their preferred way of engagement is.
Get it out of the way.
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Make sure you have time free before and after important meetings.
To write summaries if necessary
To collect yourself emotionally
To define and set follow-ups
I never successfully applied this to all my meetings; it’s just too cumbersome, and I hate detailed planning, but if I do it for the two to three meetings that matter to me in a week, it’s easy peasy.
If the other key people in that meeting are having public calendars that you can check do check whether they’re free afterwards.
It should go without saying, it’s not ideal to run over time with meetings you care about. But when they are booked after it’s not only not ideal it’s also impossible.
Manage that time properly in either case by staying on time and bringing the most important things first.
Here’s how I integrate this into my day and Identify important meetings: