There are only four things you can do in a meeting: learn, contribute, decide or waste time. Be clear on what your role is at any given moment and focus on that. If you’re leading, help others learn, contribute or decide. If you’re supporting, support those helping others do those things. This requires you to be present, avoid distracting, and actively engage as appropriate.

Let’s start with some definitions from Merriam-Webster

  • Meeting: an assembly for a common purpose.
  • Learn: to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience.
  • Contribute: to give, supply, or play a significant part in bringing about an end or result.
  • Decide: to choose, select, or judge.
  • Waste: to spend or use carelessly or inefficiently.

Point one is that we’re talking about assemblies. This is not about what you do on your own. It is about what you do in the company of others – which means what you do and say and what you do not do and say impacts them.

If you have the floor, help others learn, contribute and decide.

If others have the floor, support them. This could take the form of actively supporting them. It could involve reacting in a positive way to give them encouragement. It could mean just being there so they and everyone else knows you’re supporting them.

Don’t distract them or hinder them. At one Broadway musical, the band was on stage. They were chatting with each other between numbers. That distracted me, and probably other audience members, from what the actors were doing.

Disneyworld draws distinctions between cast members and guests and on stage and off stage. All Disneyworld employees are considered cast members. Everything is about the show being put on for the guests. The “stage” is any place populated by guests from parking lots to the parks to queues to bathrooms to rides to shows. On stage, cast members must focus on enhancing guests’ experience at all times.

Seems that:

  • Actors on stage delivering lines or songs deserve our attention.
  • Everyone else on stage should be supporting the people delivering, reacting to them, or, at least, not distracting in any way.
  • People not on stage can do whatever they want.

Raises the question how does this apply to normal business interactions. The issue is not the actors delivering or those offstage. The issue is people on stage, but not delivering lines or songs.

  • Practice in and out listening to maximize your own learning. No one can pay attention to anyone else for more than about ten seconds. Your mind’s going to wander. That’s OK. Let it wander out. Then bring it back in and pay attention.
  • Lead with headlines when contributing. We all tell stories. They take time. Give people the headline first and then the story only if they need it.
  • Use the 80/20 rule when deciding. Instead of trying to dot all the “I”s and cross all the “T”s get things 80% right and then evolve as you go.

This gets us right back to being present, avoiding distracting, and actively engaging as appropriate.

Be present

Or not. Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is to stay away. If someone else is leading and they don’t need you there. Stay out of the way and let them lead.

Avoid distracting

Even if you are present, sometimes you still need to stay out of the way. If all you need to do is show up, show up. Be counted. And let the leader lead.

Actively engage as appropriate

When you do engage to support, make sure you’re engaging with the right people in the right way so strengthen the leader’s leadership. This is about reinforcing or complementing their points. It’s not about challenging them in front of others or doing anything that diminishes their position.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #824) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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