Leaders should think twice before crashing team meetings

Ashley, the new CEO of a tech firm, caught wind that her marketing team was meeting one afternoon when she was unexpectedly in the office. While she hadn’t planned to join the group and didn’t touch base with the team’s leader beforehand about the agenda, she decided to sit in anyway.

Initially, Ashley listened respectfully as the team lead and others in the department discussed their priorities for the marketing plan of a key client. But when an idea surfaced that she disagreed with, the CEO found herself offering up her thoughts about the initiative, causing the group to change direction in midstream. While Ashley’s idea had merit, sharing it in this situation put the group in an awkward situation, since they couldn’t easily dismiss the head of the company’s preference, even though their first plan had been fully vetted and made more sense for this particular client .

What Ashley did in hijacking the direction of the meeting reflects a common practice that I call the “C-suite Swoop.” This happens when a senior-level executive, leader, or boss wants to unexpectedly join a team meeting or phone call. The exec chimes in with a concept that’s completely off-subject, moving the team in a different direction and derailing their efforts.

This isn’t to say that leaders have nothing valuable to contribute to a department meeting—but in order to avoid a C-suite Swoop and add value, they need to participate in a productive way. And if you’re the one leading the meeting, it’s important to know how to gracefully respond if the boss crashes your conference room. Here’s some advice for both company leaders and meeting facilitators to be mindful of when determining the logistics around unannounced meeting participation:

Be Aware

Both leaders and meeting facilitators should recognize that a senior executive’s words hold a lot of weight when they swoop into a meeting. Like a seagull following a boat, others follow the boss’s direction. While this can be a benefit in most leadership capacities, a C-suite Swoop can have a pernicious influence that overshadows the team. With this in mind, it’s important for leaders to understand their own influence, and moderate their participation accordingly. By being self-aware, bosses can avoid capsizing ideas and drowning the vision of individuals in the room who have the most expertise on a topic.

If you’re on the receiving end of a C-suite Swoop, your awareness of the senior leader’s potential power to sway the group away from their own ideas can help prevent it from happening. Respectfully ask for clarity and prioritization from the C-suite leader by saying something like, “Should the team put another item on hold to take up this new priority?”

Watch For a Takeover

As a senior leader, the key to avoiding an unintended C-suite Swoop is to dial it back as needed. Your mere presence in the room as the highest-level executive may cause people to reduce or modify their own participation in the meeting—so it’s important to give cues that you’re taking a backseat. Affirm the team’s decision making and encourage discussion that sticks to their intended plan. Reel in the temptation to play the devil’s advocate by veering off in a different direction than what the team planned, and avoid tangents that muddy their goals, mission, or tasks and send the group into a tailspin.

If you’re the team leader and the boss starts overshadowing the discussion, take back the reins before things go too far afield. Reassert your authorit by informing the leader about the topic at hand; then clarify if the exec would like to contribute. It’s a kind, considerate way to redirect the conversation and regain control without offending them.

Prioritize Respect and Support

What happens when a C-level or other executive has too much stake in taking charge of a meeting that isn’t in their wheelhouse? By mowing down team members’ ideas and being combative to ensure that their own ideas are heard, the leaders risks losing something valuable: the team’s respect and support. There’s an opportunity here—particularly for new leaders—to instead gain the team’s confidence by truly listening to what they are saying. While an old-school tendency of top execs is to drive the discussion from the above, leaders should instead think laterally. Enlist team support by encouraging people to share their ideas, giving others in the room a chance to voice their concerns. To keep perspective, leaders should ask themselves:

  • Why is the group meeting?
  • What drives the team leader and each member of the team?
  • What are the key goals that the team has already identified?

By managing up, meeting facilitators can also prioritize respect and support—with a different twist. By respectfully asking the leader if they can connect afterwards or set up another meeting with the team to enable the group to complete the current agenda, facilitators can help ensure the executive’s future support for the team’s initiatives.

Extend the Timeline

A McKinsey & Co. Report suggests that even if a senior leader has different ideas from the group, they should allow teams to operate using their current model for multiple meetings—around four to six weeks—before suggesting or imposing any changes. By “showing respect for the traditional approach” like this and letting team members shine, leaders can “take charge without taking over.” Senior leaders can use this protracted time period to gather answers to the questions above, gaining clarity on them before deciding whether it makes sense to change the game plan.

Meeting facilitators similarly can leverage a longer timeframe to postpone addressing new input from a C-suite Swoop. Ask the leader for buy-in to “parking lot” their topic until the end of the meeting, noting that the team is under a tight timeline to complete their current objectives.

At the end of the day, there’s an opportunity for senior leaders to leverage participation in a way that helps rather than hinders the process. Meeting facilitators can also play a critical role in supporting their teams by redirecting a swoop before it gets out of hand.

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