During Your Meetings, Who Becomes the Smartest Person in the Room?

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“I don’t trust you, and I certainly don’t value your opinion!”

Is this a message you’d communicate to a vital team member upon whom you rely to make your organization succeed? Of course not, and neither would I.

At least, that’s what I thought until our COO, Jim, came storming into my office one day, red in the face. He pounded his fist on my desk.

“Why do you always do that to Tom?” he demanded to know.

“Huh? Do what?” I asked, stunned by Jim’s rage.

“You always cut him off mid-sentence,” Jim said. “If you keep this up, we are going to lose Tom – and we need him! When you interrupt him like that, he feels like his opinions don’t matter, like he is a second-class member of our team. Do you want to drive him out of here? Because that is exactly where your interruptions will drive Tom – out the door!”

I was in shock – but to be honest, I wasn’t as concerned as I should have been. After all, we had just raised $211 million in expansion capital, described by The Oregonian as the “largest private financing in Oregon history.” This capital raise landed several prominent, nationally recognized investors on my board. I was laser-focused on retaining their confidence, and Tom’s behavior in board meetings was worrying me.

Tom tended to respond to questions from our investors with highly technical and long-winded answers. He was incredibly smart and had the confidence of the entire executive team. Yet, I often squirmed in my seat as he spoke and the eyes of my board members glaze over.

“Come on Tom,” I thought to myself. “These are finance people. Just explain that we have addressed their concerns and their capital is not at risk.”

As the CEO, I set the board agenda, and it was my job to manage the flow of the meeting and ensure we covered the topics I felt were most important. I believed I could not afford Tom’s long, technical detours. Besides, I have a technical background myself, and after cutting Tom short, I would provide our investors with perfectly acceptable answers.

We had a winning strategy, we were growing rapidly, and we were the envy of our competitors. Who would walk away from that career opportunity?

Tom would – and he was one of our most critical officers.

Thanks to Jim’s figurative gut punch, I realized that interrupting Tom fed my need to be the smartest guy in the room. Once I learned to shut up and encourage Tom, he grew into an effective leader and drove constructive dialogue throughout the company and in those board meetings.

MeetingDarrell Cavens, cofounder and CEO of Zulily, experienced a similar journey. He shared with me once the story of a performance review early in his career when his boss said to him, “You’re clearly one of the smartest guys in the room, but you’d be able to get so much more done if you’d just shut up from time to time and listen to what other people have to say.” This challenged Cavens to reconsider his approach to meetings, and he ultimately learned to foster the types of meetings that would best advanced the needs of his organization, rather than his need to be the smartest guy in the room.

Cavens describes this type of high-functioning meeting culture: “There’s a respect for ideas that’s hard to get if you run over the conversation. Folks have been extremely loyal because I truly care about their thoughts. People open up so much more when you sometimes sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut.”

My own need to be the smartest person in the room had conflicted with my desire to create an organizational culture that fostered candid debate and made every participant feel their perspective was valued. But once I learned my lesson from the situation with Tom, the way I ran meetings changed. They became fun, with friendly debates raging and innovative insights flourishing. In meetings, we learned to discover the best in each other and ourselves.

The notion of prioritizing the goals of the organization over the selfish needs of our egos is the core tenant of what I call “Fusion Leadership.” Fusion leaders obsess over how to “fuse” their teams together in service of shared missions or causes. They understand that behaving in ways that evidence their commitment to the mission allows others on their team to connect to the mission. Conversely, if the leader evidences behavior that rewards their selfish interests – like needing to be the smartest person in the room – they communicate the deflating message that they are more committed to themselves than they are the organization’s mission. That message will drive people away from the organization.

Become an active listener. Ask probing questions. Assign an agenda topic to one of the quieter members on your team. As Cavens would say, “Learn to shut up.” Give others permission to debate and innovate. Most importantly, evidence your commitment to the mission.

My confrontation with Jim would ultimately change my approach to how I conducted meetings, though it would take weeks for the lesson to become clear. While I had attended one of the best business schools and, alongside my team, built one of the ten largest companies in our industry, it took me years – and a figurative gut punch from Jim – to learn how to conduct a truly effective meeting.

Dudley R. Slater is coauthor with Steven T. Taylor ofFusion Leadership: Unleashing the Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts.

By Dudley Slater