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The Art of the Pre-Meeting

Karen Catlin
VP of Engineering

Engineering managers leverage meetings heavily—to coordinate and motivate their team, to gather issues, to provide status updates to leadership, to pitch new ideas on architecture, process, or approaches for solving customer needs. Behind the scenes, there’s a secret weapon to ensure a successful outcome of any kind of meeting. It’s called the pre-meeting, and in this session you'll discover why it's so useful and learn a framework to apply before your next meeting.

I'm Karen Catlin and I am an advocate for women who are working across the tech index. And this is actually my second career. In my first career, I spent about 25 years building software products. I started out as a software engineer, right out of college with my computer science degree. And over time, moved into people management and program management, and then to executive leadership.

And I was a vice president of engineering at Macromedia. If people remember that company and Adobe systems as well. And I'm now in my second career. And I'm an advocate for women because I care about helping women be successful across the tech industry. And as an advocate for women, I'm a leadership coach and I coach mostly women.

Although I also coach some men on ally skills and how to be better allies for women. And I've been doing this for about five years. And in those five years, I think I've coached almost 300 people at this point. And as you can imagine, I see some themes emerge in my coaching. One of these themes is influence my clients come to me and they want to get better at influencing without authority, not telling their team what to get done, but how to influence up and out to be successful.

And when I asked my clients, okay, Explore, like one of the most recent things you've had to do or you've had to influence, let's talk about that. I'll hear. Well, I had an idea and I went to the stakeholder meeting. I pitched my idea and I was not successful. And then I say, well, who did you meet with ahead of time to build support?

Did you have any premiums? And I often get these quizzical looks like the pre-meeting is the secret weapon that no one knows to use. About two days ago, as I was working on this talk, I actually decided I needed to change the title of my talk. So this is not about the art of the pre-meeting. It's actually, pre-meetings a secret weapon for new managers and I'm thrilled to be here today.

Now I think I first kind of understood the power of this secret weapon many years ago when I was reading a book and a book club, and the book we read was endurance William Shackleton. Excuse me, Ernest Shackleton's incredible journey and voyage to the Antarctic. Just show of hands. Are people familiar with Shackleton story?

I'm feeling quite a few of you. In this book and the real life story of Shackleton in the early 19 hundreds, he decided, and he was an Explorer and adventurer. He decided he wanted to go to the Antarctic, cross the Antarctic via the south. So in England where he lived, he started raising capital and he got enough capital in place to acquire his boat, his ship, the endurance, and hire a crew and fill it with all the provisions they were going to need for this journey.

And they set sail in 1914 to go to the Antarctic. Now they got to the Antarctic, but not to the place he wanted to get to. And his ship, the endurance got stuck in the. Prematurely before he reached the landfall he was looking for and the men and Shackleton lived on the endurance from number of months during the winter, they had to wait it out till the summer came so that the ship would be released from the ice.

So they started living on his boat and then eventually the ship started to sink. So they had to move onto the ice flows and they moved all of their provisions, their sleds, their dogs, everything they needed to survive. And so began a two year journey of survival where Shackleton led spoiler alert. He got everybody out safely, but it took him two years of living on that ice and so forth to get to safety.

And he didn't have enough provisions for two years. So they had to start hunting to survive. And on the ice flows in Antarctica, the best thing to hunt was seal. So the men would go out and hunt seal. And there was a problem with hunting seal because seal hunting was dangerous and hard work. The seal meat actually didn't taste very good either.

So anyway, this was not a sustainable solution. And at one point Shackleton realized how unsustainable it was because he started looking at how much seal meat they were consuming. Now a seal would last three men one day. Okay. So one seal, three men, but these sled dogs you see in the spirit. They were consuming three seals a day.

So at some point, Shackleton made this tough decision in his mind, we got to kill the sled dogs. This is not sustainable. And then he started meeting with his crew in small groups by camp. And started talking about how much seal meat they dogs were consuming, how this was hard, work, not sustainable and so forth.

So that after a couple of weeks of doing this, he then made the decision. We have to kill the sled dogs and the men kind of got it. They knew it was coming. They supported it, even though they didn't like the decision. Cause these dogs were there, you know, their pets. And so he did not have a mutiny on his head.

Now fast forward, over a hundred years from Antarctica to today's tech industry and our pre-meetings still a thing. Well, I was talking about a month ago with one of my coaching clients about this talk and I was talking to her about pre-meetings and asked her that question. Do you still think there are thing?

And she said, pre-meetings hell yes, they exist. Everyone is doing them. And no one tells them about you about them when you're a new manager. And some of you may know my coaching client, Tammy Butoh, who's a Dropbox engineer, the manager. So we're going to talk about the secret weapon. That is the pre-meeting right.

And I need all of you to come with me on a little bit of a mindset shift. And we've heard about this in different areas throughout the talks today, but this mindset shift of what got you to this point in your career. Is not going to get you here. What got you here with your great, like coding and debugging and technical skills and made you a great engineering manager is not necessarily, what's going to make you a great engineering leader.

Excuse me. Engineer engineering leader. So what got you here? Ain't going to get you there. And the case in point I had another coaching client we'll call her may and may was a security engineer and a really good security engineer. And her manager was promoted or transferred somewhere in the organization.

And then may was promoted to Brennan the team to run the secure software engineering. And in addition to her responsibilities of running the team, you know, prioritizing work, doing performance management, doing some hiring, she also had to influence up and out. She had to convince engineering managers across the company to fix security bugs in their code.

Right? So she relied on the skills that made her successful as an engineer, she ended up building tool to send out reminders every day to those engineering managers of their open security. And let's just say that was not really effective. So without his hearing yes, there and what may, and pretty much every engineering, new engineering manager needs to embrace is this mindset shift of I'm going to be in more meetings.

I'm going to be more in more meetings to convince people of what to do to influence them and to get them on board with what I need to get done. And whether those meetings are around a conference room table, like this or virtual, it doesn't really matter. Now, some of you may be thinking, but wait a second, this kind of feels manipulative.

It feels kind of political to kind of have to go around and talk to people and convince them it's the right thing to do because after all, they should just be knowing that they should fix their bugs that are security related or support this great idea for a new process or technology or a feature that I'm pitching.

Right. People should just get it. It's the right thing to do. But here's the thing it's not manipulative at all, because we all love to be part of, sort of an inner circle, right? The inner circle, where we're hearing about problems and maybe being asked our opinions and brainstorming on ideas and so forth.

So people were actually fulfilling a connection that people want to have when we meet with them ahead of time and have these pre-meetings. So it's not manipulative. I kind of think it's more just evolved in meeting a basic human need. So let's now move on to talk about some, I'm gonna talk about some scenarios that happen with pre-meetings and some missteps people make as well as some pro tips to counteract those.

So let's use a different example here from another coaching client. We'll call him Dave. I choose Dave just cause it's probably the most popular name for people in engineering right now. Some Dave, Dave ran the intern. The tools team for his company. So the tools that all the engineering teams were using, and that was his team's responsibility.

And at one point, Dave realized, wait, we've got like nine engineering teams. And I think they're using three or four IDs across the teams. There's no standardization. And that's a lot of work for my team because I have to manage the integrations with all the other tools with all these different IDE. So I want to standardize and just one ID.

And Dave knew that to influence up and out. He didn't just have to influence his manager and convince his manager that this one IDE would be the right solution. He had to go to the council of architects at his company. And so the council of architects met on a regular basis. He got on their agenda for an upcoming meeting and went in and pitched his idea.

Well, Dave got the thumbs down. He got the thumbs up. Stan when he pitched the idea of standardized am one IDE because he hadn't socialized the idea ahead of time. And maybe Dave had not done a good job in that meeting of bringing people along on the journey of what the situation was and what the problem was and what the solution was going to be.

But maybe those architects were thinking as they heard about standardizing one idea. Yeah mean, it sounds like a good idea, but this is gonna be a lot of work for me. And I have to go back to my team and convince them that this is the right thing to do, and it's going to take away from feature work and it's going to be just a hassle.

And I don't even know why we're doing this. I don't want it. So I'm going to give it the thumbs down. Right? So we really need to think about socializing, the idea and the pro tip here is of course build support a habit. Now what Dave and I, as I was talking with him, what Dave started saying is like, yeah, Karen, I get it.

And I should socialize the idea of head of time, but that's why they have the meeting. So I can just go and pitch to all of them at once. I don't have time to go meet with 12 different architects and tell them about my idea before the meeting. Right? Well, this is actually another misstep is just assuming they're going to be too busy to meet with you.

So you never even try. And assuming yourself being too busy. So, and I get it. We have a lot of us have calendar whiteout where we're just back to back to back meetings and our calendar, and it is hard to make time to do some of these things. So pro tip number two is target just a few key stakeholders, as you think about who you're going to meet with ahead of time, not all 12 of those architects or whatever the council is that you have to convince, but target just a few people who will provide you with a lot of support in that way.

And I emphasize here, don't forget the curmudgeons. I think every group has a curmudgeon or two, you know, those people who are like, kind of put holes at any new idea that comes up cause they're smarter than you. And they just are kind of ornery, but you really want to be meeting with these chromogens even though the meeting's going to be incredibly uncomfortable because they're the ones you do want to have poke holes in your idea so that you understand a little bit more about how other people might react.

Right. So even though it's uncomfortable, don't forget to. So now Dave's thinking, okay, Karen and we're talking about, I was like, okay, I can talk to just a few key stakeholders. I'll there is a curmudgeon. I know who I should talk to and I'll get their support before the meeting. So I'll, I'll meet with them.

I'll get their support. So here's Ms. Step number three is that Dave went into those, pre-meetings thinking that, okay. I got to convince them that one idea is the right thing to do, because my idea is brilliant. Right? So I'm going to go convince. Well, again, getting back to that inner circle, like people want to be involved with solutions, not just hear what's going to happen.

So the pro tip here is listen to them. Don't go in with a whole baked, fully baked proposal, but perhaps an idea of where you want to go a direction. The basics of what you want to achieve and listen to their feedback, ask questions. What do you expect? It would be the reaction says, how is what I'm doing, how I'm going to help you be successful, hitting your OKR.

What's the reaction to your team going to be, you know, ask questions. And I mentioned here, listen, so they are heard. And what I mean by this is, you know, I think probably many of you have heard about active listening techniques so that you really are hearing people. Just two quick notes on what this might look like.

One is. People love it. When you take notes of the things they're saying, right? Cause you're listening to them and you're taking the time to actually say that was a good point. I'm going to write it down. The other is of course, repeating back to the other person, what you heard. In your own words. So, you know, I heard you say this, this is your concern about this IDE, and I need to accommodate that feedback or whatever that looks like.

And of course, before these meetings, you have to sort of coach yourself. Like I'm not going to get defensive because when we have a brilliant idea and we open it up to feedback, it can be an moment that we're going to feel defensive. So kind of try to check that I'm behind when you are going into these.

So now Dave's thinking, okay, I get it. I'm going to set up those meetings with a few key stakeholders and the curmudgeon I'm going to listen to their hurt. I'll ask a lot of questions and then I'm going to get a lot of feedback. And then miss step number four, which is feeling obliged to take it all. You don't have to take all the feedback.

This is the thing they, people will give you a lot of feedback if you open yourself up. And there's also going to be this feedback, which I like to call the wild we're added feedback while we're at it is it looks like, you know, in this case with the IDE, it's like, well, while we're added and we're replacing the ID and standardizing on one, why don't we also standardize these three other tools that are kind of being, you know, kind of used all over the place in our country.

While we're at it. Let's keep doing this while we're at it. Just layer on additional requirements. And guess what? I think this is usually a stalling technique because the person giving you that feedback doesn't want to do this IDE work or whatever the project is. And they're going to layer on these additional requirements to ensure that you will never get approval and get it off the ground.

So so the pro tip here is you have to trust your gut. When you're taking the feedback. You don't have to take it all. You are not seeding control of the design of your process or your tool or your feature to other people. You're simply trying to make it better. And with trusting your gut. Also, you have to remember that your company has hired you to do a job, and it might be at odds with other people's jobs around the company, but that doesn't mean that your job is less important than other people.

Back to may the security manager, you know, she was chartered with making sure the software across the company was secure and maybe the other engineering managers were chartered with earning a lot of revenue or growth around their product. Right. So she had to figure out how to own her job, do the job she was hired to do and trust her gut about what feedback to take and a big part of trusting your gut.

Is also as you're making decisions like I'm going to ignore that piece of feedback is circled back with the person who gave it to you. So that again, you tell them, I heard you, I'm not going to do it right now. I heard you that you want to standardize those three other tools in our tooling chest, but that's going to be phase two because we're going to focus just on the ID right now.

Okay. So circle back with people. Right. So now Dave and I are having this conversations like, okay, I'm going to talk to some key stakeholders and gonna listen. So I'm hurt. I'm gonna trust my gut and only take the feedback. That makes sense. And then when we go into the big meeting, the architect meeting that they will actually, you know, trust, excuse me, they will actually support me.

And my idea will get approved. Well, that's missed step number five. And that you were saying new people are actually going to remember the conversations you had. And here's the thing. We, especially, the more senior, you get your context switching all day long, going from meeting to meeting, to meeting. And it's not that these people who forget what they talked about with you are stupid.

It's just that they've got so much maybe competing information that they're struggling with or that they're processing. And they may not remember the conversations. Here's what you originally proposed. Here's how you're modifying it to meet their needs. Here's how it's going to help them be successful.

Here's the support I'm counting on from you in the big meeting. Right? So pro tip number five. And I learned this from one of my clients who literally does a huddle before a big meeting. Her little circle, the people that are her stakeholders that she's had the pre-meetings with, she gets them in literally in a circle before the meeting and goes through the game plan.

I'm going to be pitching this idea. Here's how it's going to help your team be successful or be a net positive for the company. And here's the support I'm counting on. Okay. And then they go into the meeting. And of course, if you can't actually get the people together in a circle before going into the meeting, you can do it on a phone call ahead of time.

A quick slack message. Doesn't matter what it is, but remind people of the support you're counting on for them. So that you're successful. Now it's time to wrap this up. And while I hope none of you have to. Anything as hard as influencing other people, that it's a good decision to kill a sled dogs. I certainly hope that you will.

The next time you do have to make an influential decision and influence others, that you can channel this inner Shackleton a little bit and embrace this secret weapon. That is the pre-meeting. And one last thing. So I've coauthored a book.

There we go. It's called present at techies guide to public speaking. And this book is pretty much sort of a soup to nuts kind of experience of how to up your public speaking skills and why you want to be doing more. And it also has a whole bonus chapter on applying all of these techniques for public speaking, like being on a stage like this in a meeting in our tech industry.

And so while I want all of you to embrace the secret weapon, that is the pre-meeting. I also want all of you to get better and up your game in pitching in meetings, for example, and potentially being on stage at next year's calibrate. So my co-op. For VJ Shanker. And I want all of you to have a free copy of our book.

So you can take a picture of this download link. It's also in your programs. If you have one of those and you can go to this link and you can download a free copy of either the e-book or the audible version, as I said, free of charge are our compliments. Yeah, my pleasure. My pleasure.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.