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Ask Sherry: How to speak up in meetings with senior executives and people

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Hi Sherry, long time reader here with a career question. How do you speak up in meetings with senior people? I’m new to a field (was doing something technical before but now more in the “people skills side” of it) and everyone I interact with has about 10-15 years more experience than me in this. My boss is good at inviting me to senior meetings but I find myself sitting in most of them with nothing to offer (I do my homework beforehand on the people there and on the meeting agenda but the other people there just know so much more than me). I don’t want to become the “meeting wallflower” and I want to contribute something valuable to these things besides just sitting there minuting as I feel that’s my only contribution! On the flip side I don’t want to just gab away about something I’m not totally sure about and make an idiot of myself. What would you do? Just decline the meeting invites?

This is a tough one to answer.

Few thoughts:

I would say that if these meetings are not in your area/jurisdiction and not really relevant to your job or role, you can decline or ask your boss why (s)he thought it was a good idea to invite you to them.

If they don’t add value to your day, and it doesn’t bring you anything useful, don’t attend them. You can get other stuff done during the day.

That said – it sounds like it is a good opportunity to be in a room with senior executives, so that they know you, know your face, name, etc which is a great thing to climb the ladder with… but if you aren’t saying anything or speaking up to add anything of value, this can be a detriment towards you.

I mean, getting face value in these meetings is a powerful career move. Don’t give it up so easily before trying.

I don’t know your job or what you do, so only you can really answer whether you should go to them or not.

From my perspective, I get invited to lots of useless meetings. I tend to not say anything in meeting that have zero relevance to me. I am perfectly fine with being mute even on a call with executives – opening your mouth just to blab annoys the F out of me and I know lots of people who do that, and unfortunately, because they blab about nothing, get promoted. They speak up, they sound like they know what they are saying, and they ask “good” questions (see below for examples).

Personally, I don’t play this game because I don’t have to or want to. I am a freelancer, I could not care less if I get promoted or not, and frankly do not want to be a lead because leading people means trouble and more work for me. Plus I don’t get paid more, so what’s the point?

I only speak up if I have something of value to add and/or I want to help a situation with my past experience and insights. Or if someone is making decisions or encroaching onto my area without having consulted me first.

Depending on the meetings, if you wanted to ask questions and blab without really having any deep knowledge of the situation, you could ask generic questions that everyone asks on your projects.

For me, they are questions like:

  • What is the action plan on getting these items completed on time and on budget? <– nice and blabbily general
  • Have we considered the risks of _______? <– asking THEM to answer, you don’t have to offer anything
  • What is our plan B if this doesn’t work out? <– again, they are the ones who have to answer what the Plan B is, and you come out looking smart

(All taken from Mr. Blab, FYI.)

You could try these generic questions above, but honestly, stay true to yourself. If you aren’t someone who wants to blab and climb the ladder this way, don’t do it.

Is it a question of confidence? Remember, just because they’re older it doesn’t mean they know more than you. Don’t assume anything. You have just as much value to add as the next person, but you need to break through that mental block of — oh my, they have titles and are older than me! I don’t want to sound stupid!

Or, ask your boss to help you on this front and say – Lately, I have gone to these meetings, but have not been able to contribute. I don’t want to just be a wallflower. Where/What can I say or contribute that would best add value in these meetings, from your perspective?

Good luck!

Still have a burning question?

You can ask any question using the form here and all of my previous Ask Sherry posts are here.



  • Catherine

    What a great question!

    I think it’s great that her boss provides her an opportunity and visibility with the senior team. Declining the meeting should only be a last resort.

    I agree with all of Sherry’s suggestions. My only suggestion (which is an expansion of Sherry’s points) to find some common ground with either your boss or even on of the senior members, and use that to figure out how your knowledge and expertise can be helpful. You always want to figure out an angle (and there is one) where you can stand out – no matter your # of years of experience, and showcase that in a way that is authentic to you.

  • Sense

    I was in this position!! I manage a long term scientific project and knew nothing of NZ’s structures and particular areas of concern/interest in my field. I had to go to the meetings because I was the admin for them–I took minutes, organised the venue and coffee and tea and lunch for the bigwigs, etc. At first I was always mute and deferred to the powerful people in the room. I found the topics of conversation very boring, and I couldn’t follow along with what they were talking about.

    Eleven years of that, plus very in-depth experience managing my project, later–and I now can pretty easily follow along with the conversation, I know what my opinions are on issues, I have a pretty good idea about what to say if asked my opinion, when to speak up even when not asked, and I am relatively comfortable doing so (the other people aren’t as scary 11 years later, either :)).

    My big wig meetings happen twice a year. If yours happen more often, you’ll get more comfortable even quicker than I did (and I have extreme social anxiety and get very nervous saying anything in group situations). I also feel quite confident that when it comes time for me to move on from my job, I have some amazing contacts and allies all around NZ in the major organisations. All because of those meetings.

    I say just keep going to the meetings and collecting the face time brownie points. Eventually you WILL know exactly what they are talking about and form opinions about what works or will not work for your organisation/project. It is OK not to say anything at first–you’ll get there eventually, and then reap the rewards.

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