Not 'death by meeting', more like 'the meeting of death'

The other day’s Online Dilbert strip provides me the perfect opportunity to write a blog post that I’ve been thinking about the last few days.

I’m not writing about technology today, but about management decisions that I’ve seen have a profound impact on some of the technology companies where I’ve worked. These incidents have been common enough at the places that I’ve worked at that I’ve seen the pattern and the Dilbert strip confirms I haven’t been the only one lucky enough to go through these situations.

The first time I attended the meeting of death was at a small communications firm where I was running the network. The company was in the business of providing communication help and guidance to companies at high risk of public relations disasters, real disasters and everything in between. My coworkers were mostly young (like me at the time), idealistic folks just out of college looking to make a difference in the world. Whether tired of working at unpaid internships for congressional offices or looking to do something else we’d all wound up at a spin doctoring firm. The firm was set up with 3 owner partners and a general manager working between all of us workers and them. One day as we sat waiting for the partners to arrive for a staff meeting the GM started talking about a presentation he’d just seen at a conference. The presentation focused on corporate citizenship; the first slides were each dedicated to companies that had missions to be helpful to the world at large, companies like Ben & Jerry’s (this was pre Unilever sale) and their ilk. He said each company was put on a scale graphing how good their citizenship was. Eventually there was a slide that just listed industries lined up on the bottom of the scale: big tobacco, big chemical manufacturers, heavy industry, etc. His point, which he was giddy about summing up, was that since this was our clientele, the future was bright. Looking around the room, I could immediately see the impact on my coworkers who were crestfallen to be supporting this behavior. Within 12 months the staff had almost completely turned over, only 3 non partners remained. There were other reasons as well, but I haven’t been able to get past the idea that without his anecdote to pass the time, the staff might have hung in through the other incidents.

At another job, there were 2 meetings of death. This was at a telecommunications company after the dotcom bubble burst. At an engineering all hands meeting the VP of HR was trying to describe that she understood that we might be worried about any instability in the company because we had specialized skill sets and a limited (and at the time, bad) market in which to sell them. The way she said it though was to point out that she could go take a job with any company because HR is needed everywhere, while we were stuck where we were. Again, it’s a valid point, but sends the wrong message to the audience.

The second incident happened around the same time. Due to it’s financial situation the company had to buy another business that generated cash flow, but didn’t really provide anything similar to what we did. Soon after the purchase was completed the CEO of the acquired company came to address another Engineering all hands meeting. In the room were many of the engineers responsible for building a worldwide fiber and IP network in just a couple of years. The former CEO and now VP of our company came and told us that what we had done was nothing. We needed to forget it and move on and get back to work. Just like the other stories I recount here, it was a good point. We could not afford to be so hung up on our past achievements that we stopped innovating, we needed to put them behind us and get back to what we were good at. But that isn’t what he said. He said over and over again that what we had done was nothing, that it didn’t matter. Again, the tone and the actual words of the meeting conveyed something very different than the message that our leader was trying to get across.

The exodus wasn’t quite so dramatic that time. The HR VP was correct, we were stuck with our specialized skill sets, but when the market improved people left. Again, I couldn’t ignore the change in morale that I saw after these meetings.

So my message is not revolutionary, it’s quite obvious. If you lead a company, you already know that what you say matters, and you should also know that how you say it matters, but think twice about the audience. Are you, like Dilbert’s CEO, about to destroy your group, your team, your company’s morale just because you’re tone deaf?