If you call a meeting and no one attends, was anything accomplished? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert deconstructs a fouled-up meeting invite for some poignant leadership lessons.
I can forgive a lot of shortcomings in a boss or a co-worker. Clumsy interpersonal skills? No worries. Administrative perfectionist? That’s fine. Trouble staying awake in meetings? I feel ya, mate. But bullying? The deliberate and cruel application of one’s power to wilfully inflict fear, suffering or humiliation on another person? No, that doesn’t play with me. I don’t give a damn how much pressure you’re under; once you start taking your frustrations out on your people, I’m done with you. I loathe bullies in all forms, but most of all I despise those workplace berks who leverage their leadership billet as a license to abuse the people entrusted to their care. I try to be a forgiving person, but I can’t muster the grace to find a shred of forgiveness for cubicle farm ogres.
Unfortunately, I’ve worked with a great many of those jerks over the years. One in particular came to mind this morning as I was reviewing my inbox. Bob’s tenure as the senior director over our company’s back office functions proved to be a textbook example of how to irreversibly ruin your working relationship with all of your subordinates. I could probably write an entire leadership studies book about this fool’s tenure. For today, though, I want to focus on one of Bob’s abusive habits that can serve a stellar lesson on how not to manage people.
This particular incident took place on an early summer’s afternoon. For context’s sake, we’d been experiencing a rash of data switch failures. We’d dropped a building on our campus earlier that day, and we’d committed the last of our operational spares bring it back online. Right before lunch, I found out that our warranty provider wasn’t going to ship us our replacement switches overnight as our contract stipulated; so, we found ourselves in a messy position. We needed spares because we were experiencing switch failures every week, and we couldn’t afford to wait the normal three months for contracting to buy us brand new units. We had to either fix the problem, or else we’d have to find a way to get our warranty servicer to live up to its obligations. This was a big deal.
Things were tense enough that I called an emergency meeting for all of my infrastructure and procurement leads right after lunch. I couldn’t use my own conference room (I think we’d loaned it out to another department), so I asked Bob’s secretary if we could borrow his. His executive boardroom was only used for one to two hours total per week, and it was right next door. Bob’s secretary cheerfully reserved it for us, so I sent an Exchange meeting invite to all of my key people telling them exactly where to be as soon as they got back from lunch.
As planned, I unlocked the executive boardroom at one sharp. To be safe, I asked one of my senior managers to run downstairs to the production floor and let all of the attendees know about the meeting just in case they hadn’t checked their inbox for my invite. He was back in ten minutes with all of the people that we needed, and we started brainstorming our mitigation options.
About 40 minutes into our discussion, we heard the stairwell door slam in the hall outside. Senior director Bob stomped by our open door on his way back to his palatial office suite, clearly agitated about something. We heard the door at the end of the corridor open, then some more stomping, and suddenly Bob was looming in our conference room doorway with a milk-curdling sneer.
‘Why weren’t you in the fnord meeting just now?’ he interrupted us, glaring at me specifically. My people went silent, surprised by Bob’s incivility. 
‘Mmmm… what meeting?’ I asked.
‘The fnord meeting!’ he repeated. ‘I needed you in there to justify our expenditures to the CEO and CFO!’
‘I’m sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know that there was a fnord meeting scheduled. When I put this one on the calendar, I didn’t see a conflict…’
Bob cut me off with a violent hand gesture. ‘I left you a voicemail 20 minutes ago telling you to be in the CEO’s suite!’
I blinked. I remember thinking that Bob was probably upset about something else and was venting his spleen at me because he didn’t dare act like this in front of the executives. I paused, then apologized again. ‘I’m sorry, Bob. I’ve been here in this meeting since one o’clock. I haven’t been back to my office to notice a new voicemail since noon.’
‘That’s no excuse!’ Bob snapped. ‘You need to be accessible 24 hours a day. The rest of us all carry BlackBerrys so that we can be reached at any time, and you have… whatever that is!’
I bit back a sigh. I despised BlackBerry handsets; Bob knew that I was dead set against our company using them and that I was actively testing alternative platforms. I tapped my company Compaq iPaq phone/PDA sitting on the table. ‘I do have a mobile phone, Bob. It gets company e-mail. I didn’t check it for new messages during our meeting because we’ve been discussing the switch failure problem…’
‘I don’t care!’ Bob shouted, turning a bit red. ‘That thing is stupid and I want it gone. You’ll get a BlackBerry like everyone else on my team and you won’t ever embarrass me like this again.’
The room was dead silent, save for Bob’s hyperventilating. I swallowed my fervent desire to bludgeon Bob senseless with a wireless keyboard. I glanced at my people, and saw that they were petrified by what was unfolding. I smiled and promised Bob that I’d order a new BlackBerry handset before close-of-business that day and asked if there was anything that I could do to help with the fnord problem. Bob said nothing, glowered at me again, and stomped off in righteous fury.
I told my lads to get back to work. We weren’t going to accomplish anything else after Bob’s tirade. As I’d promised, I went to my office and filled out a new kit request for a bloody BlackBerry. Ugh.
Bob did several reprehensible things in that encounter that can serve as good lessons-learned on how to maximize your reputation as an office prat:
First, he’d asked a subordinate to attend a meeting minutes before it had started – via an e-mail. I’d called a short-notice meeting too, but I understood that my techs might not have gotten my message. That’s why I sent a runner around to ensure that my people knew. Bob simply fired a message off from his BlackBerry and assumed that I’d be glued to my CRT, awaiting word from his imperial majesty that he needed a grape peeled. That was foolish assumption.
Second, when I didn’t acknowledge his e-mail, Bob called my desk phone… and stopped when he didn’t get a response. Bob had my mobile number. Logically, if I wasn’t in my office, it meant that I was somewhere else on our sprawling, multi-building campus. All Bob needed to do was to call me directly and let me know that something had come up. Easy-peasy. Or, Bob could have rung his secretary who (a) could have done all the running around for him, (b) was stationed eight steps from my location, and (c) knew exactly where I was since she’d booked our meeting space.
Third, Bob could have sent me a bloody meeting invitation instead of a simple e-mail. Even back then, Microsoft Exchange was pretty darned good at these things: you entered your meeting’s name, location, and start-time, and then added user names to the invite. As soon as you sent it, it’d show up in all of the attendees’ inboxes. By default, the attendees’ PCs and PDAs would all sound an alert chime before the event kicked off. Had Bob done that, my iPaq would have dinged loudly. I’d have looked at it, would have seen that a new meeting had come up, and would have pressed the button acknowledging that I both knew about the appointment and that I was on my way. Again, easy.
Heck, Bob could have simply looked at my online calendar in Exchange – he had systems permissions to do that. Once glance at my 1-2pm time slot would have showed him exactly where I was and what I was up to. He’d have known where and how best to contact me.
But our dear Bob didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he half-arsed the meeting notification, and then gave up immediately. Very poor showing on his part. Perhaps he was just stressed out because he was unprepared for the fnord meeting, and because the CEO was giving him a hard time. The ‘why’ factor isn’t an acceptable excuse for how he handed things, though.
When Bob interjected himself into our meeting, he acted more like a petulant toddler than like a leader. His temper tantrum was unwarranted, unprofessional, and prejudicial to good order and discipline for everyone that witnessed it – and for everyone who heard about it afterwards.
The mature way to have handled the encounter would have been to focus on the actual problem (ie., why didn’t you attend my meeting) rather than to unproductively vent his spleen. A few quick questions would have made it clear that a last-minute e-mail wasn’t a good way to get my attention. Acknowledging that he’d only called my desk line instead of my mobile could have earned him empathy from the crowd – it would have showed that he was human, and therefore capable of making innocent mistakes. A simple commitment from him to use more effective notification measures the next time would have earned him respect, admiration, and good cheer from his employees… and it would have cost him nothing.
But what if a bollocking was truly warranted? Had that was the case, then the right way to have gone about it would have been to address it dispassionately while in public. ‘Hubert, you just missed a meeting that was very important. Come to my office right now so that we can discuss it.’ That would have gotten the message across for the general audience. He then could have done his ranting behind closed doors to his heart’s content without undermining his professional reputation among the line employees.
Unfortunately for everyone – himself included – Bob was a creature of unregulated whims. When he wasn’t terrorizing his staff with his random tantrums, he was condescending to us with his smarmy, little boy sneer. Happy, sad, or mad, he was always a jerk. He could have been the most technically brilliant director in the company (he wasn’t), but his bullying ensured that his staff universally despised him. 
What really sets this incident apart for me is that every single failure on Bob’s part, from screwing up his meeting notification to expressing his frustration, could have been handled gracefully, and also turned into a valuable mentoring opportunity. The goal of managing personnel is to get maximum utility out of your people while they get maximum support out of you. That objective necessitates investing time, attention, and thought in your people to determine where both of you can improve. It requires a leader to evaluate her own work habits to determine where her approaches are falling short. Together, a good leader and a good worker collaborate to improve their job performance for the overall good of the team (and logically, by extension, for the company’s bottom line).
Bob, on the other hand, was one of those aberrant leaders who didn’t give two hoots about the success of the company or about the growth of his people. He was a bit like a mediaeval prince in that respect, spoiled rotten and utterly unconstrained in the pursuit of his baser appetites. In all of the years that I knew him, Bob cared only for his own advancement … and for indulging his lust for others’ suffering. Nothing else.
That being said, Bob was an aberration. His behaviour, though, wasn’t: I’ve encountered far too many decent managers over the years that acted exactly like Bob under comparable circumstances. That is, they used their team tools sub-optimally, and then vented their frustration in their own failure at their subordinates. To me, that’s inexcusable. You’ve almost certainly encountered this situation yourself if you’ve spent any amount of time in the corporate sector.
Here’s how you can significantly decrease the problem of an event attendance failure in your organisation:
- Develop a protocol for scheduling meetings (e.g., we’ll send invites via Exchange or Google Calendar with precise times and locations).
- Set and enforce a standard for each team member to check his or her schedule (e.g., every worker is required to check is or her calendar first thing in the morning, again right after lunch, and before they go home to notice and to respond to meeting invitations).
- Develop a protocol for alerting people to last-minute meetings or event changes (e.g., whenever something changes less than one hour before an event, we’ll designate one team member to text, phone, or track down all of the attendees).
- Develop a notification algorithm for all of your team members (e.g., we’ll call this mobile phone number first, then call this one, and so on. We’ll text before calling, etc.). This will greatly increase the odds of reaching a person on the first try.
- Remember that people are, by design, busy. They don’t sit around, glued to their PC monitors or smart phones waiting for a summons. Workers are supposed to work, and managers are supposed to manage. If they’re doing their job faithfully, then it’s up to you to alert them that you want something new from them. Whatever that is.
 ‘Fnord’ is a nonsense word invented for hacker culture in the Principia Discordia back in 1965. Here, it’s just a placeholder for a real client name that doesn’t need to be associated with a Tarrible Bob story.
 For years, it was a running joke in the company that if Bob’s body was ever found dead in the car park, there’d be no skid marks in front of the corpse – and that it’d be impossible to find anyone in the company without a motive. Bob abused everyone he came into contact with.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.