In my recent post about meetings in France I promised I’d write a separate post on regular meetings, so here it is. I will say up front that what I’m about to describe is by no means unique to France, and is common to all large companies.
One of the most baffling things I have seen in my career is managers presiding over small teams of less than ten people sitting in the same office needing both a weekly meeting and a weekly report to know what their staff are doing. When I ran a team I knew what they were doing because I wandered around the office talking to them individually; the meetings were purely to discuss common issues or interfaces between two or more people. I would have considered it a failure on my part if I only find out what someone on my team is doing in the weekly meeting. When I inherited a team back in Nigeria the first thing I did was cancel the daily meeting. I was quickly instructed by my line manager to restart them, as they were compulsory.
What I’ve seen from several managers is a regular meeting whereby he or she will sit the entire team around a table and ask each individual, one by one, what they are doing. If the employee is smart he’ll respond with a couple of quick sentences to the effect that everything’s under control, but in France in particular it’s important to show your line manager you’re busier than a barmaid when the USS Nimitz is anchored in the harbour. Therefore, it’s important to list every single activity you have done, or are about to do, up to and including brief phone calls with colleagues. Everything that’s said is diligently typed into a spreadsheet by the manager, often with one finger and excruciatingly slowly. Most of the time the manager has no idea what the subordinate is talking about, so starts to ask questions. This results in the subordinate having to explain the entire history of the project to date, just so his manager can understand. Everyone else has to sit through this in silence. It wouldn’t be so bad if the manager didn’t need half the stuff he was told last week repeated; this is why they are scheduled to last an hour and end up taking two. I once worked out these meetings cost the company around $5k in employee time at prevailing internal charge rates, and decided one day I’d point that out. My manager didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I can only assume he thought having a bunch of middle-aged senior engineers sat around a table playing with their phones while he had lengthy conversations with one individual on a specific topic cost nothing.
There’s a reason for these meetings. A lot of modern managers see their departments as nothing more than a step on the career ladder, a status marker from which they can launch their next move upwards. They have very little interest in the actual running of the department, and many make it plainly obvious they see their team as an inconvenience. This is why they need information repeated to them so often: they have no real interest when you tell them the first time. When I was a manager I reckoned about 70-80% of my time was spent looking downwards, i.e. managing the people below me, and the remainder looking upwards, i.e. dealing with the organisation above me. But a lot of modern corporate managers spend around 95% of their time looking upwards, arselicking their way to the next promotion in pointless meetings, and spend almost no time getting to know their subordinates and managing them effectively. There’s a strong parallel here with how career politicians view their brief, and even the general population: the best way to describe Theresa May’s relationship with the British people is she finds them an inconvenience.
If you don’t interact with your team, and generally hide in your office avoiding them, you have to do something to demonstrate you’re still a manager. This explains their behaviour in meetings which I described in my previous post. But it also means you have no idea what’s going on, and if someone higher up the chain asks and you can’t answer you’re in trouble. Therefore, you need to hold your nose, meet with your team occasionally, and ask each one to explain what they’re doing so you’re prepared for any awkward questions on high. Astonishingly, this is actually considered management in some organisations.