What’s my role in this meeting?

As a junior employee, you can expect to play one of three unspoken roles in meetings: 

BE BOTH SEEN AND HEARD. The meetings where you are expected to be both seen and heard are generally smaller, are internal to the team, or involve topics that you’ve been working on. The more work experience you have, the more knowledgeable you are on a certain topic, the less hierarchical a team you work for, and the smaller your meetings are (allowing for the spotlight to be shared among everyone), the more you will have this role in meetings. 

If you are invited to a small meeting about a project you are working on, consider asking your manager if there is anything you should prepare. Sometimes, your manager might even say, “You know what? You should present this. You are more familiar with the details anyway.” And just like that, a new door of opportunity opened up. 

BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD. The meetings where you are expected to be seen but not heard are generally larger in-person meetings or videoconferences that involve more higher-ups, outside clients, or topics outside of your swimlane. You’ll have this role more often if you work in a hierarchical environment where only the higher-ups speak in meetings. In these cases, everyone junior will usually sit quietly, listen, take notes, or speak only if asked. In more-hierarchical workplaces, often the more junior people will sit by the wall or at the end of the table. 

BE NEITHER SEEN NOR HEARD. The meetings where you are expected not to talk and not to be seen are typically conference calls where a higher-up in your organization speaks with a higher-up in another organization. In some cases, you might have two people speaking but a dozen people listening in on mute. 

When this is your role, you may be expected to take notes that you will clean up and send to everyone after the meeting. If you aren’t sure whether you are expected to perform such a role, consider asking your manager. And if you don’t get a chance to ask, recognize patterns in what other coworkers at your level are doing—and mirror them. When you don’t have to do anything but listen, enjoy the show: meetings can be a fun opportunity to read between the people. 

Figure 12-3 shows the three kinds of roles you may have in meetings

No matter the type of meeting or your spoken responsibilities, you can generally expect at least two unspoken responsibilities: to learn (especially if you are new) and to represent your team (especially if you are the only person there from your team). 

Here’s an example of when someone was expected to learn—but didn’t. A merchandising manager at a furniture company once told me about how she kept inviting her associate to negotiation meetings with suppliers. This manager had a certain style of negotiating and expected the associate to take notes and learn. But when the manager wanted the associate to lead the next negotiation, the associate asked, “What do I say?” In the words of this manager, “If you are in the room, I expect you to be learning. Why else did I invite you?!” 

And here’s an example of when someone was expected to represent. A business development representative (BDR) at a technology company once overheard managers from other teams discussing an upcoming cross-departmental meeting. This BDR reported the news back to her manager: “You may already know this, but I heard about a cross-functional go-to-market strategy meeting that I think overlaps with your vacation. I thought you might want to know in case you wanted to have our team represented.” 

It turned out that the manager didn’t know about the meeting and it was, in fact, important. In the end, the manager found a replacement to attend for her—and invited the BDR to attend as well. You never know if your role in a meeting might lead to new opportunities, so don’t be shy about speaking up if you have potentially valuable information.

What’s my one thoughtful comment and one thoughtful question?

If you have time to prepare (and especially if a meeting includes anyone you’d like to impress), consider showing up with at least one thoughtful comment and one thoughtful question. This can be especially helpful if you struggle to think on your feet in meetings.

The word “thoughtful” may sound scary, but it just means that what you say should be important to the discussion and should highlight something missing, problematic, confusing, wrong, or unexpected. What’s considered an “important” idea can depend on the goals of the meeting. If the goal is to make a decision, then any detail that might impact the decision could be important. If the goal is to share information or to reach an understanding, then anything that others might find interesting could be important.

 Sometimes you will receive “prereads”—materials to read before the meeting. Try to read (or at least skim) them; the ingredients you need to cook up a thoughtful comment are buried somewhere in those materials. You can use the following questions to remind yourself of what to look for: 

  • What’s missing? 
  • What’s problematic? 
  • What’s confusing? 
  • What’s wrong? 
  • What’s unexpected? 

Any time you find something in the meeting materials that fits any of the above criteria, try writing it down. Although you may not be expected to speak in meetings when you are new to a team (depending on the culture of your workplace), consider adopting the rule of one thoughtful comment and one thoughtful question anyway. It can’t hurt: Even if you never get to make your comment or ask your question, the more informed you are, the better you will be able to follow the discussion. And the more you practice generating comments and questions, the faster you will get—and the less time you will need to budget for preparing for meetings in the future.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right by Gorick Ng. Copyright 2021 by Gorick Ng. All rights reserved.