Catching Up

“Sorry I am late – was unable to locate this meeting room in time – could I quickly catch up on the discussions so far?” This every day phenomenon halts the progress of many a meeting and puts everything in rewind mode.

The ‘catching up’ syndrome is a sibling to the ‘status update’ malady in corporate life, with equal power to disrupt and, many times, derail the rare phenomenon of forward progress in corporate meetings.

The golden rule in the deployment of this powerful tool is that you cannot be a junior member amongst the attendees – a junior associate in any meeting does not have the privilege of catching up that also goes hand in hand with his/her lack of privilege of coming late to the meeting – a prerequisite that lays the foundation for the need to catch up. Viewed in a positive manner (grin!), this is one of the unofficial perks of going up the executive ladder.

Let us follow the meeting for a few minutes to realize the magnitude of disruption and interruption that can be unleashed:

A meeting of territory managers is under way to determine the change in pricing strategy needed to respond to a recent price war initiated by a competitor. All the past data on sales and prices have been circulated and reviewed before the meeting so that the managers could focus on future actions during the meeting.

Enter their boss, the VP of Sales.

VP, Sales:… (hassled and short of breath) Sorry to be late as I was (choose option-1, option-2,…option-n)… What are we doing here?

Manager-1: We are finalizing our future pricing strategy to respond to recent increase in competition.

VP, Sales: Really?! Wow, I thought we were to talk about marketing campaigns here…anyway, what’s with the prices? I thought we already had the lowest prices in the market.

Manager-2: The detailed price analysis and trends are in the reports circulated last week. Clearly, we are …..

VP, Sales: Sorry guys, I am not up to speed on what is going on. Could I (hurray!) catch up on what has been going on?

Manager-3 (stunned face): Two weeks ago, our competitor cut the prices of many of their SKU’s by 20% and also offered multi-buy discounts. We are……

VP, Sales: Sorry to interrupt you but could you bring up the slides on how we have fared against competition over the past (fill in the blanks) years?

The meeting ends with the VP running off to another meeting to catch up on an unspecified agenda.

To the seasoned practitioner, catching up is limitless in its scope. You don’t need to stay on topic to catch up. For example, during a sales meeting such as the one mentioned above, in addition to asking questions on anything about prices and competition, you could also inquire about new products design; or transportation issues; or recruitment matters that some managers have reported in the past few weeks; even a company picnic that one of the regions had the previous week.

Catching up often has the effect of being a tête-à-tête for one but causes utter disruption for others and the organization. But, hey! Who can bell the cat!

The World of Small Talk

Let us get one thing straight at the beginning – there is nothing ‘small’ about small talk. More often than not, it occupies center stage and is accorded much more importance than the main topic or issue on hand – which it is intended to lead you gently into.

‘How are you?’, ‘How is it going?’ or a more trendy ‘Howdy?’ may not always attract what you are expecting by way of response – a mono-syllable ‘Good’, ‘Fantastic’ or, if you are really lucky, a mere grunt. Your feeble attempt at interacting with an office colleague, with the ill-founded intention of acting sociable, might be the trigger to an extraordinarily elaborate and vivid description, in excruciating detail, of the happenings in the addressee’s life over the past day/week/month/year – as an added bonus, you might also get to know similar details of others who may have had the misfortune to ask the same question ahead of you.

It is agreed that small talk is not everyone’s forte – I have my full sympathy for the hapless souls who struggle to break the ice while interacting with strangers and friends alike, whether at a party or in an office setting. But, on the flip side, those to whom small talk is nothing but second nature have the power, singly and severally, to borrow a legal term, to reduce productivity in the office to statistically insignificant numbers!

Unlike most other activities that have the proverbial time and place to be practiced, small talk is omnipresent and, to the seasoned practitioner, requires no tools of the trade and no preparation time. It is unleashed without notice and hits its mark instantaneously. You could be helping yourself to a cup of water or coffee (while wishing for something stronger) in the break room, when you inadvertently become witness to or get entangled in the intricate details of someone’s child’s birthday party over the weekend or the dinner menu in a restaurant that will be part of a colleague’s vacation festivities next summer.

Extricating (as opposed to the more polite behavior of ‘excusing’) yourself from small talk is a skill that is learnt the hard way and usually after having endured the consequences of not doing so multiple times. Some commonly practiced techniques, with varying degrees of success depending on the practitioner and situation, include responding to nature’s call (assuming that the conversation is not currently taking place in the facility), feigning the onset of an unknown illness, mailing a letter (assuming the current time is close enough to the last mail clearance event for the day) and several variations of these themes. Of course, the universally accepted path to salvation in the corporate world would be the need to go to your next meeting – this is where it really pays to fill your calendar with (real and imaginary) meetings! The last resort to escape from the onslaught of small talk is to rudely walk away – clearly a trade-off between maintaining your {sanity, composure and even health} and being ostracized.

While general small talk around the office can usually be tackled with some personal inconvenience and longer work hours to make up for lost time, the real impact to business occurs at the highest levels in the organization. Here is a snippet of a conversation between the CEO of the company and VP, Procurement of a prospective customer:

CEO: Good Morning! How are you today?

VP: Hi, hanging in there (cough), we have this deadly flu going around town!

CEO: Oh dear, what a shame! My uncle, who lives in your area had the same …….

VP: Yeah, it is strange that even people who have lived here for 20 years are still affected by ……..

(15 minutes later)

CEO: How long have you been there? Where did you live earlier… which college did you go to……

VP: I was at …….

CEO: ……that is really interesting ….. my nephew is also applying to the same School….wonder if you know……

VP: Yes, of course… let me look up my contacts list …….abigail, arnold, arthur… here he is asante…..

(30 minutes later)

CEO: And, by the way, I believe you are asking for a 30% discount on our products. That could be a problem…..

VP: Hi, I really don’t have the time to go into all the numbers now…..why don’t I ask my Manager, Technology Purchases to call someone at your place ……maybe next month, after he is back from vacation. I am sure we can work out something.

CEO: ….I was really hoping to get this order in this quarter……well….. hello … OK…. if you have to go you have to …..catch up later.

So, that is the world we live in – keep it going, but do keep the focus!