Make Your Presence Felt

High-level meetings provide valuable face time with senior management and a chance to establish yourself as one to watch. So why do many women founder? A failure to prepare and practice, says investment banker-turned-writer Aifric Campbell

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, senior female executives are failing “to assert themselves in high-level meetings”. Their voices are “ignored or drowned out”, they “struggle to find a way into the conversation” and are “uncomfortable with conflict”. When a high-ranking subgroup of the 1,100 women surveyed were asked what men could do about this, 38 per cent said men should “ask us direct questions” and “bring us into the discussion”. More startling to me than the passivity of such ladies-in-waiting-style responses is the fact that any high-ranking woman would consider ceding responsibility and control to anyone else. Since “senior female executives” are neither children nor an endangered species, why should they expect to receive special treatment? My problem with these kind of disempowering narratives about women and work – and so often written by women – is that they foster a victim psychology, undermine confidence, encourage a level of introspection that is counter-productive and reinforce the view that workplace problems are gender-specific.

During a 15-year career in investment banking I managed a multinational team of men around the world – I did the 360˚ reviews, negotiated their promotions and bonuses, and I want to make a simple but important observation: men also agonise over their performance in high-level meetings. And no wonder given this is where careers are fast-tracked. Those who want to get ahead will seize any opportunity for face-time with senior management. A single meeting gives you the opportunity to establish yourself as a smart and effective analytical thinker who can identify opportunity, solve problems, handle conflict, build consensus, shift opposition and negotiate your way out of a black hole. When I became the first woman MD on the trading floor at Morgan Stanley, my revenue production was a key factor, but I can unequivocally say that my performance at internal and external high-level meetings was crucial to sealing the deal.

In my experience, those who speak up in high-level meetings are the men and women who are prepared to take risks. Every time you open your mouth in a high-level meeting you advance or stall your career progression. If you opt to be a silent witness or consistently fail to contribute effectively, you must accept that this is likely to severely constrain your upward mobility. You might also ask yourself why you are in the meeting if you are not prepared to speak. Why not accept that it’s normal to be nervous and commit to master the performance through preparation and practice.

Stop being a woman
At a talk, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 (and now the Chair of Council of Imperial College London where I teach), replied to a question about experience as a woman in a male-dominated profession: “I never thought about it.” All of the successful women I have met – in finance, law, science, law enforcement, engineering, advertising, the arts – have one characteristic in common: they are busy getting on with the job. Defining yourself around gender lines conditions your thinking and can lead to dangerous presumptions. If your work environment is predominantly male, pause to consider the simple advantage of visibility. “You’re so lucky,” a male colleague in banking once wistfully remarked to me, “every time you walk into a meeting you get noticed. I’m just another suit.” Focus on the task in hand and think about what’s on the table. What’s the agenda? What’s the deliverable – a decision or a plan? Why are you there? What have you got to say? Are you expected to speak or is it optional? What does the team /organisation need /expect from you? Do you have specialist knowledge/experience? Once you’ve nailed your content, you figure out how to deliver it.

Love the fear
Performance anxiety is a natural response to pressure – whether it’s taking a penalty shot or making an unscripted speech. You are not supposed to feel comfortable! The best advice I’ve ever had about managing performance is from athletes who understand both the physiology of the stress response and the strategies for developing mental toughness. Sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, nausea etc are your body’s automatic response to a situation that puts you on alert. This “fight or flight” adrenaline rush mobilises and energises you to cope with the challenge. The trick is to embrace the pressure and transform your anxiety into positive energy.

Positive visualisation
Imagine success. The footballer pictures the ball in the back of the net, so imagine yourself putting in a great performance. Picture yourself as you leave the meeting room, having done a great job, and savour that moment. Conviction is a key ingredient in building the confidence necessary for successful preparation and execution. You must believe!

Learn how to breathe
Master the art of abdominal breathing – a sure-fire way to remain calm under pressure and a life-skill that should be taught to kids at school. Study the technique on the internet and practice the deep inhale/long slow exhale.

Forget about yourself
“Happiness is loss of self-consciousness,” wrote the writer-analyst Adam Phillips. We are happiest when we are absorbed in a task instead of thinking about ourselves. So focus on content and delivery. This is how you learn to enjoy the preparation and look forward to the occasion.

Ditch the script
Prepare to speak without notes. Speaking unscripted is essential – it shows you are on top of your subject, demonstrates your confidence and, crucially, it gives you more control because you can maintain eye contact. Unscripted speakers may appear unrehearsed but they’re not. Prepare and practice.

Be brief
One powerfully delivered key point has a strong impact, so think short and sweet as an opener. You want to invite questions so you can hold the floor for longer. Formulate your point carefully and practice the unscripted delivery. Speak with conviction and don’t repeat yourself – it’s an insult to your audience’s intelligence. “Don’t be an oxygen thief” was the house rule when I worked on the trading floor, ie don’t hog the airspace. Almost all meetings are too long and most speakers witter on. Aim to be so compelling that no one is checking their smartphone. Stick to the point, don’t fall in love with the sound of your voice and never go over time. And don’t speak for the sake of it – anyone who is smart will see you are time-wasting to snatch face time.

Where is the data?
Whenever possible use evidence, targets, results to support or dismantle a proposal. If there are headline numbers you must know them by heart.

Ask a question
Questions are your most valuable multi-purpose tool: they signal that you are an analytical processor thinker who thinks on your feet. Use questions to kick-start a discussion, open up the floor, dismantle an argument or deflect a criticism.

Turn up the volume
There are few things more frustrating than straining to hear someone, so respect your audience. It is absolutely essential that you are audible. Here’s some advice from a singer about voice projection: When you’re tense you tighten the jaw and draw in the chin – the mouth cavity is reduced, the airwaves constrict and your voice becomes small and nasal. So raise your head and loosen your jaw. Adjust your voice to room size. In a crowded room, step forward or stand up. Pace yourself. Don’t spurt – speaking too fast or in staccato leads to lack of clarity and coherence.

Embrace conflict
Dissent is essential to healthy debate so get comfortable with conflict – better to draw out the opposition so you know their beef. Be prepared to fall out – your job is to be effective, not popular. Confrontational statements are likely to antagonise/alienate eg: “You’re wrong./That won’t work”. Master the art of constructive disagreement by finding the words to disarm with style, eg, “I take your point about X, but I see a real problem with Y.” Don’t take disagreement personally. Remain calm under fire – lose your head and you lose credibility.

Learn the language
“If I catch that client short-selling ahead of one of our deals I will personally rip out his asshole.” This was the first sentence addressed to me, a rookie, in my inaugural meeting with the new divisional head. This wasn’t unusual language for a trading floor, but what I heard in the warning was his fear – of a hedge fund client running amok and a business risk that was not being managed. And there lay opportunity. If I could tame the client I would succeed where others had failed. Language is culture-specific and it establishes you as an insider, so listen carefully to the house style. When I moved from finance to the arts, one of the most difficult challenges was adjusting my communication style. What was effective in a fast-moving, bottom line-focused business was sometimes perceived as abrupt and alienating in a different environment.

Listen and watch
In a room full of people jockeying for face time, attentive listening is key. If you’re fretting about your own performance you’ll miss crucial detail and pass up the opportunity to ask questions and gather information. Look around the room and observe the strategic alliances. Who is bored? Who is impressed? Studying the responses to other speakers gives you a good benchmark.

Check your eyewear
Continual removal of reading glasses is distracting for an audience and enfeebles the speaker, so make the switch to lenses or varifocals. Hands, nails and jewellery are on show when you speak – they will be noticed. Don’t wear anything that jangles in a mid-air gesture or clunks on a tabletop.

Arrive early, sit clever
The pre-meeting warm-up allows you to take the pulse. Depending on what’s on the agenda, and what’s at stake, seek out contact with appropriate colleagues in the days before the meeting. Find an opportunity for an informal chat – impromptu face-to-face contact is powerful in the email age – it’s also unrecorded. Early birds get to choose their seat. Don’t travel in a pack or sit beside your mates. Don’t be a wallflower and don’t form a woman cluster. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells a good story about senior women from the Fed huddling round a side table during coffee break. Aim to sit within the power orbit if you want management to notice you. Junior people keep their distance, seniors and aspirants sit close to the sun.

Leave late 
Fates are sealed and decisions made at the after-meeting so don’t rush for the exit. Linger to observe how the power cluster dissolves into subgroups on the inside track. This is your chance to gather information and forge alliances. It is also the time when you might receive positive feedback from people who otherwise rarely see you. Master the art of confident introduction and take the opportunity to get to know someone new.

Get over it
After-meeting brooding is a waste of energy. Figure out what went wrong. Was it content, delivery, a failure to manage the noise? Own your mistakes without being destroyed by them. Your screw-up seems much bigger to you than to everyone else. Recovery means learning from the experience. If you feel you’ve promised something you can’t deliver or been too heavy-handed with someone, manage the consequences. Backtrack gracefully and confidently and don’t let it fester.

Score yourself
Give yourself marks out of ten after each meeting so you know what to work on. This takes one honest minute. If you have a colleague you trust to give you an objective review, ask for it.

Aifric Campbell is writer and a former Managing Director at Morgan Stanley. Her latest novel is On the Floor, Picador, about €10.

This story appears in the October issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Thursday November 6

Art Appreciation

In a new book, acclaimed Irish authors choose a painting from the National Gallery and explain why it resonates with them. Here, Christine Dwyer Hickey remembers the day her passion for The Goose Girl was ignited

I came across the National Gallery quite by accident when I was about 13 during a long cold spell of school absenteeism. The British call this “playing truant”, and that was the term favoured by the head nun who finally snared me in the corner of her office, snarling and hissing like an angry cat until I broke down and confessed to everything. In those days adults never asked why – you were disobedient and you were a liar and that was that. And so I had “truant’” to add to the long list of my shortcomings.

A more popular term – the one most favoured by practitioners themselves – is “going on the hop” or even, “going on the bounce”. Jolly phrases both, implying many splendid things such as adventure and defiance but above all else, comradeship. There is risk, yes – but with the risk comes a certain euphoria. There are no giddier schoolgirls, than schoolgirls on the bounce.
The word mitching – at least, I have always felt – holds a slightly different meaning. A mitcher is someone who tends to go it alone and does so on a regular – even compulsive basis. The mitcher wanders through cold city streets, no one with whom to share pleasure or risk; to provide company in a café or to sit alongside on a park bench. Mitching is about trudging around waiting for the hours to pass. It’s also about loneliness and fear. Fear of being caught, fear of going to school. Sometimes even fear of going home. In my day I was a champion mitcher.

My parents knew plenty of painters and as a small child I had been in artists’ studios on several occasions. Harry Kernoff had painted a rather gruesome portrait of my mother. And there had been two artistic friends of my father both named Robert, who drank in McDaid’s and had a paint-splattered studio nearby, the air heavy with an exotic scent of oil and white spirits. At one point my father was even a part owner of a small gallery in Monkstown. But for some reason – and this seems strange to think now, I had never been into a gallery and I’m not sure I even knew what a gallery was.

This story appears in the October issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Thursday November 6

Sleeping On The Job

The idea that sleeping less and being plugged in 24/7 is the way to succeed is finally losing credence. Antonia Hart discovers that more, and better sleep, improves your performance at work

Sleep-hacking – learning to get the best possible sleep in the shortest possible time –is the latest tool in the kit of the competitive non-sleeper. You know the one: bed after midnight, but up at five, and boasting about it, as if scraping by on a few hours a night were a badge of honour, proof of being the hardest and most indispensible worker in the company. As if not needing sleep were a kind of superpower gifted only to the hardcore. But lack of sleep ruins concentration, creativity, memory, problem-solving. It makes you intolerant, irritable, stressed, hostile, and more likely to act unethically. That’s a pretty unsettling thought considering you might in a sleep-deprived state be sitting on an interview panel, taking your place at the board table or reviewing a human resources problem on top of the day’s countless minor decisions.

Sleep machismo generates some legendary stats. Like Thatcher, Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi says she only needs four hours’ sleep a night. Marissa Mayer, apparently, put in 130-hour weeks and frequent all-nighters at Google before landing her plum job at Yahoo!, while at Apple, employees start getting emails from CEO Tim Cook at 4.30am.
But last year Sheryl Sandberg carved out enough time from being COO at Facebook (and getting home every evening for a family dinner) to write Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. She didn’t get less sleep as a result, she got more: the Lean In approach, she says, is not about staying up all night and doing everything everyone asks of you, but about making better choices and better decisions. “I try to get between seven and eight hours, a lot more than I got years ago: four to five hours.” It was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who made Sandberg think about the necessity for proper sleep. “For many years I thought the way I would get everything done was to get less sleep. And Arianna, every time I would see her, the first thing she would say was ‘How much sleep are you getting? You need to sleep more’.”

Huffington has taken a refreshing approach to the prevailing culture of sleep machismo. A workaholic herself, she ended up fainting from exhaustion, hitting her desk on the way down, breaking her cheekbone and necessitating stitches under her eyebrow. Since then she’s become an evangelist for sleep, and loses no opportunity to shoot down anyone peddling the notion that the less sleep you get the harder you’re working.

Build in recovery
A few years ago, says life coach Amanda Scott, leadership development was all about how to bring your A game to work, how to be the most effective leader with your talents and personality. “It’s more rounded now. You may be a great leader, but you won’t sustain it without managing yourself, your health, your fitness, without giving time to self-care and building in recovery time. And sleep is a huge part of that.” It’s about balancing energy expenditure and energy recovery, which is what Sligowoman Ursula Devaney, of Energy4Resilience, teaches through her employee resilience and performance management programmes: “And just as I’d never advise anyone to go to work without breakfast, I’d never advise someone to go to work without enough sleep. It affects your emotional, mental and physical energies.” Recovery time is so important to athletes that the National Basketball Association engaged the services of Harvard Medical School’s renowned “sleep doctor”, Charles Czeisler, and he was just as interested in the players’ post-match sleep as in their preparatory seven to nine hours. Czeisler doesn’t just advise sports people, he’s also convinced NASA and the Secret Service that sleep is the third pillar of health, so it’s advice we might think about taking.

This story appears in the October issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Thursday November 6

Don’t Go It Alone

Business coaches are providing top-tier professionals with the support they need to reach their career peak. But as with any successful partnership, the trick is finding the right fit, explains Maggie Armstrong

“Coaching,” says Hannah Carney, business coach and consultant, “is creating a space where people feel listened to, understood, moved forward. It will often veer into the personal, because it is the essence of the person that will drive the business.” Carney breaks the process into three steps: looking at your career as it is, finding out where you want to go, and figuring out how to get there.

Joanna Fullerton, business psychologist at Seven –Psychology at Work, describes coaching as a kind of investigation of the spirit. “The magic of coaching is creating that reflective learning space, where people stop and look inward. What makes you tick, what motivates you, what are your values, when are you at your best? How can we create the conditions for you to flourish? Coaching creates space for you to stop, speak, plan and reinvigorate.” Fullerton says there are two elements necessary for a fruitful experience. First, a desire to learn about yourself. Second, finding the right fit, the correct “chemistry” with your coach.

Jane Maguire (not her real name), a solicitor and mother of two, had a coach recommended to her by a friend after she was headhunted to work for a commercial law firm in Belfast, which although a wonderful opportunity, was not going well. Hearing that this coach had also worked as a lawyer encouraged her to make the call. “Part of me felt that asking someone for help was admitting that I couldn’t do my job,” she says, “but [my coach] immediately reassured me. Even the tone of her voice brought me to a calmer place. Physically, I could feel my body relaxing.”

This story appears in the October issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Thursday November 6

Everything Stops For Tea

What would a working day be without tea? It’s an elixir, a balm and a buffer, says Maggie Armstrong

Tea for elevenses. Tea at dinner. Tea al desko. Tea from a train trolley. Tea on tap at a country wake. Tea brought to you in bed. Tea in hospital. Tea in the pub, a defiant act of squareness in the face of jeering binge drinkers. Tea in fragrant parcels from boutique tea shops, drunk with drizzle cake. Regular tea with a splash of milk and no sugar, all day.

If we didn’t have tea we would probably be a cold, tired people. Thank you, India, for planting those tea leaves and thank you Britain, for sharing this imperial plunder with the Anglo-Irish, in the mid-18th century. It percolated all the way down to the woman on the street. The poet George Russell wrote in 1913 of the poor Irish, “When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood.” Plus ça change, girls (and boys).

We are looking at tea for this October work issue, because tea, of course, is the secret intoxicant when it comes to doing business. It punctuates the goings-on, heats things up, smoothes ruffled feathers. And isn’t the buzz much better than coffee? A slow, determined jitter. I learned about tea’s special powers when I worked as a tea lady in a corporate law firm, fanning digestives onto doilies and counting cups. The look of relief in the solicitors’ eyes when we wheeled in the goods was touching.

Tea is, sadly, the elixir of the office. The boardroom would be a barren place without tea; that pouring and stirring handiwork that slows our aggressive minds for just a moment. Take tea al desko. What kind of desko would it be without even a cold cup next to you? In one of the oldest literary mentions of tea, in 1660, Samuel Pepys writes in his diary: “To the office … And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away”.

This story appears in the October issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Thursday November 6