Most meetings—whether the formal kind, with everyone seated a conference table, or the quicker, standing variety—don't encourage the type of collaboration they could. Rather than a free exchange of ideas, meetings usually find everybody retreating into their areas of expertise—their mental cubicles.
That makes a kind of sense. Few of us are comfortable venturing a comment about something we don't know a whole lot about, especially in the company of those who may know more. But stepping outside of your comfort zone isn't just a way to display leadership. It's also how the types of ideas that businesses rely on circulate and catch on. Your remark may not be earth-shattering (or even meeting-rattling), but it's important to get into the habit of speaking up on matters outside your expertise.
After all, leadership itself isn't only (or even mostly) about utilizing your technical, functional skills. In fact, some argue that those matter less the higher you rise in the pecking order. Rather, it’s about your ability to be in the moment and apply your critical thinking skills confidently yet tactfully.
Here’s how you can break free from your mental cubicle and show leadership in every meeting, every day.
Those who show leadership without necessarily having deep expertise are good at taking the long view. They gently guide the discussion toward an aerial perspective.
Even if you don’t know all the details, you can synthesize what’s been discussed and bring the conversation up a level. In fact, this is especially critical in meetings about technical topics. How many actual "drill-downs" have you observed in those situations? How deep do they go? After you get to the details of the details of the details, what’s the point?
Before the discussion hits rock bottom, seize the moment. Take the discussion back up, even higher than where it started off. You'll show leadership by bringing the focus back to what’s important.
Let’s say you’re in a meeting to discuss customer service. Before long, the conversation shifts from tracking complaints to prioritizing complaints to data entry processes to CRM configurations, and so on—narrower and narrower and narrower. Instead of following these technical details down the rabbit hole, you could synthesize them by bringing the conversation back to improving customer service—the real goal—or, even better, the impact of doing so on all dimensions of the business.
Another way to take the lead is by stimulating new thinking and shifting the discussion in an unexpected direction. Have you ever been so close to something that you needed a fresh set of eyes to give you a new perspective? You might not be an expert, but by stepping in and nudging the conversation someplace else entirely, you might clear the way for more important and interesting ideas.
For example, if participants are focused on the words and numbers of their sales presentations, you could ask them to think of images that would make their competitive advantages more memorable. Be provocative—you may not be a pro when it comes to sales strategy, but you can probably help them think of images that aren't just literal pictures of your product but reflect ideas that come from the outside world.
One of my clients helped his software company achieve an incredible boost in sales by using the image of a table set for dinner. He told his team that so far, they'd been selling forks. They were the best forks, but in order to grow, they had to become part of an entire place-setting. After all, who buys just a fork? With this image, my client helped his team shift its strategy. Doing something similar can show that you can think strategically—and sometimes unconventionally—about decisions that either directly or indirectly impact you.
Too often, we present information in lists—lists by function, lists by product, lists of numbers, lists of gaps. It's standard practice in most companies simply because this is often easiest way to organize data. But it isn't always the best way to communicate it.
We wind up hearing presentation after presentation, list after list. And typically, you transition from list to list by saying "next." But following this linear, sequential presentation of facts isn't just boring, it’s segmented in a way that can actually prevent us from seeing what matters. Where’s the integration? What does it all mean?
For example, instead of just focusing on groceries—buying meat, cheese, lettuce, bread, etc.—how do you help the group think about dinner? What are the goals—low carb, low calorie, high protein? By connecting these "lists" together, you can take the discussion to a more meaningful place, all without being the most technically adept person in the room.
What do each of these habits have in common? They allow you to show leadership in any meeting, any time, regardless of how much you know about the subject at hand. It's all about taking the thinking upward, outward, and beyond—and that's something anyone can do, but mostly like only you will.