Monday, January 30, 2012

Meetings - Part of our lives

I hate meetings! The type of meetings we have in offices, clubs, voluntary and other organisations where discussions go on without any direction. Articulate members tend to dominate a discussion, arguing on a point endlessly. Not allowing the group to come to a decision.
In the last five decades of my working life, I have obviously attended thousands of meetings. In the early years, I have as a Junior Executive taken copious notes of meetings with clients and prepared detailed minutes for circulation and action. While I enjoyed participating in the deliberations of such meetings, I hated them as a non smoker! As there were no restrictions on smoking those days, the meeting rooms used to be a smokers paradise but hell for non smokers.
In later years, as the CEO of a company or as the Chairman of various voluntary organisations I was associated with, I have had the privilege of presiding over meetings. I would always ensure that there was an Agenda, with supporting explanatory notes to ensure that the meeting was always focused. I would also try my best not to allow any articulate member to stray away from a point under discussion. And if a debate was necessary to discuss a hot topic, then after disposing off the routine items on the agenda, I would devote specific time for eliciting views from every member present allowing a few minutes to each one of them. At the end of the discussion, I would put the motion under debate to vote so that the majority view prevailed and a decision taken. Even if the final decision was against my point of view, I would go by the majority decision. I have always believed in the democratic process.
While there are Chairmen of organisations who come fully prepared and are always in control of the meeting, there are others who come for a meeting without even knowing what the agenda is. When I asked one such chairman of a voluntary organization what is the agenda for the meeting, he quipped
“What agenda? I will ask the Chairman of every committee to report on his activities and that is it”.
A few others who are autocrats come with the clear idea of forcing the committee members to accept decisions they have already made on issues. Meetings are just a formality for such Chairmen.
On the other hand there are weak chairmen, who come well prepared with agendas but who have no control over the meetings. They cannot stop a member waxing eloquent on a topic not even under discussion; or stop a few others exchanging gossips among themselves when a serious discussion is going on. To participate in such meetings is very painful.

Talking about members who attend such meetings, one can write a thesis on the subject.

There are a few who arrive on time fully prepared to participate in the discussion. There are others who always walk in late, invariably at the fag end of the meeting giving some excuse or the other for their delay. Obviously such members are more interested in the fellows(h)ip or Dinner that follows a meeting. Some are eternal grumblers; always complaining about something which has been done or not done. They are the typical armchair critics, many of whom fail miserably when given a responsibility!
It is not unusual to find members with peculiar or irritating habits on full display during a meeting. I know of a friend, who had the amazing ability to go to sleep within 15 minutes of the start of any meeting! While a serious discussion was going on, he would suddenly wake up and make a point or express an opinion which was surprisingly very relevant to the point under discussion. Without waiting to hear the response from others, he would again slip into sleeping mode. Obviously while his body was in sleep mode, his sub-conscious mind was participating in the discussion!!
There are a few who keep busy, picking their noses or trying to clear their ears of the accumulated wax while giving the impression that they are seriously listening to the discussions in progress. Some draw caricatures on the writing pad given to them for taking notes; or there are those who take frequent “Bio” or “Dhum” breaks!
In today`s world driven by technology, you will find guys busy browsing through the net on their laptops while attending a meeting. This happens mostly in office meetings or at lectures in Management Institutes. Some of these guys are good at giving an impression that they are actually taking notes from the meeting, by regularly nodding their heads. Thanks again to technology; Video conferences or Teleconferences of people located in different parts of the country or the world are increasingly becoming popular, especially in the corporate world. Saving a lot of time and money for every one involved with such online meetings.

Whether live or online, whether you like or hate it, meetings are an integral part of our working lives!

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mindsets and Mental blocks

All our activities are governed by certain mindsets which vary from person to person leading to habits which are difficult to shake off. Almost every one has a mindset of his/her own!

The most common mindset is related to drinking coffee. There are people who say, “I get a headache if I don’t have a cup of coffee immediately after my lunch!” Others say “If I have a cup of coffee after 6 pm in the evening or if I sleep in the afternoon, I can’t sleep at night”.

I have no such problems. Even if I sleep for 3 hours in the afternoon on a Sunday, I am fast asleep by my usual bed time of 10 pm! For me any time is sleeping time. The best sleeping pill according to me is a book. Every time I start reading a book, within half an hour, I fall into the deep-sleep mode! If I get up in the middle of the night and am unable to go back to sleep, the best remedy I have found is to start reading a book. No need to chant Ram, Ram, or counting sheep till you go back to sleep.

But I do have a mindset problem! Its related to giving Speeches!

Whether it is a five minute vote of thanks or a 90 minutes lecture in a classroom, I believe in preparation. I write down my speech and rehearse it a couple of times to ensure that I stick to the time limit given to me. The hard copy of my speech also clearly indicates where I should pause (for a possible applause!) or where I should emphasize a point.

This habit continued even after the introduction of slide & tape presentations. I would lug around a Kodak Carousel projector with slides, always accompanied by a typed version of the presentation clearly spelling out the comments on every slide. The fear that I might forget important points made me read from prepared texts.

While pursuing this method of presentation, I was particular about having a podium, on which I would place the papers or the file containing my talk. Getting a podium was not a problem when I addressed larger gatherings in Hotels and other such venues. But when it was a presentation to a small group in a client`s office, invariably the small board room or meeting room did not have a podium. On such occasions I would carry a portable table model podium which I got specially fabricated. Later, I tried to use a foldable steel stand (which musicians use at concerts to keep their musical notes or book of lyrics) to keep my prepared notes while I was talking. These stands were so flimsy that every time I hit it while using my hands to emphasize a point, they would collapse and the papers would start flying all over the room. In retrospect, I realize what a spectacle I was making of myself in front of my audience – all because of a stupid mindset which I could not get rid off!!

Fortunately all this changed due to an incident which took place about ten years ago!

Breaking a Mental block

My wife and I were in Madurai to attend a wedding. Our associate in Madurai, who came to meet me, informed me that the Director of Thiagaraja School of Management wanted to meet me. He offered to pick my wife and me from the wedding hall and take me to meet the Director. While on the way, he threw a bombshell! I thought it was a courtesy call but he said the Director would be happy if I could give a brief talk on Rural Marketing to the Management students of the Institute. I was shocked and livid! I told my friend that I never gave a talk without preparation and besides in the absence of any notes or slides, it would be impossible for me to give a talk.

I retorted angrily, “I have never done this in my life, and I will not do it now, forget it!”

He looked at me with pity and said “what sir! You call yourself a Rural Marketing Expert. Can’t you speak for at least 15 minutes on the subject and follow it up with a Q/A session?”

Even before I could respond, we had reached the Institute and I was taken to the Director`s room. After the usual formalities the Director now threw another bomb!

“Mr. Rajan, I am so happy you accepted my invitation at such short notice. In fact I have assembled the students of both the 1st and 2nd year in the Auditorium, who are eagerly waiting to hear you!”

I felt like a trapped rat! There was no way I could get out of the difficult situation and so I sought some time from the Director. Five minutes to marshal my thoughts on what I was going to say for the first 10 minutes of my first extempore speech!

When I went up to the stage to face over 200 bright boys and girls I felt Iike a naked man in a crowd. To compound the problem, my wife and my niece (who was attending the Management course) were in the audience which further added to my discomfiture!

Marshalling all the courage in the world, I started speaking. There was no podium, no presentation paper and no slides! Just me with a collar mike walking up and down the stage – like an actor giving a solo performance. Within five minutes I realized that the audience was with me, rapt with attention.

Literally, the actor in me took over. Words were flowing. Thoughts were flowing. Examples and anecdotes from my years of experience were coming thick and fast! In the absence of video clips (which I would have normally shown to students) I was literally acting out the commercials!

I did not realize that I had spoken for more than 90 minutes without interruption and with total attention from the boys and girls. This was followed by another 60 minutes of Q & A session. At the end of the nearly three hour session, when I collapsed on the chair; totally exhausted, I found the boys and girls giving me a spontaneous standing ovation. I could not believe I had done it! I had spoken on a subject for 3 hours without a bit of paper in front of me.

Later, my niece told me that it was the best lecture that the students had heard in the two years that they were studying in the college. I was thrilled. A long standing mental block I had about not being able to give a talk without speaking aids was broken. Though I use power point presentations these days and still prepare my speeches, I don’t read a copy of my talk verbatim any more. My comments on the slides in the PPTs are also spontaneous. I feel totally liberated from a mindset which had dogged me for over three decades!

The moral of the story is that age is no barrier for breaking negative mindsets, which often come in the way of better performance in different facets of our lives.

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