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CELIA KRAMPIEN/The Globe and Mail

Meetings matter. While many of us dismiss them as a waste of time and energy, a team of career coaches report that meetings are vital for presenting yourself to others and establishing your leadership credentials. In particular, meetings matter to women, because women are less proficient than men in those crucial encounters.

Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt work exclusively with senior female executives in their Charlotte, North Carolina practice, and started picking up signs in the 360-degree feedback on those women that they weren't showing up well in meetings. After a year-long research study Ms. Heath says in an interview they found that "in meetings men are from Mars and women from Venus. We are just missing each other. Women don't get feedback and struggle to get a word in; men feel that women are not concise enough and take too much time winding up to make a point."

And it wasn't as if the men were deliberately shutting the women down. It was that different behavioural styles were getting in the way. "Men were telling us, 'she's the smartest person in the room and I wanted to hear from her,'" says Ms. Heath.

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Women find themselves having trouble inserting themselves into key business decisions, outnumbered amongst the male executives, their voices drowned out or ignored. At the same time, their male colleagues and superiors, while corroborating those concerns, reported that the women appeared less confident in key meetings where they were expected to contribute. In several cases men reported their female colleagues "get rattled" or remain silent even in sessions when the topic is something for which the woman is the resident expert.

That's important, because the three coaches consider meetings the centre stage for leaders to perform before others in organizations, showcasing their ideas, abilities and achievements. "Meetings can also open doors for women. In the initial 10 to 15 years after entering the workforce, employees rise in their careers based on the merits of their individual contributions. After that (according to what we have learned from coaching over 1,000 executive women), the fortunes of senior-level women executives accelerate or stagnate based on two altogether different metrics. Not surprisingly, the first is the financial performance of their unit. But the second factor is more interesting – it is the ability of a woman leader to gain the active sponsorship of at least one C-suite executive.

We have seen that a major way to gain that sponsorship is to perform well in meetings," they write in their report.

Here's how they suggest rectifying the situation:

  • Remember the meeting before the meetings: Prior to a meeting men connect with each other informally to test their ideas and gain an indication of support – be it in the hallway or the lunch room buffet counter. Very few women were aware of the importance of this phenomenon. Given women are known for collaboration, Ms. Heath finds it perplexing they are missing this avenue.
  • Prepare to talk, not present: Since they have done the preparatory work, men come to meetings more relaxed, selling their ideas in a conversational way. Women, however, are in presentation mode, with slides and supporting documents, which is less effective. Women need to understand what mode is expected at each meeting they attend.
  • Take the conversation to the next level: Wayne Gretzky’s quote “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been” applies to meetings. Get ahead of the point being discussed, helping others – perhaps with a trenchant question you have prepared beforehand – to pull the discussion to a higher level. One male executive recommends using “muscular words” that are authoritative and precise. The trio advise their clients to get their voice heard early in the meeting, particularly if they are one of only a few females in the room, in order to carve out a place in the ongoing discussion.
  • Remain on an even keel: Their research shows the stereotype of the “emotional female” persists. Passion is important for persuasion, but women get less leeway to display it – even if they just say they are passionate about an idea, it is viewed as untoward emotion. Women have to remain steady and even in meetings to counter this stereotype.
  • Come early, stick around after: Female executives are very efficient – indeed, too efficient, arriving exactly on time and rushing out at closure to put out fires in their unit. The men are more leisurely, using the time before and after meetings to connect with colleagues. Women need to do the same.
  • Live to fight another day: Women are more likely than men to have “retained angst” when things don’t go their way in a meeting. They need to learn not to second guess themselves after a meeting and take events to heart. Instead, as men tend to do, they should let go.

"Those are a set of skills and behaviours for meetings that not a lot has been written about. They can be developed and help women. In fact, many men have told me they're helpful to them as well," concludes Ms. Heath.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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