Inês Paler, Coach, Mom, Traveler
It was going to be a barbecue, and I was the one on the grill. The reality hit me even before getting off the elevator to start the meeting. I was visiting a bank to discuss a potential partnership with Google Maps.
At the time, I was still working from home, and this was an exciting opportunity to add value to the Portuguese users. There was a particular vanity dilemma to sort out: Google is very informal, that bank was extremely formal. How to dress, how should I present myself? I went for business clothing, with the female version of a suit, sober make-up and my very best suitcase. To keep it "Googley", I wore a Google t-shirt instead of a blouse and my super-cool leather sneakers. Clearly, it was a mistake, but I didn't know it yet.
There was a huge long table with over a dozen people from the bank, many of them undoubtedly high execs. To say they were wearing suit and tie would be an understatement. All men, all at least ten years older than I. My t-shirt was suddenly feeling itchy.
I played it cool - after all, it's the content that matters and we were there to discuss an outstanding opportunity.
But no, it wasn't what mattered. From the very beginning, I was treated by "tu" - an informal way of addressing someone in Portugal that assumes a familiarity or lower position. I was also interrupted continuously with questions of who was in charge and where was my manager or someone who could make decisions.
At first, I took the bait and tried to explain that it was me: I was the one responsible for Marketing in Portugal. It was pointless, though. They were not going to show me any respect or take me seriously.
After a few attempts to discuss the project, it became clear: we weren't going anywhere.
To say they were wearing suit and tie would be an understatement. All men, all at least 10 years older than I. My t-shirt was suddenly feeling itchy.
Did you mean...?
So it was time to take a new route. "I don't remember seeing you in high school so I'd appreciate if we didn't treat each other by "tu". As our conversation stands at this point, we are not going anywhere, and there will be no partnership. There is no reason to continue this meeting and will, therefore, thank you for your time and leave you. Gentlemen, have a great day."
As I stood up, some jaws dropped but not for long. It was a failure for everyone, and no one was happy. Those people felt disrespected a "little girl" had been sent and wasted their time; I felt disrespected that they didn't bother actually seeing me.
Once I left the room and the massive labyrinth-like building, I started shaking. Going through it was tough. It was scary to make that stand and to cut it off. And why was a dressed like that anyway?
When back home, I wrote the Maps engineer who would have helped with the integration of the partnership. Without getting into details, I explained that they insisted on talking to someone with more decision power and that the negotiation was on hold.
I don't remember seeing you in high school.
You have reached your destination
I had to put my pride aside. This partnership would be perfect for the users, so we suggested having a video conference with this engineer a few days later.
And, without having discussed the matter any further, things just unfolded unexpectedly.
The video conference started and once again, there was a room full of execs on one side, I was dialling in from home (wearing a blouse and blazer!), and the engineer joined from Zurich. To almost every question they asked he would reply "Inês, what do you think? This is your call", "Inês is the one that can decide on that", "If Inês approves, I can do it as you suggest" and when they asked "Who makes the final decision for this project" the answer was clear "She is in charge.".
There were many times when I felt surrounded by incredible colleagues. This was a particularly special case. I barely knew this person, we didn't talk about what had happened, and there had been no requests on my side to "defend me". He was utterly selfless and put me at the forefront of the discussions.
Afterwards, he didn't bring it up again. I thanked him and tried to tell him that his behaviour had meant a lot to me - but he wouldn't listen. "Let's get back to work, shall we?"
There's a whole protocol and science behind meetings - I don't have it all figured out. The main lesson for me was: prepare for your meetings. It is not just the obvious (the content of the presentation) but also the format (what is the appropriate way to present yourself, how many people should attend, which seniority, what medium, where).
There's a balance to be found between respecting yourself, the company you represent and the people you are with. Find it and don't compromise.
People who are present but not directly involved in a harmful behaviour have the most significant opportunity to intervene and influence. In this case, the engineer had more room and power to correct their behaviour than I had, because I was being affected by it. When I said I was in charge, it seemed like I was just defending myself. When he said it, he supported me, but he also made it clear that them asking the question repeatedly was inappropriate and ineffective.
Small actions from us can have a tremendously positive influence on others. What can we do today, that would be remarkable to someone else?
If you are going through a tough time, coaching might help you get through it. I would love to help you so if you are interested, visit me at Coaching for Me or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org