“Was that a dog barking? Can you please put him outside for the rest of this conference call?”
The barking did not come from a dog. It came from me.
This is a story of rebellion, corporate sabotage and immaturity.
I was a sales manager at a Fortune 500 company, reporting to an executive trying to break the world record for the longest and most pointless conference call.
Every Thursday, twenty miserable managers dialed in, hoping to get off in less than four hours.
Two-hundred and forty minutes of soul-crushing bureaucracy.
This executive used this weekly conference call as a check-in of sorts. Managers lined up to update everyone on what they were working on that week. Most companies call this a “status call.”
Conference calls like this suck.
They lack an agenda and have no purpose aside from saving the manager time. This call got much worse after our business “reorganized.”
Not only did his direct reports double, she now had support staff joining the call. It was no longer a call with just sales managers. The call had someone from accounting, human resources, quality and someone in a role called “regional sales operations manager,” a fancy title for a glorified assistant to the SVP.
- We sold different products.
- We sold to different customers.
- We were supported by different factories.
- We had little in common aside from a 401(K) plan.
The conference call went on.
Initially, we were excited to be on the call. Seven of us were coming from a smaller business so it felt like an acquisition. We had to prove ourselves. This was a chance to impress the new boss and his direct reports.
Emboldened by the lively banter on the call, he invited more support staff. Suddenly, we were forced to listen to statistical analyses to pinpoint the exact reason we were not selling enough.
Never mind that his managers were wasting an entire day on a call instead of visiting customers with their teams.
We tried to politely ask if we could switch to monthly or shorten the format. He committed to “looking into it,” but the call only grew in length.
After several quarters of this torture, we started to unravel and rebel.
Conspiring on group instant messenger, we devised ways to sabotage the call.
It started small.
We would see who could leave their call on “hold” the longest. Placing the call on hold forces the entire group to listen to the same miserable elevator music. It is impossible to pay attention or interact once the music starts playing.
Our manager couldn’t pinpoint who was doing it without conducting a roll call. Using instant messenger, we would notify the “holder” once he started doing a roll call and they would come back.
Ten minutes later, someone else would go on hold. We would do this repeatedly until he grew frustrated enough to cancel the call.
When this got old, we tried new and bolder approaches. One person would turn their cell phone on vibrate and lay that phone next to their landline. Everyone on the call would be subject to listening to a very loud buzzing sound as the cell phone rattled around on the desk. As soon as the vibrating sound stopped, someone else would call that phone.
He was helpless to our uprising.
If someone was in their car, they would take their phone off mute and roll the window down. The sound of a wind tunnel is maddening when you are trying to pay attention to a call.
Our mutiny reached a pinnacle when a guest speaker with the last name of Wolf joined our call. Though he had yet to spend any time in the field, he had a presentation to document the many ways our sales team was failing.
Mr. Wolf was not popular with those of us doing actual work for the company. We immediately took to instant messenger.
“I bet you won’t say ‘Wolf!’ while he is talking.”
I took my phone off mute and whispered “wolf” while he was talking. He didn’t slow down.
The next guy said “Wolf” just a bit louder. We kept this up until managers started messaging “I’m out” and there were only two managers left in the game. With the phone muted, I was in tears anticipating the next interruption.
Finally, someone let rip in a deep Doberman voice, “WOLFFFFF!!!!”
Poor Wolf stopped talking, confused as to what just happened. Our manager chimed in with, “Whoever is on this call with their dog, can you please put him outside for the rest of the call?”
Eventually, these small rebellions led to the call shrinking and finally going away.
We won and sales went up.
What can a manager learn from this cautionary tale?
- Your recurring conference call is probably shit. Cancel it.
- Don’t create a recurring meeting/call, unless you are certain your team will find value in attending. Consider asking your team to run the call. They put the agenda together, leas the topics and leave with actions to take. If a call saves your team time, they will be in favor of attending. If this one short call saves them from making five or six calls to you throughout the week, it might make sense.
- Keep it short. Ideally, this call should be 20 minutes or less. If the agenda is too light, push it out.
- Only invite people who need to participate. If someone isn’t regularly contributing, they should not be invited. If they are only attending to be “in the loop,” copy them on the minutes after the call so they can read on their time.
- Avoid asking for “updates.” If you want your team to loathe you, force them to listen in on other people’s issues and priorities. They don’t give a shit.
- Don’t forget Rule #1.
Meetings are only effective if they help your team. Unfortunately, most meetings are created by managers who are interested in helping themselves.
They seek status or efficiency, at the expense of those they should be serving. If leaders make meetings about their teams, teams might not hate them so much.
At least they won’t yell “Wolf!” to sabotage it.
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