Own the room

Rebekah Campbell, founder of Hey You, an app to order and pay at cafes and restaurants.

I’m an entrepreneur. I’ve led businesses solo and have been at the centre of every meeting I’ve taken since I launched my first company at the age of 22. I joined forces 18 months ago with a male co-founder: he’s charismatic, charming and attracts attention. And, for the first time in my career, I found myself taking a back seat. My strength has always been my ability to get stuff done, while my co-founder is great at building relationships. Almost all our meetings are with men, so I’d sit back while my co-founder established rapport by opening with a discussion about sport or which school everyone attended.

With nothing to say, I’d wait in silent frustration. Meetings would often drift between casual conversation and business: I wasn’t able to achieve my objective because I didn’t drive the discussion. I suspected people looked to my co-founder for leadership because he was male, but more likely because he spoke early, connected with other attendees and deported himself like a leader.

Charm and command

I suspect many of us struggle in situations like this. I knew what I wanted from each meeting but found myself uncertain when or how to interrupt. The folk with the loudest voices got all the airtime. I knew I had important contributions and felt that others were dodging the tough topics. I wanted to speak up but didn’t know how to push my agenda without coming across as aggressive.

I took my dilemma to a mentor, a senior executive in the banking industry. He’s an impressive character with a strong presence, one I have observed in meetings. He may not say much, but people look to him for leadership. He has an uncanny ability to charm and command attention simultaneously. He’ll ask direct questions up front and always gets what he wants. Over coffee, we discussed my discomfort when sharing meetings with my co-founder, whose charisma debarred me from controlling the room. I averred this was because I’m a woman and all other attendees were guys. Were I a man, people would look to me rather than him. But at heart, I knew the problem wasn’t my gender or co-founder. It was me.

I remarked to my mentor, “I’d like to learn to be more like you. Every time I see you in a meeting, you own the room. You come across as a natural leader.” I expected a list of tips for controlling meetings, but his comment surprised and inspired me. He gazed across the café table, head tilted, disappointed, as if I had asked a supremely stupid question. “Rebekah. You have to own the room. You must know that. If you don’t own the room, you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you don’t know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter. Every meeting. Own the room.” That was it. No tips. Just an instruction to own the room or give up.

Into practice

The next day, I was in a meeting with our partners at Westpac: 12 male executives, my co-founder and me. I had prepared a PowerPoint presentation outlining what I’d like to cover, knew exactly what I wanted and who in the room could give it to me. The first 10 minutes passed as normal. Then, with my mentor’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to take control. I asked the person at the head of the table if he’d mind switching seats. He agreed, and I announced my presentation. My first slide outlined our objectives for the meeting and the decisions we needed to make that day. Sure, my entrance to the meeting was clunky, but I now owned the room.

From that point on, I ran the agenda, made direct requests of those I knew could make decisions, agreed on follow-ups, made notes and distributed them afterwards. I haven’t looked back since. I make sure I write down my objectives before every meeting so I’m clear what the outcome should be. I always sit at the head of the table and try to make the opening statement, outlining the reason for the meeting and the outcome I’d like to achieve. It works.

Working on it

Perhaps I can come across as rude. Maybe some folk think I’m an inexperienced know-it-all. I’m aware people often think I’m aggressive. None of this makes me comfortable – in fact it makes me very uncomfortable. But the alternative doesn’t work. I am sure as I mature, I’ll develop a style that owns the room, achieves my objectives and is charming. I’m working on it. For now, I’ll settle on owning the room, getting stuff done and making my business a success. As my mentor said, “If you don’t own the room, you’ll never get anywhere.”


CATEGORY: Australian Financial Review, Leadership, Personal Development, Women in Business

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