Your biggest asset in a meeting may not be who you think
22 June 2021 at 8:03 am
Putting your best foot forward in a government or political meeting may be more complicated than you think. Neil Pharaoh takes a look at who is best to bring along, and perhaps who to exclude from meetings with political stakeholders and government.
Planning a high stakes meeting, with a minister, MP, senior official or advisor may seem simple enough. You think you have prepared everything; you have prepared documents to leave behind, you have done your background research, you have read bios and speeches and are about to book your trip to Canberra (or another capital city), but who is actually best to attend the meeting?
History or hierarchy dictates that the CEO, or perhaps a board member or the chair, would be “entitled” to attend the meeting, but aligning the best person for the meeting sometimes takes a bit more than just hierarchy or history alone. Let’s step through the five categories of government stakeholders and reflect upon who is best, or worst placed to attend your upcoming meeting.
Ministers or shadow ministers – As a general rule, your CEO or chair should be in this level of meeting, but not both. You need someone senior, who has the gravitas, can introduce the organisation, and provide an overview of the strategy or the direction you are taking.
They should however always be supported by somebody who knows the details, usually a senior program manager or someone across the details of the initiative(s) to be discussed. Some organisations will also bring a client or possibly a representative of the community they are working for as well, but you should have no more than three people in the room. You don’t want to spend precious time introducing too many people.
Remember to have one of the team take some key notes and follow ups, as well as a photo along the way. The minister or shadow would typically have one, or perhaps two, advisors in the room – so work to match numbers, and build a relationship with the person you seem paired with – CEO to minister, program manager to advisor etc.
Members of Parliament – Similar to a minister or shadow minister, keep it to two or three, and ideally ensure at least one person in the room has a connection, lives in, or is deeply involved in the MP’s electorate – local is key for MP’s, including for senators, although they represent an entire state.
Policy departments and central agencies – the operations behind government. This is where the technical and policy leaders of your organisation can attend, especially with functional and operational teams in the department. You typically get a bit more time in these meetings, and they will be sharper and more across the detail – be sure to have someone who really knows the details, the analysis, and can answer questions, as well as understands the finances, as these will all be key focuses here. Depending on the level of the meetings in the department, you may not have a CEO in attendance, and usually can leave the board or chair out of these types of meetings.
Political party engagement – Political parties are often the forgotten friend for meetings and engagement, but whether it’s meeting the various policy or executive functions of the party, be sure to keep them in the loop. In these meetings you would typically lead with your point person on government engagement or political engagement, and make an effort to ensure values alignment between the party and the person attending.
A few final reflections around meetings and representation:
- Have political balance in your organisation – If you are clearly aligned to one side of politics, ensure that you have someone clearly aligned to the other side publicly visible, or on your board. MP’s and political stakeholders are usually professional enough to put political differences to the side even if the representative they are talking to is clearly from a different side of politics, so long as it is clear the organisation is bi-partisan, and has equally visible “opposites”.
- Spend more time listening than talking, and try to find connections to make the meetings memorable – All stakeholders are heavily diary committed, and if you are just the same as every other group, who spends your 30-minute meeting talking about your needs and problems, not reading the room and not making it relevant to whom you are talking to, you won’t be remembered, and could in future be declined the same courtesies.
- The chair and CEO do not work well in the same political meeting – It goes back to too many chiefs, one “leader” in the room is all that is warranted for meetings. At events, the more the merrier, but stay focused when having meetings or discussions.
Also, it is perfectly fine to pull people out of a meeting, and sometimes those missing send an equally clear message. If you are going to Canberra with the CEO, and then get shunted down the chain in a backbencher’s office to an advisor, then take the meeting, but don’t send your CEO. We all have egos and if that office learns that they can “manage” the CEO with an advisor level meeting, it is very hard to get back to equal pegging.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.