Conference Call #Fail

“Cat got your tongue?” is an expression you’ll hear from time to time when you’ve been rendered speechless. Being speechless may be alright if you’re surprised or scared, but it’s really not something you want to happen on a conference call you are facilitating!

I had one of my low points as a project manager while on a conference call. Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will know this is just one of my low points, and it’s certainly not my lowest. My lowest was when I found out I had been requested to be removed from the client’s project while I sat through their presentation to the executive committee. And it’s not like I have tons of low points in my career of being a project management professional. However, we all have bad days and circumstances that we could do without, or wish we could go back and do differently. This was one of them.

Our team was exploring working with a potential vendor to implement part of a project we had in development. They had developed technology that would take months off our own schedule if it all worked out. Sure, it came with a price tag, but so did allocating four resources for three months to get the same work done.

I set up a call for their and our technical teams to discuss implementation strategies, APIs, and other techno mumbo-jumbo that I knew just enough about to be dangerous. At the designated time, members of both teams joined the call. You could hear the familiar ding, ding, ding, ding as people entered the virtual conference room and announced their presence.

“This is John from [company],” one faceless voice would say.

“This is Sherri from [company],” another would say. This virtual greeting continued until about a dozen people had chimed in and everyone was accounted for and present.

I introduced myself and then allowed the project manager from the other company to introduce himself. Well, he didn’t stop there; he jumped right in and took over. He stated the reason for the call, outlined what we needed to get out of it, and said that he would like to start off with a question. That one question was all it took for a cascade of technical prowess to start burning up the phone lines. An hour later, I was still sitting there, waiting for a chance to facilitate. That opportunity never arose. He even wrapped the call-up. The only two words I managed to get in were, “See ya,” at the end. How sad is that?

Conference Call #Fail

Conference Call #Fail

Wow, did I feel ineffective? In hindsight, not only were the details of the topic way outside my wheelhouse, once the conversation got rolling I wasn’t even sure what to ask or how I could contribute to the call. I felt a bit low after that call for a number of reasons:

  • I Felt Useless – Okay, I set up the call. I guess that was useful. But, we all know that anybody could have set up the call. I sat there for an entire hour and didn’t contribute a thing until I said those two words at the end. I’m a project manager. Shouldn’t I have been directing, redirecting, clarifying, re-clarifying, and another project managerial stuff? Well, I didn’t, and it did not feel like time well spent.
  • I Felt Uninformed – Have you been on those calls before where everybody seems to know what they’re talking about except for you? How does that happen? It’s like you stayed home sick for a day, and the entire company had a training session for the sole purpose of talking about it on the next conference call you joined. That’s exactly how I felt on this call. I usually have at least a clue about what is being discussed and am able to interject something every now and then. Not on this call. I was lost in the conversation and when the dust settled, only able to squeak out a weak and embarrassing exit line.
  • I Brought No Value – I’m a huge believer that nearly every action you take as a project manager should bring value and move the project forward. Not this time. I felt as if I was freeloading by listening but not able to offer anything of value, and that if I did speak, it would suck the life out of the digital conference room.

I hung up from the call and started going through the motions of checking my email while I ruminated about how disappointed I was in myself. Fortunately, I’m a firm believer in looking at the positive side of things. So, upon further reflection, this call wasn’t a total waste for a number of reasons:

Learning From Failure

  • I Learned A Lot – I do have to say that I stayed tuned into every word that was said. Sometimes that’s hard to do on conference calls, especially if there’s the temptation to multitask and do something else. It can be easy to passively listen to a conversation. Not this time. This was new territory for me and I listened attentively to the entire conversation. Did I understand everything being said? No. Did I understand enough to start putting the pieces together? Absolutely.
  • I Picked up on the Vibe of the Relationship – You never know how two technical teams are going to respond to each other. They’re a proud bunch. They’ve developed cool and useful things from scratch and are an incredibly smart lot.Don’t take this the wrong way, but it can sometimes be like when two dogs meet each other for the first time. You’ll know right out of the gate if one thinks the other is a threat, or if things are going to work out just fine. It’s the same way on calls with technical people. Someone could say something that comes across the wrong way and sets the other side on edge. Defenses go up, information stops flowing, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt.That didn’t happen on this call. Everyone seemed to be at the same, relative technical level and their experiences and personalities complemented each other well. I picked up on this vibe immediately and was able to store that observation away for future reference.
  • I Knew Who To Contact – It was clear who I needed to contact to move forward with next steps after the call because he sent his contact information to everyone. I followed up with him immediately, and he was ready and willing to talk about next best steps to keep things moving forward…which was another benefit of being on the call.
  • I Picked up Some Next Steps – Although much of what was discussed was uncharted territory for me, a project manager instinctively knows next steps when he hears next steps. I scribbled down what I perceived those to be, for us and for them. This gave me enough ammunition to work with, to reimpose my presence on the project when I contacted their project manager. Again, I knew to contact him because I was on the call. Plus, I felt good about getting in touch with him and working out the details, because of the positive vibe I picked up on between the two teams. We both had the same objective; we just needed to figure out the best way to get there.

Clearly, this wasn’t one of the lowest points in my career, but it certainly wasn’t one of my high points. We’re all going to have a call like this every now and then, where we feel as useful as a bump on a log. Shake it off, look at the positive side of things, and start making your way to your next conference call, where you’ll have plenty to say!

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