Friday, March 26, 2010

What to eat at a business lunch or interview

Oh my god, seriously? I just read a tweet about a woman who ate a drippy egg salad sandwich at a lunch interview. Dummy. Two rules about eating "out" or with people who aren't in your family:

1) Know if you have good manners or not (if you're not sure, ask someone who will be brutally honest with you)
2) Order and eat accordingly

If you just aren't sure if you have good table manners, here are some fool-proof ways to ensure you don't make a complete ass of yourself during a meal at which you want to impress. Of course I can't cover the basics of table manners, like not licking your knife and not stacking dishes at the table...there are just too many. But here are some basics to keep you out of trouble, because if you don't know the basics yet, you're probably not going on many interview lunches.

1) Don't order anything saucy or that requires a spoon - not pasta, not gravy, not dressing, not soup - nothing that can drip
2) Eat foods that only require one hand. Yes, you read it right. That means no hamburgers, burritos, or ribs, and nothing you have to cut with a steak knife.
3) Don't use this meal as a chance to catch up on your caloric intake. The purpose of the meal is not to eat - it is to talk, listen, and make a good impression. The food secondary.
4) Don't get a doggie bag - just leave the leftovers on the table. Read #3 again.
5) Use your napkin often.
6) Excuse yourself at the end of the meal and go to the restroom, even if you don't need to "go". Check teeth, wash hands, check for any spare drips, crumbs.

What are safe bets to order, if you're following tips 1 and 2 above? Here are a few ideas:

1) Omelette - can be cut with a fork, not usually drippy, easy to control, you'll recognize everything in it generally speaking
2) Salmon or Halibut filet - not overly smelly, and same traits as Omelette above
3) If you must have a sandwich (breaking rule 2 in first list), make it a turkey or ham sandwich and if the restaurant hasn't cut it in half before serving, start by cutting it in half. These tend to be dryer, more manageable sandwich varieties, I've found.
4) If you're at an Italian restaurant and have to order past (breaking rule 1 in first list), choose the lasagna or something baked. It will be dryer and easier to manage than a saucy spaghetti or fettucine dish.

I hope these tips are helpful for you. And seriously, if you're just not sure if you have good table manners, or you know that you don't, suggest coffee instead of meeting over lunch. And then order a small, plain coffee, definitely nothing with whipped cream!

Laid down on the tracks!

Today I used the phrase, "I am laying down on the tracks over this!" several times, and it was the perfect metaphor for what was happening... I had to really stick my neck out for something I feel strongly about, against some pretty strong opposition and with a considerable amount of professional and relationship risk. It ended up working out in the end but I am pretty concerned with what I experienced from some folks I work with, in the process of working through the situation.

It started several weeks ago when I asked a group that I've been working closely with for 6+ months, to take a few minutes out of our 3-hour working meeting agenda, to hear me out on a concern I was having about the direction we were going with the project we've been working on. I made my impassioned speech and they listened intently. I felt heard and respected for having dissented based on principles. But, alas, at the end of our time together we were back on course, heading in exactly the same direction as we had been. I was deflated, and confused, and needed to process what had happened. When I left that day, I pretty much unplugged emotionally from the project-I just needed some space, some distance to be able to look at it from their perspective. Another week or so went by before we got back together, and when we did I tried a couple more times to influence the team to stop and take stock of where we are and whether we were really confident the solution we are proposing is the right one. After all, in a few short weeks we are scheduled for 20 minutes on the agenda of our senior leadership meeting, and I sure as heck don't want to use that time proposing something we're not entirely sure is a good idea. Again, the team heard me out but one person in particular was really taking my comments in a negative way - feeling challenged and therefore defensive, and interpreting my questions as unproductive negativity. I've been told that my style is especially inquisitive and that others can interpret my questioning as antagonistic, so I am sensitive to that perception and try to be careful not to overdo it.

At the end of our time together this week, we were further along on the path I didn't want to go down, and I had pretty much given up. I considered that there does have to be a point at which a team member concedes to the rest of the team. And, I'm a pretty reasonable person, so it isn't difficult to convince me of the merits of an idea as long as it doesn't hurt other people or animals or create hate and discontent in the world. Nevertheless, I left our session this week even more disenchanted and, frankly, worn out from the fight. I felt alone in it and with time working against us just decided to let those with passion about this idea drive it to completion. "I can play a supporting role this time, no problem", I told myself. Besides, it really seemed as if the others in the group were on board with the direction we were going. I sensed some frustration but certainly no one was saying, "stop! no! I don't agree!"

Well, today I had a conversation with someone I consider an adviser and mentor, and shared some of my concerns. She listened and reserved comment until I'd had my say. Then she said, "Meg, why are you going forward if you don't agree? This is important, you're right, and I honestly believe your team needs to reconsider what you're saying because I think they're misguided in the direction they're headed." With her advice bolstering my confidence, I started calling the members of my team one by one. And do you know what?! Each of them in turn said the same thing, "Oh Meg, I am so glad you said that. I know you were trying to tell us this weeks ago but I had already lost any hope of turning things around. I had already withdrawn and was letting (insert lone champion of bad idea name here) take the lead because I just didn't have the energy for the public debate anymore." They each promised to back me if I stepped up once more to challenge the group's decided direction. And then two of them took the lead to confront the one lone champion, and got her to agree with a compromise that will buy us some time to get together as a group to realign on our decisions.

How incredibly frustrating it was to hear my peers say how much they appreciated that I was, again, disagreeing with the group's decision. Two of them actually said they realized they hadn't been speaking up or even contributing, because they just wanted the project to be done and weren't invested. WHAT?! And I'll admit that there is a part of me that wishes one of them would admit that I was right and I was the only one with the guts to call out the elephant in the room - multiple times - while the rest of them let me appear to be the antagonist. I hope that in a similar situation, I be a champion for the lone gutsy dissenter, until the group gave them the consideration their objections deserved...especially if I agreed with them all along!

This is a long story for a simple point: sometimes you have to lay down on the tracks and strap yourself to them for people to realize you're serious. And, maybe sometimes an idea is too far ahead for others to grasp, and you have to try again and again to bring them around if you really believe it's worth the fight.

Ok, I've had my say. I feel better now. This is a good reason to keep a blog, I think.