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Now Would Be a Great Time To Shut Up!

April 12, 2013

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Ah. . .What do you mean?”

We were on a break during a presentation to a large software company in Provo, Utah. I’d recently left Microsoft to try private consulting and my brother, VP of Marketing for an anti-virus company had invited me to tag along for his presentation.

“I thought you wanted me to . . .”

“Now would be a great time for you to shut up.”

Okay, he probably worded it more politely than that. He is in marketing, after all. But, the message was clear. Sit down, shut up and stop embarrassing me.

The problem was I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. Clearly, it was something serious. I spent the rest of the meeting shutting up, and reviewing what I could have screwed up. I finally narrowed it down to a discussion about email administrators.

Someone suggested that an email administrator would switch email servers if management made the decision. I disagreed. Most email administrators I knew, were passionate about the product they were running and I suggested they would put up a fight if management tried to force them to switch. The thing was, I was sure I was right. Even now, years later, I’m convinced I was right.

It didn’t matter.

After the meeting my brother pulled me aside.

“You embarrassed that VP in front of his entire staff!”

“Huh? How?”

“You basically said that he was wrong about his customers.”

“But, he WAS wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter. All anyone’s going to remember about that meeting is that you aren’t smart enough to avoid insulting a senior manager!”

I had just run into a major Culture Wall. I’d face palmed into it actually. I’d made two fatal assumptions. I’d assumed that I understood the culture. And, I’d misunderstood my role. I wasn’t there as some sort of expert witness. I was there as a FAVOR from my brother. He didn’t need me, but I needed him, and I screwed it up.

I’d just come from a decade at Microsoft which has a much different culture than this Provo company. At Microsoft, if you are in a meeting with senior management and you have information they don’t, you are expected to speak up. Even if it’s Bill Gates himself that you are disagreeing with. If you can’t handle that level of confrontation, you went to work for the wrong company.

This company in Provo had a much more traditional power structure where you were expected to show a certain deference to those in leadership positions.

I should have known better. I’d seen the same thing in reverse while at Microsoft. I worked on a team, writing training materials for Microsoft Exchange. We hired a new team manager. Julie had previously worked for Boeing, which has a much different corporate culture than Microsoft.

One of the first things our new manager wanted to do was take several hours and create a team “Mission Statement.” She led us through several iterations of writing one of those long complicated sentences that tries to capture everything without a pause for breath. We didn’t see much value in it.

“Tell you what, Julie, let’s just make it ‘We’ll Learn Ya’ and call that good?”

And with that, the il-fated “mission statement” writing exercise was done. Rather than try to learn the Microsoft culture, she had assumed that what had worked at Boeing would work at Microsoft.

It’s generally a good idea to spend time listening before you start to talk. That, or risk being told to shut up.

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