What is an organization like where everyone is very busy?
March 6, 2010 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Should I be concerned to join an organization where people's calendars are filled up months in advance?

I am interviewing for a senior role at a large multi-national and found out during one of the interviews that it can be very hard to make appointments with people at short notice. People's diaries seem to be filled up months in advance and everyone seems to be going from meeting to meeting all the time. I am concerned that it may be hard to build solid relationships when entering such an organization, where people are not available. I am also concerned that it can be difficult to make immediate impact when people are not available. Has anyone experienced an organization like this and if so, did you find a way to make this work for you? Should I consider this to be an an "alarm-bell" for the role? Is there effective way to dive deeper into this within the organization to find out more?
posted by eurandom to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The alarm bell is: how can people do anything, if their entire day is spent talking about doing.
posted by jrockway at 5:54 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

" People's diaries seem to be filled up months in advance and everyone seems to be going from meeting to meeting all the time."

In my experience, this is the very essence of large multinational corporate management. I would be very, very, very surprised to hear it was otherwise. I wouldn't consider it an "alarm bell," so much as a warning that this is what things are like in the corporate world and you may have to adapt your communication and coordination style to suit.
posted by majick at 5:56 AM on March 6, 2010

You sound like you're worried that this is a mark of a dysfunctional organization. Answering the question, "Is this a well-functioning company?" is subsidiary to answering the question, "Is this a company I want to work for?" It sounds like clogged schedules are a deeply entrenched part of their corporate culture. This is how they work. You will have to work that way too. Sounds like you don't want to. Is that a deal-breaker?
posted by mindsound at 6:16 AM on March 6, 2010

Realize, this is what many of those people have worked so hard for. 3 times out of 5, those people got there because they worked their asses off to get a job where they don't actually do anything, just meet with other people and discuss things (1/5 was related to someone important, 1/5 the person was really nice, but incompetent, so they kept moving he/she up the ladder and out of their department where, presumably, they can do the least amount of damage).

Its not all BlackBerrys and BJs from the admin, however. People will constantly ask you questions about things you have no idea about, but it is your job to make a decision. "We need to come up with a process for HR Terminations so the automatic IT services removal process doesn't process anything with a litigation hold on it," as if you have a whole drawer-full of processes in your office (which you will never see, mind you).

Lastly, a lot of those calendar entries are conference calls. Very often you'll be sitting at your desk doing other work, and not listening to a damn word of the meeting until they say "_____, did your department have anything of note to mention?" Those are the pits.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:35 AM on March 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

The alarm bell is: how can people do anything, if their entire day is spent talking about doing.

Well in my experience, you do your actual work after hours, if those aren't also full with meetings or mandatory work events. My workdays often end up being 80-90% full with meetings or events that I can't skip (either I'm running them, speaking at them or I absolutely need to know what happens during the meeting/event). I often find the only time I have to get work done is after 6pm, and on the weekends.

You need to be really dedicated to keep up in a work environment like this, IMHO.
posted by id girl at 6:50 AM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yea, you could be describing my employer (and may be, for all I know). As far as how you form relationships with people: when you start there, you start getting invited to those meetings, and you form relationships by being in the trenches with them. Being proactive about learning and getting involved goes a long way towards impressing the people I work with.

And people are available...in the minutes when the meeting room is still calming down at the beginning, in the few minutes at the end of the meeting when everyone is gathering their stuff, in the hallway on the way to the restrooms, etc. So if you need to talk to someone specific, you basically have to be ready to ambush them when you see them.

Like id girl, when I need uninterrupted work time I usually end up working at night or on the weekend. My boss also encourages blocking off time on our own calendars. One thing I wish people would respect is to leave me alone when I am actually trying to get something done at my desk.
posted by cabingirl at 8:23 AM on March 6, 2010

I've spent almost my entire career working for multinationals, and the majority of that operating at the CXO level. There are lots of assumptions made in your question and in several of the responses.

You don't have full clarity into the calendars of the people you're referring to. When I was running a large globally distributed team for a Tier 1 Investment Bank (about 161 staff in seven countries) I had specific blocks of time set aside for internal meetings, external meetings, client time and such.

If someone wanted a meeting they'd contact my admin who would assign a slot. If the meeting couldn't take place quick enough there were two choices - push another meeting further out, or create some additional meeting time. That typically meant working extra hours, as the banks productive activities really dominated.

Just because its difficult to schedule a meeting by no means implies they are doing nothing but meetings.

From my viewpoint, it seems culturally this organisation is very structured, so the question is really would you fit into a structured organisation?

No right or wrong answer, just seems to suit some people and not others.

I've worked in both structure and chaotic organisations, and tend to prefer the latter myself.
posted by Mutant at 8:37 AM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my experience, this is the very essence of large multinational corporate management. I would be very, very, very surprised to hear it was otherwise.

I guess I need to add some context to my question: I am already working at a managerial level within a large multinational and talk with others in other multinationals. And yes, my day is full of meetings and conference calls and I do a lot of my work at the end of the day or when I block some time in my diary to get stuff done in.

However, I had the impression from the feedback I received that this specific case is more extreme than my own organization or other organizations that I am familiar with in that time is allocated long in advance. When I look at my own busy schedule, I have tons of meetings, but, with a few exceptions, most of them have been scheduled a few weeks or less in advance - I do not have all my meetings scheduled for the entire year. I am concerned that having diaries filled up months in advance makes the organization much less agile and therefore makes it difficult to get stuff done and respond to organizational challenges or to do the lobbying and influencing that is required in order to get to the desired outcome. In addition, it sounds as if it would be unusually difficult to get people committed to work on projects if they do not have any time available.
posted by eurandom at 8:39 AM on March 6, 2010

I am an executive assistant, and the heavily-booked calendars you are describing do not sound unusual or alarming to me. I suppose to some extent, it would depend on the nature of the meetings. If these are Board of Directors-type meetings or recurring meetings of some sort of philanthropic activity, then those dates are usually set a year in advance, and someone's calendar can be filled quite quickly. When coordinating schedules with external high-level people, it can be much trickier than you would think and might necessitate booking far in advance. Most importantly, people's calendars, even heavily booked ones, are fluid things and by no means set in stone. If something important comes up, time will be made and other meetings will be moved. I don't think this is a red flag, but follow your instincts.
posted by katemcd at 9:06 AM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many of our senior executive meetings are calendared a year in advance. If you want to get all of those people at one meeting you need to get that scheduled. Also, scheduling in advance is extremely helpful to every lower level of the organization. There's a lot of pre-meeting work by staff. (Making a funding request in June? Your business case is due May 1. It will be reviewed at the Finance Directors meeting on May 5, Strategy on May 8...) The schedule rolls down and a lot of people have things on their calendar months in advance.

Then add in annual/quarterly activities such as shareholder meetings, annual reports. Those are all scheduled months ahead of the date. Next schedule meetings with lots of invites - all staff, etc. It's easy to have the calendar full. My calendar is about 40% scheduled until year-end. My direct reports are probably average 25% scheduled. Their reports vary, depending on the type of work the person does.

In a company with long calendars, there are a few strategies to get things accomplished.

• Roll your request into a scheduled meeting. Find out who controls that agenda and get yourself on it. In a company that schedules well ahead, you'll be considered a flake if you need to constantly schedule ad hoc meetings.

• Approach the executive about where to present material. As in, "We have this issue. It needs the attention of executives X, Y and Z. Do you want to schedule an ad hoc meeting?"

• Study the norms regarding meeting materials . If a meeting is scheduled a year in advance, then I shouldn't get the agenda the morning of the meeting. The discussion materials should be in the participants' hands well in advance. The expectation is that everyone has read the materials and had their teams do analysis in preparation for the meeting. The goal is to make a decison in one meeting. It's not meet, delegate for additional research, meet again, then decide.

• Step down one level to climb up. Can't get on an exec's calendar? Ask for a delegate. If it's within the delegate's authority, cool. If not, the delegate will get it on the correct person's calendar.

• Consider your own level of preparation. Every company culture has an acceptable level of "winging it". If something was scheduled 8 months ago, then you should walk into that meeting absolutely prepped. What constitutes fully prepared might be much different than in prior companies.
posted by 26.2 at 9:58 AM on March 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

More worrying is the fully booked meeting rooms!

But seriously, should you be worried can only be answered if you like that style of work. I remember interviewing for a job, and the guy who would be my team leader looked exhausted, harried, and was basically saying "oh my god I need someone, I have to have a holiday, its all too much I'm stressed to the max!". He was checking his blackberry during the interview with a worried look on his face every five seconds.

I thought to myself "is that what I want to be like?" - the answer was no and I turned the job down.

Mind you I'm currently posting this in the office on a Sunday ... so not sure it entirely worked out for me! :)
posted by Admira at 1:55 PM on March 6, 2010

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