The key is to get yourself in the room explains Adam Fidler
The first rule is that there are no rules. But, in the absence of a “rule”, then try and agree with your boss what he finds acceptable and non-acceptable in terms of interrupting a meeting. I am often surprised at the number of PAs who say they never interrupt a meeting, or pop their head round the door. But in my experience, I’ve never not interrupted a meeting if I have felt it’s necessary, and I’ve never been told off for interrupting a meeting. So, to the PA who says “He doesn’t like me interrupting his meeting”, I would question whether they have actually ever been told this by their boss, or whether they just find the thought of interrupting a meeting more off-putting than actually doing it.
The second rule to bear in mind about interrupting a meeting is to accept that it’s part and parcel of the PA role. There will always be times when you need to interrupt a meeting, to pass on an urgent message, to let the boss know of an urgent telephone call, to help your boss stick to his schedule and remind him that his next visitor has arrived. Whatever the reason for the interruption, you should be comfortable and confident in doing it. Confidence often comes with practice. But, the best question to ask yourself is: “Does the outcome of me not telling the boss about this straightaway mean that this situation could be much worse if I tell him later on or after the meeting?” And if the answer is “yes”, then you have made a decision to interrupt a meeting and you should act on it.
You’ll need to use your judgement and knowing the boss – and your business organisation – will give you some pointers about when you should interrupt, but a lot of it comes down to common sense and experience. It is better to be safe than sorry, and the boss may thank you for interrupting a meeting if it saves time and effort in the long run.
The third rule about interrupting a meeting is that the way you interrupt the meeting is key – your body language will speak volumes. I have seen some absolute howlers of PAs interrupting meetings in my time; most I have observed would tap on the door, and then stick their head around the door, actively curving their body and using the door as a shield(!), or they would peer through the door, ajar, and expect their boss to be able to have a conversation with them through a tiny gap… their body language in both cases was obviously “I don’t want to come in; I’m scared of you all; and I am embarrassed to be doing this”. Little wonder their boss had no respect and responded accordingly.
The key is to get yourself in the room – upfront, confident and in full view of everyone so that you cannot be ignored. Mr or Miss Shrinking Violet won’t work in this situation – assertiveness in your body language and tone of voice is paramount.
Here are some other tips for interrupting a meeting:
Always tap at the door first (if closed), pause (count to three), and then enter the room confidently, with your back toward the door. Close the door behind you still with your back towards the door, so you are always facing forwards. This may need to be practiced, but can be done – no one wants to see the back of you, and by using your body language correctly, you command presence, respect and attention by the way you enter and by remaining front on. Then, you stand confidently by the door, or in your boss’ eyeline, until there is an appropriate pause in conversation to speak. Bosses who are used to their PA interrupting a meeting will often acknowledge you as you walk in, so they will, in effect, pave the way for you to announce why you’ve entered the room.
You should then always address the Chair of the meeting (normally your boss, if you are going into his office) and say something along the lines of: “Excuse me Richard, but I just want to remind you about your next meeting – you need to be leaving in 10 minutes” or “Excuse me Richard, but I have an urgent telephone call for you…” or “I am sorry to interrupt Richard, but…” Keep your opening line short and to the point, and remember whatever you say will be heard by everyone else. So, don’t say in front of everyone “Your wife has called and asked what you want for tea and she wants to know now!” (an exaggeration, I know, but it has happened!). The point is that sometimes you need to temper your message so the boss knows what you mean but no one else does.
Pass on your message, and after a response from the recipient, which may simply be a nod of the head or a smile, say “Thank you Richard”, and leave the room quietly; preferably again without turning your back to the door.
If the item you need to interrupt about is very confidential, you then have two options:
a. Type (yes, type – I never, ever handwrite any messages to my boss) – and take the item in on a small piece of paper folded over. You can then interrupt and pass on the confidential note for the boss to read. This works particularly well when the person you need to speak to is in a large meeting, with many delegates, or the room is very intimidating (eg a boardroom that is in darkness except for the glare of the OHP screen). You interrupt (or in the case of the board meeting, if there are lots of delegates, discretely enter by a side door), find the person you need to pass the urgent message to, then place your hand on his or her shoulder and discretely put the message in front of them. You then step back, ensure they have read the message, and don’t want you for anything (don’t take the paper in and then just run out – they may just want to make eye contact or nod to acknowledge they understand) before you discretely and quietly exit the room. They may even whisper something to you that they need you to do as a result of you passing the urgent message on.
b. You enter the room as before, but ask for the person to step out of the meeting. “Excuse me Richard, I have an urgent message for you – would you mind stepping outside for two minutes?”. I rarely use this tactic, as it would have to be something very confidential or desperate for me to pull someone out a meeting. But, I have used this when an urgent business matter needs more than a “yes” or a “no” from the boss and it simply can’t wait until the end of the meeting. (Most things luckily can wait until the end of a meeting.)
Above all, interrupting meetings is an art but should certainly not be dreaded or feared. Indeed, the top notch PA will never feel bad about stepping into a meeting that’s already started, and even hovering until the appropriate time for them to speak.
If done in a polite and assertive way it will command respect, and also increase the PA’s profile and visibility. Never should “Don’t shoot the messenger” spring to mind – but more of “In terms of your business life running smoothly, I would rather you know this now…”
And, on a final note – another tip related to going into meetings that have already started… If you are taking a drink or two in that you have made individually (rather than being on a trolley, from the catering department, for example) – always use a tray! Too many PAs try and balance two cups in their hands, with knocking on the door and then trying to open the door. Regrettably, human beings don’t have three hands, so the best solution is to invest in a good tray and keep it under your desk. You’ll be surprised how often you use it and again it looks much more professional when you are trying to accommodate the door, the boss, and a small tap before you enter their office!