Thursday, October 18, 2012
Four pieces of advice for communicators seeking a seat at the table
I recently polled some of my clients and colleagues, asking them to name their single-biggest internal communications challenge. Over the next few months I’m going to address some of these topics, starting with this perennial favorite:
Communications doesn’t have a seat at the table.
First, two thoughts: 1) Communicators say this so often it sometimes feels like our profession’s official mantra. 2) Where is Clint Eastwood when we need him?
The seat-at-the-table grip means that the people who make big important decisions don’t consider communications integral to business planning. They ask communicators to draft a memo to announce changes after they’ve already been finalized.
What we’re really asking for is not a piece of furniture but a say.
Now, I won’t even pretend to have all the solutions here. But in my career I’ve been fortunate to learn from many talented, savvy people and mentors who’ve grappled with this issue far longer than I. Certainly, to have influence, you must demonstrate skill and functional expertise. But I’d argue that it comes down to positioning yourself not just as a fine communicator but a leader in your own right.
To that end, here are the four best pieces of advice I’ve gotten along the way:
Quit doing things that don’t matter.
Senior-level communicators often complain about doing “tactical work,” crafting memos and slides all day long instead of advising leaders on strategy and other important-sounding things. Sometimes there’s no choice, especially when the communications director is a staff of one and the CEO wants something yesterday. Too often communicators fall back into a tactician role because it’s comfortable. We volunteer to write things because we like to write – we’re good at it, dammit!
One of my clients was promoted to a director role but struggled to break free of her more junior duties. Leaders knew she was a former journalist, so they often tapped her to write recaps of their weekly meetings. One day, she did something bold. She stopped taking notes so no one could ask her to write the summary. Soon others started volunteering to write a draft for her to review, and she began slowly rebranding herself as an executive who could write, not a writer in an executive position.
Aim not for perfection but for “good enough.”
As an incurable overachiever, I take perverse pleasure in blowing people’s expectations out of the water. For years I’d edit prose written by junior staff within an inch of its life before sending to a client – you’d think I was delivering the Magna Carta instead of an article on repaving the employee parking lot. Problem is, obsessing over details takes time – time you could spend developing new ideas. I had a boss tell me to stop line-editing work and instead give general comments, no matter how much it hurt.
At first I hated it. I’d read an uninspired lead sentence and feel the mouse start to move, the Track Changes button calling to me like a pile of hash browns after a late night in Vegas. Eventually, I realized that letting go of the details is not just okay – it’s essential if you’re going to get anything done. Yes, my heart still pauses when I see passive voice and I think, that’s not how I would’ve written this. That’s when I remind myself that the work has to meet the client’s standards, not mine. Unless the client is as much as a stickler as I am, they’d usually rather have something error-free and acceptable in short order than wait around for Pulitzer-worthy work. Ask yourself: Who am I perfecting this for – the person who requested it, or for myself?
Make decisions, even when it pisses people off.
Years ago I worked with a communications VP who literally asked every other VP at the company for feedback on one PowerPoint slide. One slide. It was close to midnight, the building was graveyard silent and dark as December. Except for this woman. She hunched over her desk, checking that the VPs who signed off on the slide earlier in the day agreed with the changes that other VPs made later in the evening. I have no idea what time she went home that night or if she even did at all.
Now, you could say she was just being collaborative or extremely diligent. Maybe, but I suspect she acted this way because she hated making decisions. The other VPs were her peers. She ran the communications department. The call was hers to make, but she shunned that responsibility by making it everyone else’s. Eventually it undermined her credibility, as the other VPs viewed her not as an equal but an order-taker.
Here’s what I learned: Take a stand. Make the call. It may not always be the right one, but that’s part of being a leader. Ask for input and make others feel heard, but don’t try to please everyone. It’s one thing to make people happy. It’s another to earn their respect.
Carry yourself like a leader.
All too often communicators behave like reporters. We loiter outside an executive’s door waiting for them to give us a quote. We ask for permission instead of buy-in for our ideas. We agree to unreasonable deadlines in the interest of keeping people happy. Early in my career, I was the official communicator for my company’s diversity council. I’d walk into the oak-paneled conference room where the group held its monthly meetings, notebook in hand, and slink into an inconspicuous seat in the corner. One of the council members eventually told me to sit at the table with everyone else. “You’re a full-fledged member of this team, but you’re sitting back there like a stenographer,” he said. “There will always be people who devalue you. Don’t do it for them.”
My lesson: Carry yourself with confidence, not the person who “just runs the intranet.” Watch how business executives interact with their peers: They interrupt each other. They fight for their ideas. They ask for what they need. I’m not saying you should become a condescending twit. On the contrary – some of the best communication leaders I’ve worked with know how to make everyone feel like the winner while getting exactly what they want. People will ask for your input because they think it’s worth seeking out. The seat at the table doesn’t mean people like you. It means they respect you.