The Corporate Table

My parents were each raised in a family of ten children, my father, the oldest and my mother the youngest. Having been raised with three younger brothers, I can’t imagine what the dinner table would have been like if I were the youngest of ten. Perhaps there is some truth to the connection between your success and your birth position in your family. At some point, one must simply decide to demand your fair share. However, there is much to learn before you reach out for that very last drumstick.

It is interesting that the challenge I have coached new managers on most often is just that. They fret and worry over what to say and when to say it. Then, devoid of results, they become silent and settle for leftover crumbs. Being at the table does not necessarily assure that you get to eat. So let’s look at a few reasons why we go hungry even when we are invited to the table.

Why are you there?

At mealtime, you are there to enjoy food prepared for you. In some homes, there is a mediator; someone who ensures that each person is treated fairly. This may be achieved by Mom preparing plates for each person. It may be handled by Father at the end of the table barking orders to assure an even distribution. In some cases, it may be a free-forall; the strongest and loudest receiving the most. It is no different at the corporate table. The first rule for new managers is to be truly present, observe intently and listen closely. What is the culture of this table? Who speaks and when? How often do people speak and who listens? Do people speak in turn? Is there order or chaos to the discussions? What is the reaction of others at the table? Is there a mediator? How does the mediator ensure fair discussions…or not?

Are you a guest, presenter or decision-maker?

When you are invited to dinner at someone else’s home, a different scenario usually unfolds. Everyone may be more cordial; the father may not need to make a sound instead flashing a look or simply clearing his throat will effect change. As a guest, you may not see the true dynamics of the table. A new manager may need to reflect on this for a few meetings. Are you considered a guest? Are you there to make a formal presentation or to help the group come to a consensus? If so, the dynamics will be just under the surface. As an invited manager, you must be vigilant in your observation. As you present, notice slight shifts in attention. Listen carefully to where and from whom the questions emerge. Carefully assess the groups’ reaction and response to those questions. The reaction of the group is as important as your response to the question.

Who else has been invited?

When you show up for dinner and the entire extended family has been invited, what is the message? It most often signals “importance”. It may be a result of your attendance or it may be that something much bigger is going on. It most families, a simple question will provide the answer. Not so, at the corporate table. Once again, a new manager’s ability to observe and read the room comes into play. Who else has been invited? What level of seniority are they? Are they decision-makers, finance gurus or operations focused? The answers to these questions allow the manager to understand better what role he or she should play in the ensuing discussions. The more important the unexpected guests, the more important the menu.

What is on the Menu?

Ah, the menu. There are so many signals in the menu. Did you know what was on the menu before you arrived? Is it the same menu every time? Is the menu designed to support one person’s needs or desires? Has the menu changed drastically? Is this a Thanksgiving-type menu or a simple appetizer? In my experience, the corporate menu rarely changes. So the slightest alteration is a signal. It is in a new manager’s best interest to determine before you arrive if the menu (agenda) has changed. It is your first clue that others may be invited; changes are on the horizon; an announcement is imminent; a decision is pending. You will rarely know (as a new manager) what is about to take place. However, you will be prepared and steadied in your response.

In conclusion

Listen, observe and be silent until you understand the dynamics. As you become more proficient, you should develop mentors and champions to lead you through the mine field. They are invaluable in maneuvering at the corporate table. The ability to exude professional presence while gaining a clear understanding of the corporate culture is a trait of a strong leader. Maintaining composure under fire while showing restraint will allow the meal to be served without you as the main course.

Next Time: Demanding Your Place at the Table