I recently asked some of my clients and colleagues to name their biggest internal communications challenge. This one was a favorite: Communicators don’t have a seat at the table.
Communicators say this so often it sometimes feels like it’s our profession’s mantra.
And, where is Clint Eastwood when we need him?
The seat-at-the-table gripe means 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.
I don’t 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 have grappled with this issue longer than I have.
To have influence, you must demonstrate skill and functional expertise. But it comes down to positioning yourself not just as a fine communicator, but a leader.
To that end, here are the four best pieces of advice I’ve heard along the way:
1. Quit doing things that don’t matter.
Senior-level communicators often complain about “tactical work,” like crafting memos and slides 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, and we’re good at it, darn it!
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 to volunteer to write drafts for her to review, and she slowly began to rebrand herself as an executive who could write—not a writer in an executive position.
2. Aim not for perfection, but “good enough.”
As an incurable overachiever, I take perverse pleasure in blowing people’s expectations out of the water. For years I’d edit the junior staff’s prose within an inch of its life before I sent it to a client. You’d think I was delivering the Magna Carta instead of an article on repaving the employee parking lot.
The problem is obsessing over details takes time—time you could spend developing new ideas. I had a boss tell me to stop line-editing and give general comments instead, no matter how much it hurt.
I hated it at first. I read an uninspired lead sentence and felt the mouse start to move. The “track changes” button called 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 OK, it’s essential if you’re going to get anything done.
I still pause when I see passive voice and I think, “That’s not how I would have 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 of 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 me?
3. Make decisions, even if they anger people.
Years ago I worked with a communications VP who asked every other VP at the company for feedback on one PowerPoint slide.
It was close to midnight. The building was graveyard silent and dark as December—except for this woman. She hunched over her desk, ensuring the VPs who signed off on the slide earlier in the day agreed with the changes other VPs made in the evening. I have no idea what time she went home that night, or if she did at all.
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 and made 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.
4. Carry yourself like a leader.
All too often communicators behave like reporters. We loiter outside an executive’s door and wait for 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. Don’t be 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 a winner while they get exactly what they want. People will ask for your input because they think it’s worth seeking out.
Getting a seat at the table doesn’t mean people like you. It means they respect you.