Career Advice: Be at the Table

Board Room MeetingIt’s easy to get caught up in the sea of advice from well-meaning friends and family members when trying to make the most of career opportunities.  Platitudes like “show up early to work every day” and “always take time to organize your work” seem great in theory, but can you make them work in the rush of practical reality?  More importantly, should you be focused on following these rules?  Is there some bigger plan you should be following?

I like to think in terms of first principles.  What are the most fundamental truths about moving up the ladder, becoming a decision-maker, and getting the kind of recognition and pay you want?

Here’s one.  If you want to be a decision-maker, be at the table when decisions are made.  I’ve talked elsewhere about a small, but meaningful decision early in my career when I attended a brown-bag lunch with my company’s CEO in order to learn about a new revenue stream we wanted to capture.  Officially, the leadership team called the lunch to provide a general FYI, but really they needed to decide who was interested, and who they could involve in the effort.  My willingness to show up and ask questions got me noticed by senior management and eventually helped me land my first job as a full-fledged manager.

Sometimes being at the table means asking your boss to attend a big meeting “just to watch” and learn how deals are done.  Then there’s this gem, buried on a random page in the backwaters of the internet.  I stumbled on it recently, and found a great snippet hiding 1/3 of the way down the page, where CEO Matt Mochary talks about being so clueless in his younger years that he decided his highest value was bringing coffee to the boss.  This inadvertently put him “in the room” as the information flowed, decisions were made, and he had a chance to build relationships with the people who got deals done.

In case you’re not convinced yet, consider this story from President Obama’s first term in office.  Even if you’re not the leader of the free world, you may find that a meeting or impromptu gathering is going to occur and you didn’t get a formal invitation.  Is there a way to score an invite second-hand?  If you just happen to be in the building, will you be able to join the conversation?  Would anyone really kick you out if you just showed up?  I don’t recommend this tactic in every situation, but judicious application of the “ask forgiveness, not permission” rule can yield significant dividends.

So how could you implement this idea?  Is there a particular meeting where the leaders in your organization or business unit regularly gather to make decisions?  Where does your boss go (and when) to consult with peers and move business forward?  Hint: there’s more than one right answer.  How can you get invited?

Have you already done this?  How did it work out?  Post a comment below or message me privately here.  I’d love to hear your story.