I’ve gone to a lot of conferences and events for communications execs over the years. I’ve also attended a lot of company strategy meetings, and I’ve noticed an indelible pattern.
Get any group of communicators together and I guarantee that before the end of the evening someone will whine about not having “a seat at the table.” “They don’t understand what we do,” someone will say. “They don’t value us,” someone will add. “They think all we can do is write press releases—they don’t include us in planning or decision-making.”
Get any group of company strategists around a table for an important discussion and ask them why the communicator’s not sitting there too, and with one voice they’ll tell you that it’s because they don’t understand the business, and the numbers behind it. “He’s been here for two years,” a friend explained to me about the head of PR at his company, “and he doesn’t understand the most basic equation of how we make money.”
Sadly, this is often true—but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to start earning that seat at the table.
â–¶ Take a class: Economics 101, Finance and Accounting for Non-Financial Professionals, the basics of Agricultural Economics, international data privacy law—whatever the business of your business is, there’s a course out there that will help you understand it better. Check your local community college or university extension offerings, but look online, too. “Massive open online courses” (Moocs) are revolutionizing the educational world with free, online courses open to everyone; the top colleges in the U.K. just announced the launch of FutureLearn, designed to rival Coursera and EdX, the U.S. companies that pioneered this space. It’s never been easier, or cheaper, to expand your knowledge base.
â–¶ Read a book: And I’m not talking about the newest novel or murder mystery. I’m talking about the books that CEOs are reading and thinking about: Steven Leavitt and Steven Dubner’s “Freakonomics,” Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” No matter what business your company is in, it’s part of a larger world where political and cultural currents are shaping big economic trends. Read a book about something you don’t know anything about, like China. Ask yourself, “What should my company be thinking about to get ahead of this?”
â–¶ Build your internal network: Whether you work at an agency or in-house, chances are you spend most of your time with people who work on your account teams or in your department. Vow to change this in 2013—step outside your office or cubicle and walk the halls. Find someone who works in risk management and ask him or her out to lunch. If you’re on the agency’s corporate team, choose someone from the tech team and ask him or her to walk you through his or her accounts. Ask people, “What are you working on? What keeps you up at night? If I want to understand what you do, what question should I ask you?” Most people will be happy to share.
â–¶ Read a good book: We talk a lot about storytelling in the communications world, but how long has it been since you read a really compelling story? I’m thinking Willa Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country,” Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” Robert Lewis Taylor’s “Travels of Jamie McPheeters.” Old or new, fiction or nonfiction, a book where the writing itself inspires you and the story opens a window onto an unfamiliar world. The ability to bring a new insight to the discussion—or to frame an old story in a new way—is key to adding value.
â–¶ Ask: No matter how good a manager or mentor someone is, they probably don’t spend a ton of time thinking about how best to advance your knowledge or career. That’s your job. One of the best ways to earn a seat at the table is to start being seen sitting at the table. Explain to your manager (or another department manager): “I really want to start learning more about how the business works, and I thought the Risk Management department would be a good place to start. Would it be OK if I sat in on your team meeting for a few weeks?” Unless the information being covered is highly confidential, the answer will probably be “Sure.” Your first time, don’t say anything, but “Thank you for letting me sit in; that was really interesting.” Your second time, float your idea by someone you trust: “I had an idea after listening to you all discuss the QQQ challenge—have you ever thought about trying YYY?” After that, follow your gut. PRN
Beth Haiken is VP of corporate citizenship & communications at Waypoint Homes Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.