Friday, January 22, 2010

Earning a Place and Using Power for Good

Yesterday was the end of hell week.  It concluded with a 5-star dinner at 42 in White Plains.  I almost turned down the invitation.  You know how you sometimes wonder if you really belong in the room?  I was the only manager invited - all others were at a minimum VPs, and most were division heads, CEOs and Board Members. But in the end I decided to go and clutching my single glass of champagne in my hand (as it doesn't do to overindulge in this setting) I enjoyed meeting the leaders of our new MERGER company.  Although my attitude lately has been much more an affected "Don't really care...." to save my frustration energy, it was good to actually have a couple of hours where the merger seemed exciting again, and not just a chore. 

I was one of the first to enter the dining room and I selected an empty table - mostly for the view of the night skyline.  Lo and behold, I was joined by the Chairman of the Board, the Global CEO, the President of the Environmental Division, the CEO of the Operating Company in France, my company's Chief Technology Officer, and the Operations Leader of the Americas.  Yes...little ole me.

I learned a long time ago, that the best way to be comfortable in these situations is to shake off the title business and just talk to these guys like normal human beings.  I've also found that asking about personal life, children, vacations, homes, etc. is the best way to get people to talk and fill those initial awkward silences and also to connect human to human.   In the last couple of years I've received some comments on my reviews from "optional evaluators" that I seem to be more comfortable with executives than peers or junior staff.  One person said, "she terrifies my staff."  Little ole me? 

Anyway, I've thought about it and I think it may actually be the opposite.  Many people get tongue-tied around these guys and believe me - some of the executives are just as uncomfortable.  I think by shedding my own discomfort and just talking like a normal person, I put them at ease, and it becomes easier for us as well.

Have you heard this joke?  How can you tell the difference between an introverted engineer and and extroverted engineer?

An introverted engineer looks at HIS shoes when he's talking.
An extroverted engineer looks at YOUR shoes.

Believe me, after working with engineers for over 20 years I know this is an unfair stereotyping, but it is  also true enough to be pretty amusing.

Last night the Global CEO stood up and made some comments midway through the meal.  His enthusiasm is genuine and infectious.  He also indicated the integration is difficult.  (Nice to know he's noticing).  He said one of the biggest issues is our tendency to keep secrets.  We aren't communicating enough.  Have I mentioned in this blog how often our team has tried to get communications moving and how often the MERGER integration leaders have killed it?  So a bit later Global CEO was talking to me and asked about why we are so secretive?  I decided to truthfully answer.  "Truthfully Mr. Global CEO, we have a very difficult time getting approvals."  "Ah," he responded, "From clients?"  "Well....sometimes, but more often it is from inside."

He looked at me in silence for a few moments.  I didn't regret saying it, but I wondered if he would react negatively.  Finally, he looked at me and said, "Wenderina, (in his charming Dutch accent) - then I would say, break all the rules."  After jokingly gathering witnesses to this statement from others at the table, I promised him I would.

Shortly after this my CEO stood to make some remarks and he specifically thanked me for my work on the development of our new global business line.  I was stunned.  The meal continued and I was asked for my opinion on value-based marketing, competitive advantage, best practices for marketing, communications strategies, branding, etc.  It was a heady night.

As we prepared to leave, one of the executives stopped me at the door.  I had confessed to him earlier I wasn't sure why I was invited.  "Now, Wenderina..." he said, "Now do you feel like you belonged in that room?"

And you know what?

For maybe the first time in my life I did.  I fit in.  So now, my question is, how to use this newfound "power" for good.


Pat said...

You go girl! I hope this helps you to know how talented you are.

Anonymous said...

You really are a Big Kahuna - you've earned your stripes (or whatever it is that Big Kahunas have) - so be proud of yourself! Well done!

JeannetteLS said...

I don't know you--I know only what I read on your blogs, yet whenever you write about work, about tough business choices, about what's on your mind there--seems to me your thought wreak of common sense and creativity combined. (Maybe wreak was a bad choice there) The thought processes you share also ALWAYS reflect a determination to find the ethical choice, the one of integrity without sacrificing an outcome that would be a business success. I think it's wonderful that you were rewarded for this at that luncheon and in a way that has a chance of letting you FEEL your own worth. Okay. I'll stop.


Jude said...

What do you do with this new found use it for all it's worth! you see - everyone accept you new you had "it"!

mkosboth said...

GO YOU! I tend to approach people higher up than me just like you do. And I would have handled the situation you describe with the communication question exactly the same way. If your gut tells you he really wants to know and is interested in opening the lines of communication, the follow your instincts. Too many people get caught in the That's The Way We Have Always Done It mentality instead of really looking at the possibilities. I suspect one day you will be one of the VPs in the room.