Work the Table
Many moons ago, I found myself in a situation where my head of department, who had taken a real shine to me when we first met, had decided, for reasons which I've never been entirely clear on, that I was now persona non grata! What made that particularly challenging was that this wasn't a job that I disliked and was considering leaving; this was a job I absolutely LOVED! So I spoke to my boss, the span-breaker between me and the department head. As is my way, I was very candid. 'I can tell there's something going on here, but I don't really understand what it is, or why it's happened, and I'm not entirely sure how to fix it!'
But the problem was, that the boss didn't really understand what had happened either! There was nothing around my performance that was causing any alarm whatsoever, quite the opposite, in fact. And there had been no behavioural infractions to speak of. The whole thing was a mystery! So I suggested a solution: 'Why don't I put in time with the head of department and clear the air?' The response from my boss could not have been clearer - DO NOT do that!! You see, this individual had a reputation for being somewhat volatile. Deciding on a whim that someone was the best thing since sliced bread, and then deciding on the next whim that they were the worst thing since a pint of bin juice, was not unheard of, and unbeknown to me, when other individuals, in various roles and departments, had been declared persona non grata by this head of department in the past, and had tackled it in the way I suggested, it had not landed well at all!
So what to do?
I thought long and hard about this. What I'm doing isn't working, and reaching out directly seems destined to make things worse. Vouching for myself isn't a very good idea, when I'm the person whose brand is viewed unfavourably; People don't believe the message, unless they believe in the messenger, after all! And in that idiom, lay the answer! I needed messengers who were believed in, to carry my message for me!
I drew a picture of a table, with the head of department seated at the top, and around the table, I wrote in the names of all of the people who I believed were seen by that person, as trusted advisors. Who were the people whose opinion held enough sway to influence the head of department? On the list they went. Next, I considered my relationship with each of these trusted advisors and I reflected on our most recent interactions. Who would have good things to say about me? Who would be an advocate or a cheerleader for me, around the imaginary table? Much like a stakeholder mapping exercise, I considered which of those relationships were broken, basic or brilliant, and I went about building and growing them all in turn. I proactively reached out to offer support. I brought ideas and energy and enthusiasm to them. I shared information with them that I thought could be helpful. And slowly but surely, our blossoming relationships lead to positive opinions of me filtering across the table and my relationship with the head of department was restored!
Is this a cynical ploy? I'm not sure. I've asked myself this a lot, and I was very conscious of the game playing and politics that existed in a big corporation and I sought to avoid them wherever possible - but I wasn't willing to allow one severed relationship to take a job from me that I absolutely loved, and so I found a way that allowed me do what I'm good at (building relationships) to restore it. Perhaps it was naive of me not having done this in the first place. I know now that indirect influence is huge, as we can see when we read customer reviews before we buy on our favourite shopping websites or ask our local facebook group for a good plumber or electrician. I probably should have recognised the potential impact (good or bad) that this head of department could have on my career and managed the imaginary table accordingly, but I'm a quick learner and its a mistake I haven't made again!
Years later, when working as a coach and leadership consultant to a new Senior Manager in a Technology function, I came across a similar problem. The head of the business for whom my client was the Technology lead, seemed to have an unfavourable view - perhaps not of my client in particular, but certainly of what his team did and how they did it. This was a historic problem and, ultimately, had been a key reason in the change of leadership which had brought my client to the role. He was doing great work and was keen to make a positive impact, but was struggling for traction. So I introduced the idea of the table, we sketched it out, and off we went!
He built his relationship with the finance lead, the HR lead, the risk lead, and all of the other key influencers to the head of department, one by one and through authenticity, support and care. And slowly but surely, the head of department was hearing a different story around that table about my client to the one that they'd heard about his predecessor, and started to take note. From there, great things happened and my client, as well as his boss, couldn't have been happier!
Where is there a table that needs your attention? Whose opinion of you, would it serve you to improve? Maybe it's time to get your notebook out and build a plan. Maybe it's time to work the table!