This is the first of a series of posts, based on an article that first appeared in the Journal of Employee Communications Management.
It’s the Holy Grail, the career pinnacle, the place where we are all supposed to want to be: sitting proudly, confidently (and perhaps with just a slight smirk of self-satisfaction) at the so-called strategic table. That’s the place in any big organization where the real decisions are made, the long-term direction is set, the moment-by-moment tactics are hashed out in the heat of crisis. A place that smells of leather and cigar smoke with a panoramic view, where food comes out on shiny trolleys just when you’re feeling peckish, and the coffee pot is always full.
And it’s a table on which, in nine out of 10 businesses, non-profits, associations or government departments, there is no seat for a communicator. Not even a place setting. Not even a friggin’ kids table in the next room.
For years and years I have joined my fellow communicators in bemoaning this fact, and I have sat in keynote conference sessions listening to respected senior communicators give inspiring motivational speeches telling us how we can earn those executive washroom keys.
It’s hard work, we’re told, but the path is clear: What we have to do is make sure everything we do is aligned with the goals of our organization. We need to prove that our work has a measurable impact on the bottom line. We must build detailed plans, and pitch those plans to executives using the language of business. And then we must execute those plans with the precision of a CFO, the crazed energy of a sharp-toothed operations executive, and all the bullheaded stick-to-it-iveness of a marketing VP. In other words, if we act like business people, we will be treated like business people.
If we don’t, the party line goes, we will all be relegated to mere “tacticians”----lowly “order-takers” who get the sausage factory jobs of communicating the latest changes to the pension plan, how we’re working together to make a safer workplace, and how management is “operationalizing” its long term strategic vision to the benefit of all stakeholders. And other forms of finely pureed B.S.
Interesting. My spell checker puts a red line under operationalizing, and Microsoft suggests I replace it with “operational zing.” Zing indeed. Like white-shirted, laptop-wielding cheerleaders, we non-strategic types are expected to put some well-choreographed zing into our sad sack workforce with saccharine, controversy-free prose that warms executives’ cold hearts and prompts violent eye-rolling among everyone else.
Well, I’m here today to tell you that I’ve been a temporary dinner guest at that strategic table more than a few times in my long and sordid career. And I’m ready to share a little secret: most of the time the guests are insane and the food is undercooked, overcooked, rotten or poisoned. Very few decisions actually ever get made. Long-term direction is often nothing more than the path of least resistance, or whatever your cranky investors are insisting you do next. And battle tactics are devised in a very deep, cushy bunker in which the primary goal is not victory, but self-preservation.
Want to have the ear of your CEO? Fat chance. So few chief executives actually listen to anyone, let alone a lowly communicator, that you might as well just forget it.
Want to be seen as a “go-getter” and turbo-charge your flagging career? All you have to do is commit philosophical suicide, throw away your values and submit to the Tyranny of the Positive – that weird weather system that moved into the corporate world about 20 years ago in which there are no problems (just challenges) no stupid situations (just opportunities for positive change), and no bad decisions (just difficult situations that occurred because of “unanticipated market conditions”).
The simple fact that the strategic table, as it is postulated by our profession, is not the right place for us, and we should not aspire to sit at it. We just don’t belong there.
Communicators, after all, have many qualities that do not suit them to an executive role. We are compassionate. We are sensitive to the needs of others and we can almost always see an argument from both sides. We are drawn to conflict and crisis, not because we need to breath the fresh air of victory, but because we are compelled to fight for peace, reconciliation, renewal, and hope. In the world of big organizations, we are the closest thing there is to a shaman or witchdoctor, a mystic who heals with spells, metaphors and symbolic actions. Or, to put it in more modern and mundane terms, we are corporate social workers who gently intervene in the family battle and say things that help everyone make nice with each other.
If that’s how we’re wired, then why in heaven’s name should we want to behave like executives … or like business people?
I heard recently that some academics are studying how the characteristics of textbook psychopaths are ideally suited to the role of today’s CEO--a lack of conscience, an extremely high opinion of oneself verging on narcissism, an ability to manipulate any situation in one’s favor, a wildly attractive combination of charisma and cruelty that inspires unquestioning devotion as well as blind, fearful servitude. And the potential to inflict severe and lasting damage on organizations and the people who inhabit them.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all CEOs are psychopaths. Some are great engineers who progressed up the ladder until they finally got a job they aren’t suited to. Others are business geniuses who are just kind of retarded when it comes to dealing with people. And still others are nice, well-intentioned, smart, ambitious folks who get caught up in the trappings of executive power and lose their ability to communicate effectively with anyone but their fellow executives. The common thread is today’s executives live in a world that is very far away from the working stiff. A world where it makes a big difference whether you earn two million or four million a year, and where profile, prestige and power are the drugs of choice.
"THE MYTH OF THE 'STRATEGIC COMMUNICATOR" CONTINUES IN THE NEXT POST.