Earning a Seat at the Cool Kid’s Table

In many ways, business is simply high school on steroids, where fitting in means playing it cool. Want a seat at the cool kid’s table? Get a point-of-view that allows for the fact that you do not, cannot and never will know everything.

The executive team had flown in from Europe. The meeting was a big deal. One of our top two global partners was going to announce a major shift in strategy that would not only change the market dynamics, but in some cases place us in direct competition. The executive briefing lasted almost 9 hours. It was death by PowerPoint with so many new TLAs (three-letter acronyms) sprinkled in that no one in the audience had a clear understanding of either what was said or its implications.

Remarkably, no one raised a hand to say, “What the heck are you talking about?” As the meeting ended and we flowed out into the halls, the anxiety was clear. One executive leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Did you understand any of that?”

Working in Asia, I learned that the Q&A interplay we take for granted here in the West is considered impolite to the presenter. During one of my presentations, I spurred the audience to share their perspectives and one young man summoned the nerve to raise his hand. From his comment, it was clear that’s he’d misunderstood one small part of the content and my response clarified the concept for him. After that, there wasn’t a single question, comment or raised hand. Culturally, the young man had taken a big risk in questioning me and when I corrected him, I’d unknowingly shamed him publically.

The two experiences have much in common, chief of which is that there is an unwritten rule in business that it’s better to keep quiet than to admit you don’t know or understand. It’s unlikely this rule will change anytime soon, but here are two things you can do to increase your understanding and keep your reputation in tact.

#1. Build a personal business dictionary.  Make a quick list of the 10 or 20 buzzwords floating around your organization (leadership, management, strategy, you name it) and write out what each one means to you. You don’t have to be correct or perfect as you can always adjust your thinking as you work with the concepts.

#2. Clarify by offering meaning.  Leaders are makers of meaning, so instead of asking what a concept means, offer your understanding of the concept and ask for confirmation. This is where your personal business dictionary comes in. The approach positions you as someone with a point-of-view and places you at the center of a conversation that may provide high-value clarification for others in the room.

Soon, you’ll be sitting at the cool kid’s table where you belong!