Grassroots approach to getting a seat at the management table

Jay Rollins explains how showing initiative, doing leg work, and proving you add value to the company can lead to more invites to management meetings.

In growing companies, the IT work you do can be very dynamic. We struggle day in and day out to make the company more secure, protect it from disaster, and address PC and software issues, and somehow we manage to squeak out a new project here and there. But finding the right mix is one of IT's greatest challenges.

To come up with some sort of ratio (strategic projects 10%, break-fix 50%, data projects 20%, etc.) that fits every business and industry is similar to taking five 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles and mixing all of the pieces together in order to create one neat and tidy IT formula. The big analyst firms try to do this, but every company and situation has unique IT needs.

When IT pros make suggestions on how to run things better, we're usually told something along the lines of, "Shut up, computer guy. Go back to your room with all those flashing lights and spinning gizmos and let us run the business." Unfortunately, we have to contend with years of preconceived notions about IT pros. Stereotypes, Dilbert comics, and pop culture portrayals all come into play when we are working in these situations. So how do we combat this?

Let's assume that your IT department is focused primarily on break fix, and you do not have a seat at the management table. Reporting directly to the CEO and having her support in everything you do is one way, but if you are not lucky enough to be employed by your sister, there is a way to break through. This is a process and not a formula. The process needs to be tweaked for every environment, and it will experience different levels of success depending on how high of a perception mountain you must climb to get over the top, but it can and has worked.

  • Identify a key executive in the company. Look for one executive who impacts the bottom line or is a key player in what the company is trying to achieve (e.g., growth, cash flow maximization, market penetration, product differentiation, etc.).
  • Learn what the executive does that is so important to the company. Do not delegate this leg work to a subordinate. Understand the underlying processes that make this executive and her department so important to the company's goal.
  • Come up with a project or two that can help. One of the many strengths good IT people have is the ability to observe a process and come up with a technological solution to make it more efficient or effective or make the process have a greater impact. Work with a couple of the process owners to validate your ideas. Be sure the project is aligned with the department's priorities (and, hopefully, the company's priorities).
  • Do the project. Find the budget and find the time, but do it... personally. And, yes, this is in addition to your day job. This does not have to be a huge project. A nice quick win project is all that is needed.
  • Blow your own horn. Call a meeting with the key executive and present the project: "Sally and I have been working on this on the side. I think it will make a significant impact on X, Y, and Z. Here's how it would work...."

You have demonstrated an interest in an important aspect of the business; you showed initiative to fix a problem or improve a process; and you got buy-in and adoption of the project at the process-owner level. It didn't cost the executive anything, and it demonstrates that you know and understand her priorities. Basically, you just added value.

You will likely have to perform this task a few times and across a couple of other disciplines in the company before you start seeing a shift. When projects or initiatives come up, you will be sought out for input. Slowly, but surely, the executive team knows that you can make them look good. The more you do that, the more they'll want you to be involved.

If you don't see results after you attempt this approach a few times, one of two things is happening:

  • You are not adding as much value as you think. The projects are not making the right impact on the business or are not correctly aligned with corporate objectives.
  • You are working for some un-insightful executives who are more interested in their fiefdoms than improving the company.

If the latter is likely what is happening, you can be more forceful about inclusion in management meetings. It would be helpful to have an executive sponsor, but now that you have been involved in the inner workings of several key departments, you have a more specific idea of how everything works together. You are talking from facts and firsthand knowledge. This knowledge, coupled with an appropriate approach, can get you your seat at the management table.

Either way, you still have to fight for it. It is just easier to do with other executive sponsorship.