Decision-making table requires an etiquette for effectiveness

A few years ago, I was taking part in a monthly executive council meeting. Just as I was making an emphatic point about something, my hand clipped the top of my cup, spilling coffee onto the polished surface of the boardroom table.

A few years ago, I was taking part in a monthly executive council meeting. Just as I was making an emphatic point about something, my hand clipped the top of my cup, spilling coffee onto the polished surface of the boardroom table.

My most vivid memory is of my boss, the CEO, flinging me a wad of napkins to mop up the mess.

In the end, my little faux pas was forgotten, and I've managed to keep my place at the decision-making table through the years. But just as at your mother's formal dining table - you know, the one only used on Thanksgiving - there are some key rules of etiquette at this table, as well, and these are mostly unwritten.

First, and most important, to keep your place at that table, you have to be prepared, ready and willing to speak up, and wise enough to know when to remain silent. To be a credible participant, you really have to know the language of business. That means having a genuine working knowledge of what makes the business run, how the numbers are counted, and where the leverage points reside. More than just the language, you also have to know the issues. What is on the minds of your boss and your colleagues? Do you understand the realities being faced in legal, finance, operations, marketing and human resources? Are you prepared to defend your position within the context of these larger issues?

In addition to knowing the language and the issues, you must be able to offer both strategies and tactics. You should be helping shape the strategy that will be used to address your organization's issues and challenges. You can also help your colleagues assess the realities of the outside world as together you make critical decisions about the future. You can then determine the most effective ways in which these actions and decisions will be best understood by all stakeholders, and assess how they will support or potentially depart from the company's core values.

To be most effective, you must also demonstrate the behaviors that you are advocating, such as candor, sincerity, and humility. Humility, you ask? Just consider how many of the reputation meltdowns we have seen in the past few years originated in an arrogant corporate culture.

Can we make a difference by taking our place as knowledgeable and active participants at the table? Absolutely. How much more effective is an informed and motivated work force? Do investors seek companies with leaders they can trust? Are consumers motivated solely by product attributes, or are they also impacted by fulfillment of the brand promise?

The best decisions are made when decision makers have considered all potential impacts. How we inform our employees helps build employee pride. How we convey the strengths of our products and services influences buying decisions. How credibly we inform the investment community helps create long-term value. We have an important role to play in each of these dimensions. Clear, consistent communications can transform strategy into successful action.

Welcome to the table. Just watch the coffee cups.

Tom Martin is SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries.

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