Protect yourself from a power trip

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of getting crushed in a corporate meeting room.

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of getting crushed in a corporate meeting room. Swatted like a gnat, brushed aside, and put in our place. It's a humbling, but critical, rite of passage.

Navigating corporate power is like riding a bike - you have to fall a few times before you get the hang of it.

My first awful lesson came in the early '90s when I was a rising communications executive at a big auto company. We had engaged the Boston Consulting Group to help reorganize our US sales operations, and I was put in charge of the communications work team. I was invigorated and ready for the challenge. I was full of vim and vigor. I even had hair back then.

I convinced our CEO we needed a bold approach. I proposed an internal brochure with a dinosaur skeleton on its cover and the simple question: "Why did the dinosaurs die?"

The answer appeared when you opened the pamphlet: they couldn't adapt to a changing environment. The pamphlet then went through a simple, straightforward Q&A about why we needed to restructure and how it would all work.

The CEO, my team, and the Boston Consulting Group all loved it. I had presented the concept to the North American operating committee, who had enthusiastically given their go-ahead. We spent several weeks writing and designing the piece until it was time for final approval and I was back in front of the operating committee.

"I don't know," said the then-head of US sales, the second most powerful man in the com- pany. "What if it ends up in the press and people say we're like dinosaurs here?" I groaned si- lently and rolled my eyes, but knew better than to disrespect the question. I answered pa-tiently and, I thought, saliently, and explained how we had prepared for that possibility. But he was unswayed. He persisted on expressing doubts and he countered each of my points.

What I didn't realize until much later was he had his own frustrations with the restructuring. This debate was not really about my brochure, it was about him exerting his power.

But I was consumed by my own eagerness and ego. I would not back down. Then I did the worst thing I could: I whined.

"It won't be a problem," I said petulantly. "Besides, you guys already approved this!"

"Fine," he said and paused. "I disapprove it."

Bang! A steel door had just been shut in my face. I looked around the room for help, but it was clear I had made this particular bed and was now being forced to sleep in it. Eventually the guy relented, but he made me cajole, tweak, and scrape for another two weeks before letting the project move forward.

I committed a few fatal corporate errors that morning. First, I lost my perspective and acted immaturely. Then, I con-descended to someone who was more powerful than me. Finally, I expected help from others in the room, who ultimately felt no compunction to come to my rescue since I was clearly the one who had misbehaved.

Worst of all, I had gotten so emotionally invested in the project that I had momentarily forgotten the rules of corporate chess. I was only a pawn and I was going up against the queen. I forgot that queens can wreak destruction at will and that I was essentially powerless to prevent it. The minute I underestimated and disrespected the power of my opponent, I effectively defeated my own quest.

Trust me, it's not a mistake I've made again.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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