If you’ve ever been on a committee, or on any type of board, you know that if you miss a meeting, there is a good chance you will be assigned to lead a project that no one else wanted. It’s something that we all dread, but come to expect when you’re not there to defend yourself. Now, imagine that you’re never there, but still have to take on all those unwanted projects. That’s what many of us on the administrative side of law firms face. It really doesn’t matter what department you are in… if you have no say in the decision making, there’s a good chance that decisions will be made for you.
I was at a meeting this weekend, and heard this succinctly said by former Houston City Council member, Sue Lovell, when she was discussing political decision making. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” That made me sit up and pay attention because it resonated with me about the law firm environment, and how business decisions are made, and tasks are doled out to those that are absent, and even worse, those that had no voice or representation during the decision making.
How many times have we found ourselves tasked with projects that we know are fruitless, but by the time we understand what our role is, the other pieces of the project are already in motion? There’s no turning back, and if you jump in and say “hey, what you’re wanting me to do is not possible!” No… you don’t want to be seen as that person that tosses the monkey wrench into the project, so you do what you can, and hope that someone else fails before you do.
We all have to find ways to “be at the table.” Now that doesn’t mean that you have to physically need to be sitting at the table when decisions are made, but it does mean that your voice has to be represented in some way before decisions are finalized and action plans are put into place. I have a “C” title, but that doesn’t buy me a seat at every management committee meeting at my firm. Nor should it. However, it does buy me a ‘voice’ at the meeting. It buys those that report to me the ability for me to relay legitimate concerns or ideas to the committee, and a chance to rebut unworkable initiatives before they are put into action.
I’ve listened and watched some of my peers talk about their firms as if they have absolutely no say in what tasks are assigned to them, or what their roles are in the strategic goals of their firm. That is both sad, and frustrating for me to hear. Sometimes there is a general dysfunctional decision making process at their firms. If decisions are pushed down without any input on the part of those being tasked with those action items, then the firm is rolling the dice on whether the objective can be accomplished at all. It is setting people/departments up for failure without even giving them any chance to succeed. That is a bad situation, and if that is happening to you, and you cannot fix it, my only suggestion is to beef up your resume and look somewhere else for employment.
Most of the time, however, I see it as a lack of willingness on behalf of the individual to step up and work to have his or her voice represented at the table. Sometimes it’s a cluelessness in reading the situation, and understanding that the lack of engagement is causing the powers-that-be to see them, or their department as expendable. I’ve seen it during leadership transitions when managers do not understand that the way it’s always been done, is no longer the standard within the organization. I’ve seen it during downturns in business when shifts in business models make certain services obsolete, yet department heads keep churning out irrelevant work product as though nothing has changed.
Now back to the saying that Council Member Lovell so eloquently stated. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” If you are a leader in your organization, are you at the table? If not physically, is your voice and those for whom you lead, represented at that table? If you are unsure, you need to step up and find ways to be heard. It could be as simple as asking for a seat. In many instances, it means finding a champion that has a seat, and lobbying them to represent your ideas and fighting on behalf of you and those you lead. The worst thing you can do is nothing and hope for the best. If you do that, you will find yourself one day as the main course on that menu.