The Sychophant…er…Elephant in the Room

Years ago, my boss brought me  to a meeting off site to talk with a technology giant. Our organization had evaluated our system infrastructure and hardware needs, and this rather big and blue company had some ideas they wanted to share with us.

My boss had not invited me because of my technical prowess or my ability to talk Os and 1s with engineers. I think he asked me along because he owed me lunch. Or maybe because I ran the communication and change management department. Either way, I got lunch and took pages of notes. By early evening my boss and I had met with consultants from 4 or 5 top companies, and each person expressed an interest to throw their corporate hat into the ring to get an opportunity to earn our business.

My boss handed me a stack of business cards, and he asked me to set up a preliminary meeting to find out what sort of communication and change management support these consulting firms could offer.

Two weeks later, I chaired a meeting full of business consultants from all of the top firms. To start, we went around the room introducing ourselves with name, company, role and anything else of interest. I went last.

“Thanks again for coming. I’m Scott Carbonara, and I work here. And what I would like to walk away with today is a better understanding of what your firms offer as a consulting partner for all  of the work ahead. Are there any questions before we start with the formal questions and answers around this project?” I asked.

A young blond woman, cut in the mold of many of the starters from Sweden’s Olympic Volley Ball team the year before, raised a finger.

“Excuse me. Did you tell us your title, Mr. Carbonara?” she asked sweetly.

“I don’t think I mentioned that,” I said. “Are there any other questions?”

I let her squirm a moment. I estimated the cost of leather briefcases and purses that my guests had brought to the meeting as exceeding like 50 cows. The room was full of Coach on the low end and Gucci, Fendi and Prada on the other extreme. My entire “outfit”, including my watch and fillings, retailed for about $150. In other words, I was not high on the corporate ladder.

“I’m kidding, Elsa,” I said at last. “I’m the senior manager.”

I saw a few people shift in their seats, some of them rolling their eyes slightly. I could read their expressions: “This is a waste of time.”

“Scott,” Elsa asked again, this time calling me Scott instead of Mr. Carbonara. “Did I understand that you work for Brian?”  She mentioned the name of a vice president from the Information Technology Group.

“No,” I answered. “I work on the operations side. I report to Ray,” I told her, mentioning the name of the senior vice president of operations, a man with responsibility for 2/3 of the organization.

The room shifted. The consultants seemed to lean forward a little more. I might have imagined it, but it almost seemed like a few of the younger ones were making eyes at me. It was like I went from toothless farm boy to [insert name of attractive male celebrity here].

I had not changed. My smile didn’t get whiter, my breath got no fresher. My clothes still looked a tad understated, my watch still read Timex.

What HAD changed was that the audience now cared about me. They demonstrated a willingness to suck-up because of the power and influence of my boss.

I never forgot that lesson. As I grew up the corporate ladder, I determined to get to the know the names of the people in the mail room and not just the board room. I tried to judge others by what they delivered instead of how they dressed when they delivered. I became a title atheist, referring to myself as “Scott from Chicago” while introducing other corporate leaders using only a vague description of the work they accomplished without having to point to the top of an org chart.

So here’s my question: Is it more important for you to know the people three levels above you on an organization chart, or do you care to know those folks three levels below you, too?

P.S. I didn’t choose any of the consulting firms I met with on that day. The multimillion dollar contract I signed went to a group who demonstrated expertise and professionalism from the first meeting until the last.

Note to suck-ups: the first shall be last….

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