Various professional specialists – for example, trainers; e-Learning designers, developers and producers; HR staff (specialists and generalists); Organization Development (OD) consultants, and IT staff, to name a few – can from time to time be heard lamenting the fact that they don't have "a seat at the table." That euphemism refers to their wanting an increased say, or level of participation, in important business decisions.

James E. Lukaszewski, a leading public relations practitioner, says he spends a fair amount of time talking with and counseling CEOs and he finds their perspectives on people getting to the table quite interesting. CEOs ask, “How do I manage all these people who constantly yak at me, who know virtually nothing about the business or what I care about, but want to tell me how to run the business? They all clamor for a seat at the table, which is already overcrowded with folks who don’t know how to help me. Spare me these amateurs. Who are these people anyway?”

How to get a seat at the table

If you're one of those folks clamoring for a seat at the table, listen up; here's how to get one.

First, ask yourself questions like these:

  • What would I do if I had a seat?

  • What value would my presence add?

  • What are my unique contributions?

  • How would I have to behave differently?

If you don't have good answers to those questions then you probably don't belong at the table – at least, not just yet.

Next, take stock of your grasp of your organization's purpose, mission, operations, history, structure, strengths, personnel, politics, finances, the opportunities and threats it faces, its competitors and their relative advantages or disadvantages, its customers and markets, its key suppliers and critical inputs, its stated and manifest strategies, its reputation, any governmental and regulatory considerations, the executive cadre (including their history and relationships inside and outside your organization), and anything else you can think of that I haven't included in this list. If you don't have a good grasp of all or most of those matters, then you probably don't belong at the table – at least, not just yet.

Then take stock of the table itself,and what goes on there. Who sits there now? What are they like? How did they get there? What do they do there? How do things work there? What games do they play and how are they played? If you don't know, then you probably don't belong there – at least, not just yet.

But – do you really want a seat at the table?

But maybe you don’t really want a seat at the table. Consider this little story.

Once upon a time there was a trainer named I.M. Smart. He was very, very good. Trainees loved it when they drew Smart as a trainer, and Smart’s knowledge of business, organizations, systems, processes, marketing, IT, and finance impressed managers and execs. Smart was also known for seeing past the presenting training issues and identifying underlying performance issues. Furthermore, Smart was able to get others to see these same issues. Better yet, he could then find ways of addressing these issues, or of getting others to do so. In short, Smart was pretty good at improving the performance of people, processes, systems, and organizational units.

Over time, Smart drifted (or was drawn) away from training. Managers and execs were desirous of making use of Smart's abilities in areas that didn't comfortably wear the label of "training," but they were not comfortable making use of a person in that role who wore the label “trainer.” More and more of Smart's work had to do with performance improvement and general management consulting and less and less of it had to do with training. Smart noticed that some former peers, once trainers themselves, had also moved away from training. They, too, were in demand on matters that managers and execs deemed too important or too challenging for “trainers” to tackle. Smart, however, always remained interested in training and maintained a relationship with the training community. After all, such were the origins of Smart's own career, and he was mindful of what some might term his “humble” origins.

Smart’s efforts to get trainers to understand the limitations of the label “trainer” fell short. He couldn’t get trainers to see that even if they were competent in areas beyond training, and even if they succeeded in demonstrating this competency, managers' and executives' perceptions of "training" and "trainers" were not likely to change. Instead, assuming competency in these other areas could be demonstrated, managers and executives were more likely to move such a "trainer" out of a training role and into one where the managers and executives could feel comfortable putting that expertise to work – without having to scratch their heads and wonder how it was that a "trainer" was able to work such magic. As Smart was once asked, “Why do you go around pretending to be a trainer?”

The specialist’s dilemma

And so Smart pondered the pointy horns of “the specialist’s dilemma:”

  1. On the one horn, if you're a "specialist" and you want a seat at the table, you’d better be able to go beyond matters that relate to your specialty only.

  2. On the other horn, if you're able to go beyond your specialty, chances are you won't be in that specialty for long.

So ask yourself if you really want to sit there. If you do, you'd better do your homework and prepare yourself. If you do that, and do it well, you'll wind up at the table. If you don't, you won't, and it will be business as usual – at least for now.


You can find more of James Lukaszewski’s remarks at