Be a facilitator not a gatekeeper

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In order for anyone to succeed in his or her job, regardless of their station in the meat and poultry industry, being an effective communicator is critical. This means being able to request information from others in a clear, professional manner that doesn’t require interpretation. Likewise, it also means sometimes providing clear, appropriate answers to questions or job proposals you receive on any given day in a timely fashion.

I have always been astounded whenever I run across self-appointed gatekeepers at a company. You know the type — the assistant to an executive who takes it upon himself or herself to “protect” his or her boss from those inane requests from anyone who is unknown or not a member of management’s inner circle.

In my line of work, I easily get hundreds of e-mails a week with messages that sometimes contain proposals on covering certain topics or featuring particular companies in future issues of MEAT&POULTRY magazine. I don’t answer any e-mail that deals with covering a product or a company that manufactures products that aren’t meat and poultry related — after all...the name of the magazine—Meat&Poultry—should alert everyone to the category of products and types of companies covered within our publication.

But if the request or proposal is the least bit relevant to what we cover in our editorial universe, I always make an effort to respond one way or the other. Sometimes, my response requires forwarding the request to another member on staff for his or her review and recommendation.

Over the years I have heard many horror stories involving lack of communications. Once there was a busy executive who was anxiously waiting for key information to finish his annual budget, but his assistant didn’t allow the person with this critical info to speak with him because the assistant sensed the exec was having “a bad day”. Once the executive angrily inquired with his assistant about the whereabouts of this budget info and the assistant spilled the beans, you can guess the exec did have a bad day — but not as bad as his assistant.

I was once on an exhausting, lengthy, multi-stop European trip to promote the launch of a new food-trade magazine and two colleagues and I ended up in the corporate office of an ingredient manufacturer in Germany. We walked into the plush office with mahogany furniture and vases of beautiful local flowers and were warmly received by the receptionist. The senior flavor scientist we were to meet came into the lobby with a pleasant yet surprised look on his face and invited us back to his office in broken English. After flying to the United Kingdom, Denmark, Italy and Germany in recent days — and then driving for six hours to this meeting earlier that day, we were all exhausted. The soft-spoken flavor scientist, garbed in his long, white lab coat, leaned towards us at one point after we received coffee and cookies and said, “I am very happy to meet you…but… why are you here?”

We all looked at each other in stunned silence. It turns out not only were we meeting with the wrong executive (the man did have a similar name as the man we were supposed to meet with), but we were also meeting at the wrong office in the wrong city. The office we should have visited was five hours away by auto — it was actually in or near the city our jet landed in for this leg of the journey. It turns out my colleague who set up this trip and his client had a difficult time understanding each other as he didn’t speak or understand German and our client spoke little English…and the rest was history. Instead of verifying with the client one last time about this planned meeting before we left for Germany, we just forged ahead. Not only was this a very embarrassing mistake, but it was an extremely costly error as well.

Another time at another magazine, we had made an agreement (so we thought) to publish a major corporate and plant feature on a major multi-national food company out east. The editor of our magazine at the time unfortunately forgot to follow through in his proposal about the plant story of the project. The PR person at that company was too busy at the time to approach the CEO about the plant story; he later requested to our editor that he approach visiting a plant directly with the CEO. Thanks, in part, to Murphy’s Law (i.e., “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”), that important part of the proposal slipped between the cracks. As a result, the company accepted our proposal — thinking it would only involve a corporate feature.

Meanwhile, our magazine printed up thousands of promo sheets announcing this company was being featured in a specific issue and that we would be interviewing top executives and visiting one of their most technologically advanced food plants plus contacted potential advertisers. When we arrived to conduct the interviews (the plant trip was the next day in another city), our editor proudly handed the CEO the promo piece we did…and the CEO’s smile quickly turned into red-faced anger. The CEO, who was also an attorney, told us in no uncertain terms, there would be no plant feature — end of story. But thanks to the masterful negotiating skills of my editor, the CEO finally allowed us to visit that plant after all before we left his office several hours later.

Perhaps my most unnerving recollection of lack of communications involves a cover story I co-authored for this same magazine on a major frozen pizza manufacturer for the January issue. Once again, this time I went through all the proper channels to line this story up. The owner of the business agreed to the proposal and we interviewed him plus visited a very high-tech frozen pizza plant. Unbeknownst to us was the fact this company was in litigation with one if its competitors. One afternoon very close to press date, my editor received a rather curt phone call from the owner’s attorney who was accompanying the owner in his Lear jet on a flight somewhere in the US. He basically told us we had to kill the story or he would cease publication of the December issue. What a Christmas surprise that was. Thanks again to our fast-footed editor and some last-minute editing, the feature appeared as planned…but not before a lot of angst befell the entire editorial staff. Merry Christmas.

Keeping the lines of communications open is so important. If possible, phone the person you need to contact first to let him or her know what it is you need. Follow up immediately with an e-mail further fleshing out your request. And if you don’t hear back with a response within a reasonable amount of time, phone again.
If you or your boss ends up being on the receiving end of a request for info that arrives in your inbox, be a facilitator by acting on the request in a timely fashion or pass it on to the most appropriate executive in your chain of command for a response. Don’t be a gatekeeper; that should never be an option.

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