The Gatekeeper IS the KEY

"Do you want to know why you really got this job?"

 This 26th floor open bar was viewing the fifth avenue. It was late, I agree, but not inappropriate or misconduct. This beautiful, red haired, woman sitting on the edge of the bar, leaning towards me, burning me with her bright blue eyes was a friend and a co-worker, in that order.

 “Well?" she asked.

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue – that's what I did.  I proved myself worthy.

Jenny grinned. "That’s charming," she said, "...but quoting The Untouchables – though it truly is a fabulous movie – did not get you the job."

 I decided to take a different approach…

It was because of my charm. I did my homework – I knew everything there is to know about the man. Not his professional work – that's common knowledge – but I ran the distance; swear to god – the whole nine yards. I was bright, I was young, I was vigorous.

Jenny did not seem highly impressed.  She leaned forward and whispered in my ear as she got off her stool and was about to head for the ladies room – "you may think you are all of those things – you probably are. But I'll ask you one more time – do… you… want to know why you really got this job?"

As she walked away, I thought about Jenny's role in the life of David S. Chilton.  She practically runs the man. They have been together – professionally – for more than a decade. Apart from bathing and feeding him, she does it all – reminders of his children's birthdays, errands, advice, she's his confidante – the only person he actually trusts. Man… this top notch executive doesn't make one crucial decision without her!

And then it hit me!  Harvard graduate, Magna Cum Laude, valedictorian of my class – smartest guy around… and a complete idiot!  How could I have missed it? 

All this time I was so busy congratulating
myself for kicking ass at the interview, that I
missed what was as obvious as the neon lights
in Times Square: this top notch executive
doesn't make one crucial decision
without her!

I suddenly looked up only to find Jenny standing there, looking at me amused.  “Has the valedictorian finally connected the dots? 

 “It was you wasn’t it? But why? You didn’t even know me!  There must have been 50 other candidates…

52 other candidates,” she corrected me.

OK… 52 other candidates… Whatever!  I don’t get it!

As far as I was concerned,” Jenny began, “it came down to one thing: coffee. Yes, there were 52 other candidates.  Some had better letters of recommendation; some were definitely prettier. But while they were waiting for their interview and I pointed out the kitchen, not one of them asked me if I wanted coffee. Out of 53 apparently outstanding candidates, only one turned to me before heading to the kitchen and asked me if I’d like a coffee too. It was you. The rest of the Ivy League pack didn’t even register me. I wasn’t a person to them – just a function, a nameless and faceless secretary, completely meaningless. BIG MISTAKE…Huge!

Jenny’s face suddenly turned serious.  It always did when she talked about work.

Look” she continued “I’m not an HR expert – just a Dave Chilton expert.  The fact is that in the past 10 years, the people who have lasted longer than a standard pregnancy were not the ones who were top of their class, Magna Cum Laude, blah blah blah.  They were the people who were…well…people!” 

She took another sip from her drink and continued. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cut throat world out there…but not in here.  Dave’s team is exactly that – a team, and my job is to spot the “talent” so to speak.  Took me a year or two to figure it out, some really wrong recruits in the process, but I finally got it.  The “coffee test” has yet to fail me.

But I still don’t get it” – I turned to Jenny – “where are you on all of this?” 

She laughed. Then she got up, walked over and stood behind some random guy that was facing my direction. She then lifted her right hand over his head and signalled me with a ‘Thumbs Up’, as if indicating that the guy she was standing behind was OK.  She then slowly glided back onto her bar stool, lifted her drink and downed it like a pro.

OK, so maybe the four-minute interview was a bit short – even for a star interviewee like me.  I guess that should have gotten me curious – but then I was so pleased with myself when he suddenly got up and shook my hand and welcomed me aboard that I didn’t really bother thinking about it.

 I raised my glass slowly, leaned forward and clunked it against Jenny’s. “Here’s to the ultimate gatekeeper.” She gave me a knowing smile.

If you want to get through the “gate”,
you have to get by the “gatekeeper”

The gatekeeper – you know – the person who controls access to something or someone. Gatekeepers are one of the fundamental building blocks of every normal organization and while they may not hold any formal authority or rank highly in the corporate ladder, they play a significant role in the success and fulfilment of the senior corporate executives they work for.

 Gatekeepers Soft Power stems primary from three sources: 

  1. They sit smack in the centre of the organization’s information “crossroads”
    They manage, and therefore have significant control over, the schedules of the senior decision makers in the organization. They know who meets whom, and when – not just the comings and goings of their own bosses but those of other managers too – because they frequently interact and communicate with other gatekeepers. They are the first to know if an “emergency session” is convened. They take the incoming calls and manage the outgoing calls.  In short, if it’s happening – they most likely know about it first! 
  2. They have full access to the “grapevine”
    In other words, they are privy to organizational gossip- you know, all the informal and unofficial information that so frequently leaks out and spreads around the organization well before it turns into formal announcements.  This is a classic example of how the gatekeeper’s junior ranking in the company works in their favour.  If they were senior, other junior employees would think twice before sharing gossip with them (you've seen it a million times, how a group of gossipers suddenly clamp up when a senior executive walks by so seems to walk into earshot. 
  3. By the “ear” of the decision makers.
    If you think about it, seniors interact with their gatekeepers probably more than they do with nearly any other person in the company.  Their gatekeepers frequently sit in on meetings and even serve as their confidants regarding professional and even personal dilemmas.  As such, they have the ear and trust of their bosses.  A word from them may get you into their office, and grace, faster than many other approaches.

You see?  Although gatekeepers frequently operate behind the scenes, you'd be making a mistake to ignore or disregard them – and certainly to disrespect them. As a general population, gatekeepers, tend to be much more than meets the eye, regardless of their official credentials. This is why many of them end up in senior management positions half way through their careers. 

Be sure to get to know them.  Take the time to “small talk” with them.  Give them the time of day.  Beyond it being strategically wise, it’s also the right thing to do.  Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you at first, feel free to fake it – at first! And even then, only long enough until it becomes a habit.  

Being nice to people is one of those rare cases
where doing the smart thing perfectly
coincides with doing the right thing. Over
time, the key is doing it genuinely, and
practice does make perfect.

Jenny leaned forward and signalled the barman ever so slightly – a gesture that quickly yielded another pink and orange, appalling looking drink, I might add (I guess she’s not perfect after all). She then moved on to talking about one of the new and exciting projects the boss put her on – something to do with a massive merger and acquisition David was managing – when her cell started blasting the first six notes of "I say a little prayer" by Aretha Franklin. 

Before I could formulate the first sentence of what would have clearly been a brilliant sarcastic remark about her ringtone, she was already light years away; phone pressed tightly to her ear, pen in hand and notebook drawn (even superman doesn’t move that fast!) “Got it….  Ahm…. Yup…. I’m on it!” and the 30-second call was over.  

David?” I asked. “Yup,” she answered. “They just moved up the hearing in Congress to Monday morning, 8 am sharp.  Gotta run, handsome.” She downed her drink, planted a kiss on my cheek and ran off.  Just another day at the office, even it if was past midnight.   

I guess I should have been giving my father more credit for the past year and a half… who would have thought his advice that morning of the interview, to offer the secretary coffee, would have proven so damned effective.  I downed my drink and headed home.