Fence Sitter

For a highly paid senior executive recruited from the outside, one question the board asks is what value he adds to the enterprise — what does he bring to the table?

The expression “bring to the table” is noted in Lois Beckwith’s irreverent management book, Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit. The phrase refers to individuals “who are important to an organization because of what they bring to the table in the form of skills, knowledge, contribution to a revenue-generating center, and connections.” Note that the last one, especially in highly regulated businesses and conglomerates, includes political clout and friends in high places.

The “potluck” party provides the paradigm for this management table metaphor. The custom of not burdening a host with preparing food for a large group in a reunion requires that guests each bring food and drinks for the party. The visitor who contributes nothing is considered boorish — so you just brought your appetite?

In the corporate context, “potluck management” requires that every employee brings something of value to her job. For this business model, ideal for shoestring-budget start-ups, each individual needs to bring something to the party. A simple test suffices: If “A” leaves the company tomorrow, does the company lose anything of value? Well, this does not always elicit a quick response, especially from “A.”

In prehistoric times, Homo sapiens (or more precisely, Homo erectus — referring to his way of walking upright, rather than the state of one particular appendage) was a hunter-gatherer who had to chase dinner or he starves.

Hard-nosed companies like this hunter-gatherer model. One’s compensation (salary is too primitive a word for received benefits, including variable pay, first class travel, and a car with free parking space) must be justified by revenues brought in. This approach enjoins executives to bring in business and “hunt for their meal” that includes a cafeteria of benefits. “No hunting, no eating” is a mantra for this Darwinian approach.

Bringing something to the table can be a simplistic concept with unforeseen implications. If a rainmaker (or door opener) brings in more than his share of business, does he have license to ask how much the others are bringing to the table? Perhaps law firms and consulting companies deal with this question of allocation much more effectively in the profit-sharing exercise for the partners. (You only brought crackers to the party, Partner.)

Basketball statistics used to only track points made, with other aspects of the game largely ignored. More metrics now recognize the effort of supportive roles with numbers for assists, steals, blocks, charges taken, and turnovers.

Is there a way to measure what a good finance and accounting person brings to the table with credit lines negotiated with banks? Assuming good service does not stop with bringing in the business, what value is assigned to tracking profitability and enhancing the fee system? What does the support staff bring to the table as they are routinely referred to as “cost centers?” (What do you take off the table?)

Counting only the top line as contributors to success can warp perception of who enhances company’s value. Revenue contribution, if it can even be properly tracked, tends to focus on specific parts of the value chain, which is mostly sales. A reward system based solely on bringing in revenue ignores the follow-through activities of after-sales service and follow-up of payments of accounts receivable. How do you rate service centers who handle customer complaints from over-promised performance from sales?

Instead of limiting the question to what people bring to the table, it is better to check how big the table has become with everybody’s efforts and what kind of meal is being served. It may be better to ask of an executive — how do you enhance the dining experience? This culinary delight is hard to measure.

In the royal household of old, there was the position of “court jester,” the one who cheers up the king. Does a CEO’s cheering squad play a constructive role in brightening his mood? Is bringing laughter to the party, rather than pasta and pizza, a legitimate enhancer of experience?

Value added cannot always be measured. What about a balanced diet… and who cleans up the dishes after the meal?


A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.