Positioning isn't rocket science, but it can be as effective as rocket fuel in terms of launching your career.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with an exhibit manager who expressed a frustration shared by countless exhibitors I meet each year: She feels invisible because despite two decades' worth of experience, her managers don't take her seriously. Further, she believes that perception has contributed to not only less respect than she deserves, but also less money – along with an inability to effect change within her organization. Even though she has a seat at the table, she's expected to sit and take notes, but isn't empowered to think and recommend.
I empathize with her, having spent plenty of time in similar predicaments over the years. In a previous role, I was invited to meetings to listen and observe, but not to speak. If and when I did chime in, those chimes needed to harmonize with the opinions of upper management or they would be met with sharp glances that reminded me I was to be seen and not heard.
Later in my career, before working at EXHIBITOR, I became the youngest managing editor in the history of a different Midwest-based magazine. When asked how I ascended to that position so quickly, I used to respond that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But hindsight is 20/20, and I now realize my rapid advancement had less to do with location than it did with position – or, more accurately, positioning. Corporate positioning isn't rocket science, but it can be as effective as rocket fuel in terms of launching your career.
So how do exhibit and event professionals who find themselves in the same boat as my lunch date position themselves for professional growth? My advice is to make subtle yet significant shifts, many of which have more to do with terminology than tenure. For example, rather than referring to your role as an exhibit coordinator, start identifying yourself as an exhibit manager (assuming, of course, that nobody else in your organization actually holds that title). And consider referring to your work not as trade show exhibiting, but rather exhibit marketing. Yes, these are just words, and they don't substantively change your contribution to the greater corporate good. But they position you less as a logistician who simply coordinates the shipment of exhibits and tchotchkes and more as a strategist who manages one of the company's marketing channels.
Along those same lines, stop making suggestions and start proposing business plans. Unlike the previous tip, this is more than mere lip service and requires that you fundamentally change your approach. For example, rather than throwing out ideas during a meeting, vet those ideas, flesh out the most viable ones, and present them to your manager in his or her native tongue. By that, I mean if he or she is a numbers person, focus on metrics and include projections of how your proposal might improve them. Or if your manager is a dollars-and-cents decision-maker, hone in on how your plan can reduce costs.
I can think of at least a half-dozen projects that I repeatedly pitched over the course of years, all of which were met with resistance or treated as pipe dreams. But once I prepared a business plan, each proposal was overwhelmingly green lit. Similarly, proposing a new build with information on how the investment will pay for itself in six months via reduced drayage
fees will result in a more favorable impression of both the idea and the employee suggesting it than an underling asking for a new booth.
Last, understand management's objectives. No, you don't have to agree with or even like their ideas. But if you are able to demonstrate how your proposals can help them achieve their goals, you're more likely to earn their stamp of approval, position yourself as an ally instead of remaining invisible, and enjoy the respect (and money) that follows.