Shelley Cowan logo

Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Leaving the Catbird's Seat

Posted on Friday, October 17, 2014 by Shelley Cowan

After 20 years of working with presidents, C-everything and a lot of other smart people, I began to wonder if I’d learned anything. So last year I stopped working as a consultant and started working in the family business.

I thought of this move as leaving the catbird's seat.

But I recently I checked the expression in Wikipedia: “an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in all types of dealings among parties.”

If I had an “upper hand” as a consultant, it was only that I never put myself on the line the way my clients did. That’s changed, now that my full-time client is Cowan's Auctions.

My husband started Cowan’s Auctions in 1995, the same year I began helping leaders explain the problems they were trying to solve and the opportunities they were trying to seize. Whether they sold gum, televisions, toothpaste or refrigeration systems, their issues were relatively similar to one another – and to Cowan’s: understanding customers, getting propositions right, streamlining supply chains, getting everyone to row in the same direction… maybe a dozen issues in all.

And I learned that strategy is nothing more than saying, “there are a lot of ways we might solve this, but we’re going to focus our precious resources on these few, best bets.”

With that in mind, here’s what I’m working on now:

Helping launch Cowan’s new Cleveland office: From my previous work I take the notion of replacing the old idea of marketing with the continual work of building relationships.

Helping Cowan’s improve the way we ready our consignors’ fine art and antiques for auction: In my old job that meant helping people share the right information at the right time because they see the process as the obvious, clearest and best way to work.

Bidsquare is a new online bidding platform for fine art and antiques that we created with five of our competitors. I'm helping our partners in Bidsquare align on our strategy for 2015. In my old job this was about helping people focus on the critical work that will make the biggest difference.

In the years I spent watching leaders make decisions and solve problems, my catbird’s seat was never one of advantage, but it sure gave me a great vantage point. It was the best seat in the house. 

The best seat in the house is how I always imagined the legendary Red Barber's catbird seat, even if some historians say he took (or inspired) James Thurber's meaning: “sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.” For me, Red Barber’s catbird seat was about Red himself. It was where he sat while he called – but never played in – the game: the best seat in the park.

Now that I’m no longer consulting, I’ve lost that view. But it just so happens that we recently moved into a new home and I have a new view. Luckily I traded one catbird’s seat for another.