I won’t pretend that I see every trend or can put my finger on THE solution to how to achieve gender parity in leadership, however, I do notice a few things I believe can help women gain important perspectives. One thing that’s popped up in my practice lately are conversations about a “seat at the table” – What does it really mean? At what point in your career should you sit there? Why is it important? How do you get there? What should you do when you get “a seat at the table”?
Why Do You Want A Seat At The Table?
For some women, the answers to the questions above seem obvious. To be a leader, you have to be a player. To be a player, you have to be “in the game” Sitting “at the table” in a meeting – instead of in a chair along the back of the room — is a great analogy for being a player in a business context.
But for many it’s not so obvious why you would want to take the risk of being at the table. For many, they hear voices that try to talk them out of sitting at the table because it makes them uncomfortable.
Sitting at the head of the table means you had a seat there in first place. – Click To Tweet
Sometimes these voices pipe up with good reasons for turning down these opportunities, and some not-so-good reasons, too. It’s valid to opt out of meetings that are truly a waste of time, but if you’re missing important socializing that leads to trust and comradery, maybe a little time wasting is a good investment. It’s valid to be concerned about your ability to contribute value, but if that worry keeps you from trying you’ll never learn what value you truly have to offer.
When Do You Want a Seat at the Table?
Here’s what I’ve noticed more recently as I listen to women talk about their fraught relationship with “the table,” when and why to sit at it. The women who figure out how to get a seat at the table early in their careers are more often at the head of the table later in their careers.
Some of the women I counsel who are farther along in their careers lament over how hard it is for them to get the kind of facetime they need to be promoted into, or included at, the leadership level. When we probe more deeply, I find that they have had many opportunities to sit at the table along the way in their careers, but they turned them down. Usually they talk about the kind of discomfort mentioned above in the past tense. They’ve already opted out of sitting at the table so many times, these reasons have become baked into how they lead and collaborate at work, which is to say that their management style is to avoid discomfort and personal risk in the name of efficiency and productivity.
Sitting at the table used to be a man’s game, and many women didn’t know the rules, so they didn’t want to play. These days, while the culture is still largely male, sitting at the table is less about gender and more about culture.
Younger women are struggling with these issues too, but they have yet to “bake in” their personal brand and management style. They are still experimenting and flexing their leadership muscles.
Here’s my advice to every woman, but especially younger women: get comfortable with sitting at the table as early in your career as you can. This increases the odds that you’ll have the choice to sit at the head of the table later in your career.
Sitting at the Table Is a Leadership Skill
Yes, some tables are like a boy’s locker room. Some are a waste of time. Some are competitive gladiator games. Some are sleep-fests. That’s not the point. Meetings, both informal and formal, are where business gets done. They are the backbone of business culture. To be a player — to have a chance at influencing leaders, evolving your own leadership skills and being seen as someone who can lead – you have to be there. You have to participate. You have to develop your personal style for participating and influencing in those situations.
If you want to lead, you have to learn to do it at those tables.
This may make some readers think, “Well then, leadership is not for me,” and I respect that. But let me frame it to you this way. Leadership is a personal development journey. It’s an ongoing inquiry into who you are and what your special style of making a difference looks like. Leadership is hard. It requires us all to look critically at ourselves and ask “how can I be better?” and “how can I make a difference?” The answers are not the same for all of us.
If you look at the table and think it’s not for you, that’s fair, but my suggestion – especially when you’re early in your career – is to try to learn to be at the table anyway. You may find a table you want to sit at the head of someday, and the sooner you learn how to sit there confidently, productively and comfortably, the more leadership options you’ll have in the future.
Have an opportunity to sit at a table? Take it and learn more about yourself when you get there. Don’t have one, but want one? Strategize and plan. Learning how to get a seat at the table is a leadership journey, too.
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