How to Take Your “Seat at the Table.” Literally.

Women need more seats at the proverbial leadership table. Here's what to do when you get there.

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Women need more seats at the proverbial leadership table. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to advocate, work, and wish for gender equality in the workplace, in government, in society. Progress is being made. A record 117 women won office in the U.S. midterm elections; flipping seats and taking names. Yet, while 2018 may be living up to its promise – the so-called “Year of the Woman” – we’re far from achieving balance. Less than 20 percent of senior management across all industries are women, after all.

But my message here isn’t about gender equality, inclusion, or what’s right or fair. Rather, it’s that women (and in some cases men, too) who’ve earned their seat at the table often don’t take it – or they don’t use it to the full benefit of themselves, or others. That must change.

Sit down.

At one of my first jobs as a senior leader, I remember attending a major all-hands meeting. I entered the boardroom and took a seat – in a chair along the side wall. My boss walked in, saw me and asked, “Why are you sitting there?” I didn’t think anything of it; I was saving room for my (male) colleagues. Pure instinct. I see women do this all the time. I’m still one of them.

When I first joined my current company, I joined an all-day executive meeting. When I arrived, most of the (predominately male) team was already gathered. There was one seat left around the center conference table and I almost didn’t take it. Are you crazy!? My inner dialogue shrieked. To this day, as a respected vice president, after 30 years of nose-to the-grindstone work, I often need to remind myself – force myself – to physically take a seat at the table. It’s hard, but critical.

Use your voice.

Don’t confuse having a seat at the table with having a voice, however. Having the confidence to sit down is only a partial win. To be an influencer, to evolve your own skills, to be seen and respected as a leader, you must participate. It can be a struggle; it’s much easier to give up or “take it off line” when others’ voices are louder or combative. Sometimes, you don’t want to battle, and I get that. But deciding to “do it later” isn’t helpful – to you, your team, your company.

I’m paid to connect dots, to share expertise, to elevate discussions, to push people to think differently and deliver better outcomes. If I don’t do these things, if I don’t offer insights or ask questions in the moment, I’m not doing my job and others aren’t benefiting.

Fight through the clutter. Push harder to command the attention (and respect) you and your ideas deserve. At Lockheed Martin, executives are required to send presentations ahead of meetings; attendees are required to review the content and come to the meeting with questions – questions that add value to the discussion, not questions to question. This has helped make meetings more productive, but also gives everyone a more equal share of voice. Ultimately though, it’s up to you to speak up. It’s your duty and your responsibility.

Advocate for others.

If you have a seat at the table, there’s a reason. Not only did you earn it, but someone advocated for you to be there. Remember this. I never forget that along my journey, countless leaders believed in me, championed me and supported me when I spoke up. Interestingly, most of them were men. Unfortunately, women aren’t great at making room or advocating for other women at the table. They also don’t easily see “their place” at the top. I often hear, “I don’t know where my career is going here. There are already three women on the leadership team.” It’s incredible to me that they don’t look up and see 10 other possibilities.

Because of these experiences, I’m very conscious of helping others capture their opportunities. Sometimes it’s as simple as creating a break in the discussion so they can ask a question or make a point. I’ve also gone to bat for promotions or new jobs. I’m a vocal advocate – for women and men – because people have done the same for me and I hope many more will too. 

Be humble – but also take (and give) credit.

Humility is an important trait – in a leader and more so in a person. While there are many reasons I have a seat at the table, I don’t take for granted that I still have much to learn. Ask for feedback. Be present and pay attention to the value others around you offer. Acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of others. On the flip side, know when to take credit too.

It’s a crazy, crowded, competitive world out there. We’re never going to achieve true equality. It’s a fact of life – and business. But every person has unique strengths. Use them. Share them. And help others do the same. We’ll all be better off for it.

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