As a professional woman, I often hear women being encouraged to “take a seat at the table” and if at the table, instructed to “use your voice”. This sounds so easy. Just take a seat and speak up. Is it really this easy for women in a corporate setting?
I can remember my own experience in this setting. On my first day in a new leadership role, I sat around a table as one of approximately 20 or so other senior executives. I looked around, and men dominated the table; there were only three women dispersed through the group, including me. I immediately realized, I was being labelled as a great addition, but not as a great leader; I was meeting a gender-quota for the company. I couldn’t help but think, “this is a great confidence builder” and “this is just how it is”. When I started to think about the disparity, a little voice in my head talked me down by saying; “I should be grateful to have the opportunity”. I was a wife and mother and I was up for the challenge, and ready for the hard work. I was a high performing leader in the organization, but there was something skewed in this scenario.
It was the first time I actually noticed how gender inequality impacted how I thought about myself. I doubted why I was sitting at the table, I doubted my abilities for the first time in my career and I felt small. I knew, if I was to overcome my perception and contribute my experience and my voice, I needed to be not only heard, but also listened to. I understand now, this internal voice often has power over many strong, composed, women. What manifests externally, isn’t always an accurate reflection of the underlying truth.
I have a difficult time understanding why people nonchalantly give advice to women today to just “speak up” or “voice out” without considering that they need to be prepared to take that bold, courageous move. Even for the most confident of women leaders, it’s difficult to maneuver without preparation. There are several strategic actions a woman should consider before she sits at the table and uses her powerful voice.
Now as a leadership coach with a growing practice and a special interest in helping women navigate their careers, I offer support to help women prepare to be heard and to hear others at the table. Topics spanning executive presence, confidence and influencing ability frequently surface with my female clients. To empower women to have a strong voice within the corporate environment, we need to ensure the ability to deliver on these leadership competencies. I recommend women think strategically about the following areas.
Know the Corporate Culture: Often times, women can get a seat at the table based on their performance and advocacy within the company, regardless of corporate culture. However, to effectively impact the discussion, you need to know the values and hierarchy of the corporate environment you are working in, as you bring authenticity of voice. Speaking to trusted advocates, learning by asking questions and listening to various leader’s perspectives can be a great place to start.
Understand your Vulnerable Areas: Yes, I’m using that word “Vulnerability”. We all have it, - but understanding triggers for vulnerability can affect reactions at the table. Speaking up is only productive if you are wise in the words you use when you contribute. Knowing which vulnerable areas trigger a hijack can help you to remain composed. A reactionary contributor is not viewed as strong as they could be. When you feel vulnerable, behaviors like puffing up, feeling small or blaming tend to surface. These behaviors are not impactful or productive and can set you back in the eyes of your counterparts. (If you are interested in further exploration, read Brene' Brown, The Power of Vulnerability.)
Identify and Focus on your Intent: When planning to sit around the table, thinking about what you intend to contribute helps your focus. What does success look like walking out of the meeting? There is nothing that will make you feel smaller than not being prepared for a discussion or presentation. Come to the table ready to listen and ask good open-ended questions to better understand. Above all, preparing how you would like to influence or impact the successful outcome of the meeting is key.
Bring a Clear Mindset: Academic research supports the benefit of taking action to “pause” or “breath” physiologically, allowing you to improve our cognitive processes. Early in careers, we often think that producing more, and “getting the job done” are the best performance indicators, at least as viewed by others. When you get a seat at the table, it’s not how much you produce, it’s the quality of ideas you voice at the table. Showing up with a clear mindset will generate and contribute better content into the discussion.
Own Your Seat: I’ve spoken to several women who have shared stress about upcoming meetings or presentations. When exploring where the stress is coming from, I often hear, “they have a million things going on and I don’t feel like they want to be meeting with me” or “the reason I’m here is the company is trying to include more women”. Guess what? If you think these are the reasons you are sitting at the table, then this is how you will be perceived. If the person didn’t have enough time or interest to meet with you, they wouldn’t be there. As for being the woman at the table, it’s time for you to take the opportunity and ensure your insights and ideas are contributing to the conversation. I recently had the pleasure of listening to an inspiring talk by Flygirl Vernice Armour and she said, “bloom where you are planted”. I encourage you to do the same!
From someone who has taken a seat at many tables, received various reactions (both positive and negative), and learned from trial and error, there is a need to support women in not only getting a seat at the table, but also ensuring women feel prepared to use their voice once there. I challenge those who are supporting women leaders to provide the needed tools for success. The culture of an organization, reactive triggers, intent, mindset and self-confidence often require supportive coaching to achieve the best outcome.
With the hyper-focus on women in leadership and gender equality today, this is the time! This is the time for women to take a seat at the table and to use their voice to contribute, influence and impact outcomes.
JAR Leadership Coaching is a results-oriented organization working with executives and teams to improve effectiveness in the workplace. We specialize in executive coaching, individual and team assessment and customized development for the sake of positively impacting results. For more information, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.jarleadershipcoaching.com