6 Lessons Learned From Getting - Then Losing - My Seat At The Table
Losing everything was not the way I would have wanted to learn these lessons...but I surely learned them!
For over a decade, I poured myself into my work and into an organization that I loved. My passion and drive were met with increasing opportunities, as I continued to be elevated within the organization. At the peak of my career, impact, and influence, my position was eliminated - and it took me some time to figure out why.
Now I leverage the lessons that I learned to help others earn - and keep - their seat at the table.
1. Do Extraordinary Work
There is no 6 step process or easy hack for this one - if you want to earn a seat at the table, you have to do extraordinary work. (I define extraordinary as above and beyond the existing best practice.) In order to earn the right to influence how the work should be done, I firmly believe that you must first role model great work. Only by doing the work, and excelling at it via trial and error, do you gain the perspective, wisdom, and battle wounds necessary to share ideas, strategies, and suggestions that are informed and sustainable.
My journey started with me working hard - nights, weekends, taking on extra assignments, doing things that had not been done before, and raising the bar on what success looked like. I earned a reputation for being capable, knowledgeable, and focused on excellence; which in turn earned acknowledgement from senior leadership.
2. Be In the Room Where It Happens
After building credibility amongst colleagues and leaders, I began leveraging that credibility to gain entry into rooms where the decisions were being made.
Early in my career I always volunteered to take notes at meetings and type up the minutes. As a result, I was often allowed into rooms outside of my field of expertise. This invitation was prompted by a desire from those in the meeting to avoid the role of note taker, but I am clear that I earned the right based on my ability to be trusted, understand my role in the room, and deliver strong and useful summaries.
These early opportunities were critical to my career success. First, being around decision-makers allowed me to build relationships with a level of the organization that I would otherwise not have had access to. Second, I learned a great deal about the work and process of the business. Third, it gave me an opportunity to advance my writing skills - which was another crucial component to my career success. Fourth, I was bestowed with the weighty task of determining how conversations and decisions would be documented for posterity. (The person with the pen has power.)
Over time, my ability to simplify the complicated via succinct summaries, as well as my ability to provide thoughtful feedback when asked, resulted in me being invited to more rooms and more decisions.
3. Have an Enterprise Leadership Perspective
Enterprise leaders think about the whole organization when they are making a decision, as opposed to solely focusing on their own business area or team (i.e., working in silos). The goal of enterprise leadership is to serve the needs of the enterprise (or whole company), and to align individual/ team agendas with the organization's vision and goals.
Once I had access to information about how the business worked, via the lens of different departments and stakeholders, I was able to use that information to inform the decisions I was making within my portfolio. As a result, the work from my team/ department had increased traction and impact, due to the fact that it was in line with the priorities of our colleagues and the organization as a whole.
(Note: You can improve your enterprise leadership skills by understanding the Strategic Plan of your organization, paying careful attention and asking questions during presentations from colleagues in other departments, asking colleagues how your work impacts and interacts with theirs, and considering the constituent's experience as a recipient of the organization's collective efforts.)
By focusing on advancing the organization's goals, and not just the goals in my department, and making informed decisions based on the work in other departments, I was able to demonstrate my value to the company and its overall mission.
4. What Got You Here Won't Get You There
Up until this point in the story, it has been pretty smooth sailing. I worked very hard and very strategically, and that commitment to the work was acknowledged as my portfolio and impact grew. I had access to the big table (the C-suite table) and led work that influenced both the product and process of the organization. And here is where the story takes a turn.
Over time I noticed that the inquisitive nature and fighting spirit that brought me to the table, was not valued or even appropriate at the big table. While perhaps I had earned the right to join the big table, I had yet to earn the right to challenge ideas or make recommendations at that table. I failed to acclimate to my new environment, and instead, continued to utilize the skills that had brought me there.
In one of Buddha's teachings, he shares "The Parable of the Raft." In it, he describes a man who needs to cross a river to get to safety on the other side. The man makes a raft and uses it to cross. Upon reaching the other side, the man realizes how useful the raft has been, and considers carrying the raft with him across the land to his next destination. Buddha says that the raft should be used "for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping." He teaches that instead of carrying the raft with him, the man should have gratitude for how far the raft brought him, thank it, and leave it behind.
While my raft got me here, it would not get me there. But I was still holding on tight.
5. Inform vs. Advocate
The biggest shift that I failed to make was from advocating to providing information.
Early in my career, I was too intimidated to sit at the table. Like many, I was not convinced that I had earned the right, and was afraid to speak up and share my perspective. (This felt particularly challenging as a young, Hispanic woman.) The thing that helped me overcome my fears was the knowledge that I was speaking on behalf of the staff and constituents that I represented. If I did not speak up in the room, their needs and concerns might not be otherwise heard.
Once I made that mental shift, I was unstoppable. I was driven to provide staff and constituents with high-quality service, and would fight any battle to that end. Asking tough questions, drilling into the details, debating over quality, and ensuring that micro and macro perspectives were being discussed became my calling card. It earned me respect from the field, and a reputation for fighting for what was best for the organization.
When I arrived at the big table, I arrived with my fighting gloves on, and that was a mistake.
To be clear, I was not a member of the big table (I did not have a C-title), I was more of a recurring guest. The work in my portfolio required that I sit at the big table regularly to share updates and help the team determine next steps. This clarity is important because perhaps my experience would have been different had I been a member of the big table - though perhaps not.
Essentially, my role was to provide information to the organization's highest decision-makers; providing them with the context, field reporting, and options they needed to determine a path forward. Instead, I leveraged my seat at the table to advocate for what I believed was in the best interest of the work. And therein lies the problem: I was advocating based on what I believed was in the best interest of the work. While my advocacy was thoughtful, data-driven, and rooted in the work, it did not take into consideration the myriad of other factors that the C-suite were privy to and needed to consider.
My efforts would have been better spent providing thoughtful, data-driven, work-centered information - including perhaps a variety of options for next steps - and trusting that the members of the big table would use that information to make an informed decision.
I had forgotten a key lesson I learned early in my career - I was invited to the table because of my ability to be trusted and understand my role in the room.
6. Apply the Lessons
Ultimately, it was determined that I was not serving the big table (and thus the work), and my position was eliminated.
While I was certainly devastated, the experience and the lessons learned have improved the way I do the work and support others in their efforts. And thus, this is the most important thing that I have learned: look for and apply the lessons.
For me, those lessons included:
a seat at the table is earned through hard work, credibility, and knowing how to play your position
advocacy takes many forms, and the debating kind is not appropriate for all occasions - continue to ask yourself: what is in the best interest of the work/ staff/ constituents long term?
remember that every room and every "table" is different, be ready to leave the raft behind and discover new tools to advance the work
Since internalizing these lessons, I have had the opportunity to sit at other big tables, and this time I applied what I learned. As a result, while I did not always agree with the decisions that were made, I was able to provide information and options that ultimately benefited the work. And equally as important, I built trust with the highest decision-makers, which enabled me to continue to speak on behalf of the staff and constituents, and advance the mission of the organization.
This was not the way I would have wanted to learn these lessons...but I surely learned them!
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