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How I Got A Seat at the Table – and You Can Too

In every organization there is a lengthy list of people clamoring for a seat at the table where business decisions are made. Service providers, designers, planners, minorities, women, as well as franchisees, and management all want their perspectives heard and implemented. This makes for a pretty crowded table. Not everyone can have a seat, obviously…or can they?

The barrier to entry is not what we have been repeatedly told. Most anyone who wants a seat can have it. Here’s why:

I speak from personal experience. I have repeatedly pulled up my own chair to the table in numerous scenarios, from board leadership, to service provider, and running my own company. I was fascinated when I heard my peers complaining they couldn’t get a seat themselves. I learned over time that my innocence that there could be barriers was probably my best asset.

I began to ask myself what did I know, or do, that gained me a seat at the table that somehow eluded them? The answers that arose from my exploration are nothing short of a world-changer for anyone who is seeking the coveted power seat but hasn’t discovered the secret handshake yet.

It’s A Matter of Perspective

The very phrase “get a seat at the table” implies three things out of the gate:

  1. You must get permission to sit at the table in the first place

  2. The table is owned by someone else (who is apparently selling tickets, by the sound of it)

  3. The table exists somewhere else; where you obviously are not

In reality none of these things are true.

Having a seat at the table is about power. It is about feeling heard, valued, and respected. It is about acting on, instead of reacting to, situations.

Most of those who speak about wanting a seat at the table, believe “a seat” equates to the voice they believe they have been denied thus far. “Once I get a seat,” I have heard them say, “I won’t need to respond to clients’ or leadership’s often frustrating and overwhelming commands anymore. I won’t continue to be required to clean up the mess those other people’s decisions can create for me.”

The common refrain is: If I only had a seat at the table, then I would be happy (more in control, rested, proactive, etc.)

World-changer Idea #1: You Are Already Sitting At The Table.

You just don’t know it yet. Before you reject this idea immediately, consider this: who has the power to determine what you will or won’t do?

You do.

Only you do.

You are the only person who can assess your choices, and decide. You may feel that a decision that risks loosing the client or the job is just not worth it, so you don’t choose it. But no one else made that choice for you. You did. And there are a kazillion other choices that lie between mindless obedience and reckless bridge-burning. It isn’t black and white. It isn’t you or them that you must choose between. It’s your own perception of what you are and are not willing to tolerate.

Your table is set with a feast of daily choices you get to make to honor yourself and the work you are doing. You do have a choice. You do get to make suggestions, to propose a variation, to offer additional approaches and to improvise as you go. But like any leader, with the power of choice comes the responsibility of living with the consequences of our actions.

It is the doers – the individuals in the front line, enacting the commands of their leadership and clients – who actually lead.

Without their compliance and complicity there is no leader.

Your table is right here. Right now. Your chair is waiting. The choice is always yours.

Stop Waiting for An Engraved Invitation

The irony of someone waiting to lead is mind-blowing. If you want to lead – lead!

Stop the excuses. Stop creating plausible reasons that you cannot do it. If you tell me you are not among the elite, and therefore are blocked at every turn by your circumstances, then you are missing the entire point. I didn’t get a seat at the table by going, “Hey! Gimme a seat!” I got a seat at the table because I know existing leaders want two things:


  2. Supporters who will further their vision and their agenda through action

I focused on the second, not the first.

I led from behind, for those of you familiar with the Nelson Mandela quote:

“A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along that they are being directed from behind.”

How did I do this? I took the time to really observe and understand what the current leader (or client) wanted. I then looked at my own expertise. If my expertise could help them get what they wanted, then a plan to be the solution was easy to present.

I also look at what possible pitfalls could happen to jeopardize what they wanted, and, more importantly, my own serenity throughout the process. I was often surprised how it was my ability to help leaders steer clear of the pitfalls that was my golden ticket 9 times out of 10. I asked for their ear, made my suggestion, gave my advice, and carefully, listened to their response. They usually pulled my chair out, and invited me to sit down right then and there.

World-changer Idea#2: Don’t Take A Seat. Make A Seat.

What I did differently is exactly what most successful leaders do: I took the mountain to Mohammed. I made what I wanted easy, accessible, respectful, and helpful to the client/leader.

Nine times out of ten my suggestions were embraced, and I was asked to take on even greater leadership as a result. Notice: not once was I concerned about the location of a table or a seat. Not once did I diminish myself as a “service provider”, a “woman”, or any other category. Not once did I ask for permission either.

They had a need. I had a need. I provided a solution for us both.

Far from being mercenary, it is crucial to never, ever set aside your own set of values or integrity in the process of taking your seat. If you do, you are only creating a precarious position at best, and laying waste to your own self-worth at worst. I refuse to knowingly present a solution to a leader or client whom I do not believe is in alignment with my values. Why would I do that? I can only think of one reason – I would still believe the number of seats is limited. Nothing could be further from the truth. I now realize that their table is just not a place I need to sit.

The point here is that, in the truest Zen sense, the way to get a seat at the table is to quit looking for a seat, and focus instead on the shared goal.

Be Careful What You Ask For

The opposite of empowered is victimized. What individuals who hang back, waiting to be invited to the table (or the golf course, or the club, etc.) can overlook is that a position of power does not always translate into being empowered. Moreover, it is absolutely possible to have a seat at the table and continue to feel like a victim of someone else’s behavior – like that person sitting to your left or right.

If you have ever had a seat at the table, you know what I mean. A title “does not a leader make”. Individuals who are unwilling to decide, or lead, for that matter, often take up valuable seats, and obstruct the process. These are not actually decision makers, nor are they leaders. They are really just avoiding stepping into their real power, and they can be a burden to true leaders.

Additionally, each person at the table will inevitably have a slightly different agenda. (It is a universal experience, as far as I can see, since everyone is a unique individual.) When these various agendas appear to be at odds, conflict and politics can take hold, creating a destructive little life if its own.

World-changing Idea #3: The Table of Freedom Is Set With Responsibility

When an individual pulls up their chair into the inner circle of decision-making, they find it raises both their visibility and their credibility. It also exposes them to greater criticism, and opportunity for public failure.

Quickly it becomes apparent that once you are a proven decision-maker, you are involved in a lot more than your stated role. You are asked for advice, gossip, favors, secrets, and allegiance. There are even those who believe that in order for them to sit where you are sitting, someone (possibly you) is going to need to get out of their way.

What’s absolutely incredible about being in a position to influence and make key decisions within an organization is that there are an infinite number of tables and chairs. There are plenty for everyone. The number of seats are infinite.

Certainly there will be those who try to block, evade or bully someone from taking their rightful place, but you get to choose to take your chair and go to another table altogether. I’ve done my share of that as well – from realizing that a particular client relationship was no longer serving either of us, to shifting my entire business paradigm and selling my agency shares. That’s the power to choose – you have the freedom to move the table at any time.

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