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Earning a Seat at the Table

Now more than ever so many folks are wondering – what is going on the top of our organization? Clearly many companies are continuing to button down the hatches through consolidation, deeper analytics, and centralized process controls. If hatch tightening stands as the most visible activity coming from the top it will feel to the talent below harshly absent of an urgent rally to drive customer focused innovation. With this a growing tension in the talent lines sits behind these questions: How do I earn my influence up there? How can I ensure we are heard – that they understand what we need to give them growth? And finally, is it even worth it? Do they get it?

Some embattled leaders feel it’s too dangerous to voice opinions at the highest levels … protecting a long sought career that is vulnerable to great peril. We believe we are as vulnerable as the Greek mythological character, Icarus. Our fragile wax spun wings might melt if we move too close to the sun with that seat at the table. So what unfolds – leaders live in circular frustration cycles swinging between having the fight in them and then to the opposite extreme of completely shutting down (both not ideal.) They murmur behind their own closed doors with one another …send messages up the chain with hope of the basic translation makes it there … then maybe there are some moments of acting out in meetings (usually after issues reached a boiling point.) Finally, you might hear “I tried to warn them.” And the key word here is them.

So what is the key to effectively earning that seat and harnessing your leadership voice?

First avoid these three traps toward earning that voice at the top:

Heroically heads down on the high visibility initiative to prove your worth

Well intentioned and talented leaders quietly soldier themselves through a stretch of difficult initiatives with the belief their dedication and extreme hard work will deliver a difference. They see this as the ticket to the seat at the table. Well… not yet. I’m not saying high achievement of significant stretch assignments won’t translate to valuable organizational credibility. I am saying much more is behind this to gain that voice. In fact, the hard truth is you may clear a tremendous goal only to find a “what have you done for me lately” new list of targets to tackle next – more is needed to have that voice up there…

It is possible to become someone that can be counted on for a certain kind of target work while still not proactively solicited to help the top think about the issues early on…

Securing the big Come to Jesus meeting with the Big Cheese

The big bang meeting theory to get the message across at the top can have an impact sometimes but not often. Simply because these meetings do not occur enough with the right audiences for the message and organizations are all suffering from wickedly short attention spans. You might say, should the executive team invite this dialogue? Sure … the top executive team, with genuine intent, needs to rigorously establish a two way street of idea exchange on significant opportunities and issues with the talent they serve. The reality – this is occurring less and less these days as even the most senior leadership teams find themselves trapped with working in the business versus on the business. The senior executive team needs help pulling out of this cycle with compelling focus and renewed belief in the business possibilities. This is placing an insurmountable and somewhat hidden tension for greater leadership courage coming from those folks surrounding the executives – this couldn’t be more called for today. Unfortunately “having a big meeting” is one way to check that action off the list of “we talked to the top.” The meeting was completed politely but no real courage was enacted to foot the right conversations deeply enough with right people. As part of big meeting, teams may fall victim to over engineering the story with far too much content in overflowing decks that fail to clarify the most crucial context for a good decisioning dialogue.

Some context simply needs the courage to navigate the sets of conversations with the right people in multiple venues to gain momentum.

Single threading your power line

This is my term but some leaders are more power relationship savvy than others. What I’m referring to here isn’t just about playing the politics – it is a bit more surgical – it’s playing the power game with intention. Single threading happens when a leader heavily focuses his attention on one of the senior executives – “becoming his guy” as you might hear. This doesn’t necessarily occur from a source of bad intentions. Regardless of level, it is still human nature to become drawn to the folks you like to work with, that compliment you’re thinking, and that you trust to take down the filter a bit more than usual. We all need some friendlies around us but for senior leaders there is a risk to vetting key ideas through the same nucleus of the tightly knitted faces day in and day out. For the leader below the executive working that power relationship, the apparent seat the table can often become skewed as assumptions grow around the power pairing (the senior leader and her right hand) that they will always agree so they are a united front now. If you have ever found yourself in this situation you might even find that people will begin to filter what they say to you because now you are viewed as the senior executive’s proxy. This becomes especially the case if the senior executive isn’t very accessible in the right ways.

Avoid the perception of becoming someone’s extension – establish your own leadership footprint and do it with integrity and courage.

Avoiding these traps a leader now has some options to earn that voice. (Another article awaits regarding how culture and organizational readiness play a part…but for starters consider these basics.)

Four impactful ways to earning the seat at the table

Have a point of view on the business based on real customer insights and value proposition

Points of view are create invaluable credibility along with track record of outcomes for that seat at the table. Avoid pushing a point of view isolated to what you need for your function. Always carry an enterprise point of view. Functional points of view rarely meet the dialogue lens at the top. Points of view require enterprise legs that articulate a compelling story for real customer value delivery.

Build many relationships downward, upwards, and outwards to become known as person who cares about the people and the business – not just a role

This focus often frustrates my executive coaching clients the most as they are slammed into their day to day over scheduled work lives – but regardless – there is no way to break the cycle other than to invest in relationships. We are losing this sense of knowing each other and its coming at price of poor decisioning, stalled execution, and astronomically low workforce engagement – ultimately the scarcity of real relationship work is the root of an inability to coordinate alignment for complex but difference making outcomes. A leader who is known as a genuine person that is meaningfully connected to a multiple levels around the organization will carry powerful influence – particularly in companies where relationships are valued inside the culture.

Focus on context alignment

My top clients viewed with high potential possess a common skill – they are masters at context alignment. This simply means you can discover, understand, translate, and connect context between people – and often between parties that can’t agree. Your guidance of context plays a large part in everyone at least seeing the same context on an issue. The guide wires for this skill are the basic skills of deep listening and excellent questioning – then replaying this back to everyone to verify understanding. The context aligners aren’t necessarily serial consensus builders. (Although they must guard against this at times.) They masterfully align context to help the company call the shot with at least a meaningful enough connection of context for others to understand (even the nay sayers.) I can tell when there is skilled context alignment person in the room – the room seems to calm down when they walk in, they weave the conversations together, the listen thoughtfully, they care, they are present…

Master story telling

One of my partners and friends that had the opportunity to participate as a TedX speaker shared the incredible journey and process behind assembling a cohesive Ted Talk. The essence of this work was engaging others in the heart of the story – from beginning to end. In all the leadership work and programs I’ve been a part of – a consistent theme emerges – help our people become better at building and sharing the story. We need stories to build belief. How that story is told at the top requires you weave their lens into a storyline of the customer lens – and it should be real, clear, engaging, and inspiring (meaning, does it inspire you?)

All of these points apply directly to senior executive occupying the top seat as well. As even having the seat at the top table isn’t necessarily the table you need to sit at to drive the change that inspires and ignites the organization to its next chapter.

As it turns out we all have wax wings if we ignore the intention behind our voice at the seat of the table.