Sit at the Table and Own Your Leadership Presence

"Next time, sit at the table," my colleague said as we left the conference room after an important meeting about a project I was leading. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Of course. Why didn't I?

I talk about leadership – a lot. I know about having a leadership mindset, being confident, and acting in line with my values. I have years of practical experience leading small and large teams and huge global projects. Yet, there it was. My colleague had simply pointed out that my actions said I didn't see myself as a leader. How could I expect others to see me as one?

Let's rewind…

Once upon a time, long, long ago, back in the early 2000s BC (Before Covid), I was a leader in a large corporation where the common practice was to conduct business, share information, and make decisions in conference room meetings. The highest-ranking people would sit around a table facing the front of the room with a large screen displaying PowerPoint charts. Chairs also would line the walls of the conference room, or if the room was big enough, there might be rows of chairs arranged like a gallery or theater to accommodate all the support staff – the people who were working on projects, experts, and representatives from organizations that would be affected or who would have to support the decision. These meetings were how information was disseminated, culture was reinforced, and people were trained, developed, and tested.

On this particular day, I was bringing a project to a conclusion. The last step was to get the senior leaders to accept my recommendation and approve the next steps. Everyone piled into the meeting, and the senior leaders fell into the usual formation around the table. The support staff all filed in and took their places around the room's edges. After scoping out a seat at the front edge of the room I stood at the front and welcomed everyone as they arrived.

I gave my presentation then took my seat for the question-and-answer portion of the discussion. After everything was answered to satisfaction, the decision was made, which was aligned with my recommendation. I was happy, and everyone left the room. That is when my colleague approached me and said, "Next time, sit at the table."So obvious. Even though my pitch was successful, the lasting impression I left was not how I wanted to be seen.

As Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith describe in their book, "How Women Rise," I minimized myself putting future leadership opportunities at risk. My habit of over-accommodating and making room for others by reducing the space I took up undermined my ability to project authority and power.

Here is a contrasting story from another colleague who faced a similar decision.

Fariba started in a leadership position at The Boeing Company Commercial Airplanes Division coming from a different cultural and industry background. She jumped into the new job and made a difference from day one. She was eager to attend the CEO's weekly leadership review. When she arrived in the room for her first review, 5 minutes before the meeting, she immediately noticed that all, except one, of the seats at the table were filled. She grabbed the open seat and settled in. She noticed she was getting looks from the others, some of which were very disapproving. Fariba figured out quickly that she had sat in the CEO's chair.

She had a decision to make, move or continue to sit there. Fariba stuck to her values of being positive and humble, but also her promise to herself to never make a decision out of fear. So, she decided to continue to sit, thinking the CEO wouldn’t mind. And she was right, he didn’t.

You can listen to Fariba tell her story here: TED talk:

The moral of these stories is simple: If you want to be seen as a leader, sit at the table.

But what happens when there is no table? Fast forward to today – AC (After Covid). Meetings are still the vehicle of choice for debate, decisions, and information sharing. Today those meetings are often virtual. Turning on your camera is equivalent to “sitting at the table.” Turning on your camera is showing up, being present, demonstrating leadership, and moving toward leadership excellence rather than relegating yourself to a follower role.

In the virtual world, the conference room table just got bigger, and now everyone can sit at the table. In a blink of an eye, the conference room is no longer a barrier that excludes those that can't fit in – but the onus is now on you to show up and be present. No more excuses to hide, not be prepared, not to contribute, not to lead with your ideas, opinions, and perspectives.Fariba and I had to decide to physically sit at the table. You will be faced with this decision at some point as well, and I hope this story will help you be more conscious than I was of your decision on where to “sit.” But you now have the incredible opportunity to leverage the nature of virtual platforms and show up on screen equally as other participants, regardless of rank.

Only you must turn your camera on.

Get more insights on showing up as the unique leader you were meant to be:

Invest in yourself - Free article on our blog The Almanac. Susan Ireland shares ideas on how to start investing in yourself.

Values Exercise - Patreon Exclusive! Debbie Collard takes you through how to identify your core values in this special video element.

Managing Priorities - Big RocksPatreon Exclusive! Debbie Collard breaks down how to prioritize for success in this special video element.

Susan Ireland draws on 30+ years of leadership experience in corporations to help people positively impact the world. As an ICF-Certified Professional Coach, Susan works with executives, entrepreneurs and leaders at all levels to enhance their leadership and business acumen, encourage self-discovery and turn challenges into positive results. Her belief in the unique value of individuals and appreciation for the wonder and awe of their journeys inspires enduring, transformative change.

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