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For me, Thanksgiving planning always begins with “The List:” who do I hope to have at our table this year? Naturally, my list includes family, friends and occasionally someone I adopt who doesn’t have anywhere else to go. But there’s more to having a seat at our table than passing the potatoes. Our Thanksgiving meal is an hours-long extravaganza of laughing, talking, sharing, and supporting. If you’re invited, you’re encouraged to speak up, speak out and actively participate in life together.
When I thought about it this year, I realized that it’s not much different from the euphemistic “having a seat at the table” in business and community organizations. Kat Cole, president of FOCUS Groups and one of our incredible 2016 Leadercast Live keynote speakers, tells us in her Leadercast Now videos that having a seat at the table comes with responsibilities. The responsibilities at our Thanksgiving table may not seem too daunting – but trust me, you won’t get by without positively contributing in some way. Neither will you out in the business world.
So how do you get a seat at the table in business? When I asked this question of half a dozen leaders from various roles, industries and backgrounds, a common theme to their answers is “by being confident and proactive.” This means different things to different leaders, but a roundup of their explanations includes:
Speak up and share. Or as Kat Cole puts it, “I’ve learned not to confuse ‘having a seat at the table’ with ‘having a voice.’ I’ve seen many people with a position of influence who don’t speak up. It’s such an unfortunate waste of opportunity. If you have earned a seat, it is your duty and your responsibility to speak up when the time calls for it.” When you share your ideas and thoughts passionately, it helps others see your vision, understand and want to join you, adds Kat.
Ask questions. I’ve often said that I learned more about life, work ethic, relationships, and myself at my family’s dinner table than anywhere else. My family was (is) loud, loquacious, loving, and all about learning. Having a seat at the table shouldn’t be a final destination; there is plenty we can learn from those seated around us once we’re there. To carry along my Thanksgiving table analogy, I enjoy learning from the littlest cousins to my millennial nieces and nephews to my grandfather’s oldest brother. At team meetings, it means being humble enough to ask questions and get feedback from the newest member of the team to the retired CEO and everyone in between. And especially, continually, from clients.
Engage others. You know that one relative who pontificates ad nauseam on his job, new car, exercise routine – whatever—without ever stopping to ask others what’s going on in their lives? How did he end up at the table in the first place? Engaging others – being authentically curious, attentive and connected – is another key leadership behavior that those at the table say helped them earn a seat. You can’t simply ask questions – you have to listen closely to the answers and be willing to hear feedback about your strengths and gaps.
Celebrate your seat. Sometimes we are our own worst critic, questioning our leadership position and how we got there. To quote Kat Cole, “If you have a seat at the table … a position with opportunity to shape, influence and impact – there is a reason. Someone advocated for you to be there; you didn’t just miraculously show up. You’ve likely earned it and proven you deserve to be there. Remind yourself of that as often as you need to – I still do sometimes. This is true for any table – in the community, at work, within your family.”
Pour into those you lead. This is a term I’ve learned from Andy Stanley, an amazing leadership speaker, best-selling author, founder of one of the largest ministries in the country, and a longstanding Leadercast speaker. Andy explains in his Leadercast Now video, “I don’t have everything that it would take to fill your cup in terms of your leadership ability, what you need to know… There’s not enough in me to fill your cup. But my responsibility isn’t to fill anybody’s cup …our responsibility is to empty our cup…to find ways to pour into the people around us what we do know; not because it’s all there is to know, but because it’s all we know. It’s all I know.”
To me, “pouring into others” — or what Leadercast calls “Beyond You” leadership — is consistently one of the most appealing qualities I see in the leaders I respect and admire most. I’m learning to do it no matter where I am, or what seat I have – at home, in the community, in my work, and yes, even at our Thanksgiving table. And when you see someone who exudes that confidence, that combination of humble and curious, the ability to authentically engage and support others – it’s also up to us move over and add another seat at the table.