Leaning In: Who's Sitting at the Table With You?

I'm all for Sheryl Sandberg's first tenet in her wonderful book, Lean In. That's where she says that women should Sit at the Table.

She's absolutely correct. Too often women are given opportunities - or are being kept from opportunities - as a result of that one behavior. If you don't sit at the table, you're not a player. You don't get the chance to shine. You're - in old fashioned terms - a wallflower.

But when you do sit at the table, be very, very aware of who's sitting there with you - because it's not always pretty. And even after all these years (given that I've been sitting at that table for decades) I'm still surprised by the backward, demeaning behaviors of too many of the men who sit there, too.

Here's just one example of how I know.

I had been invited by a Board member who knew me to meet the CEO of a new technology company on whose Board he was sitting. The Board member's thinking was that - even though the CEO already had a consultant with whom he was working - if the CEO and I "hit it off" I would give the organization's leader guidance that he wouldn't find elsewhere.

Frankly, that isn't quite the way I like to do business - but I like the Board member, he's a seriously good guy and, knowing how he felt about the company, I figured if I could help, I would.

That wasn't what the CEO wanted, however. And it quickly became clear he especially didn't want guidance from a woman.

How did I know the bit about a woman? He compared me to his wife.

This is a dead giveaway for when men aren't happy with what you're saying - or, possibly, your existence in their lives. Suddenly, they put you in the same category as their wives when they're not happy with them - as if you've created a "Honey Do" list for them to complete, rather than providing them with good guidance and input for them to consider.

They don't want to hear it. They don't want to do it. They don't want you there.

The meeting continued - because I'm polite - but, even in being polite, I made clear to the CEO that his behavior was unacceptable. He tried to fob it off as if he was just kidding, but as soon as I called him on his behavior, he backed off. Then he tried again. And I called him on it again.

We went a third round of that behavior before he realized I wasn't going to take it. That I wasn't willing to demean myself by letting him demean me just to get his business.

I had far more respect for myself than that.

What's most important about this for you is the corollary to Sit at the Table. You have to decide whether you want to sit at that particular table.

Because sometimes you don't. The key is to remember:

You always have options. Learn to see them and act upon them.

In this case, I wasn't willing to sit at the table with that CEO - at least not in the position the Board member had suggested. That didn't mean, however, that I didn't want to sit at the table. I liked the company and what it was doing. I liked the Board member. I wanted them to succeed.

So, I found another place to sit: As advisor to the Non-Executive Board members.

This worked out just fine - even for the CEO. He knew he couldn't take his shots at me in front of the Board so, instead, he learned to listen to what I had to say. It didn't happen the first time out...nor the second. But he got there and the company thrived under the shared guidance of the CEO, his Board...and me.

So, when you sit at the table, make sure you know who's sitting there with you. You may - or may not - like the company you'll be keeping. And, if you don't, don't stay. It's really not worth it.
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More on Leaning In:
   Leaning In: When You're Asked...Say Yes (llk)   Lean In Applied: The Secret for Your Success (llk)