“Sit at the table.”
I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s words echo in my head as I glided into the chilly conference room. I had been invited as an afterthought. I was the first (and only) research fellow of a university architecture department, in a position the dean had created for me to pursue my research. Few people knew who I was or that the position even existed. I was invited to the department’s board meeting in which I’d present my research if we had extra time. (We didn’t.)
The conference room was your standard–long sleek table ringed with chairs, with a second ring hugging the wall. I did the quick alpha-dog status check: One of my project’s advisers was already parked on the outside ring. I wasn’t board member, I wasn’t a professor, I wasn’t half the age of half of the people there–of course I should sit on the outside, but then I heard those words–a chapter title even, from Sandberg’s Lean In, which I had recently read: “Sit at the Table.”
Sandberg talks about sitting at the table when she relays a story of Tim Geithner’s female staff sitting along the outside ring even though there were seats at the table, politely demurring even when invited specifically to the table by Sandberg herself. Sitting at the table means putting ourselves in positions of power from the get-go and not disqualifying our own power before we even open our mouths.
But in that conference room, I thought, surely Sandberg meant sitting at the table metaphorically, not as a literal command for that very room and situation, where, at the bottom of the totem pole, my place was surely along the sidelines.
The thing is, it almost always feels presumptuous to sit at the table. Or let me restate, it feels presumptuous to sit at the table, unless you are already in a context in which the pecking order is clear and someone else has told you you’re in charge.
But in the real world? Not many people get signed and stamped letters asserting that they are in charge. The real world is ambiguous and messy, and the person who puts forth useful insight is the person people look to for useful insight.
I work hard to walk my talk, so at the last minute I veered right and headed to the table. And you know what? No one told me to leave (that would have been extra awkward for everyone, right?) And I contributed useful insight. I walked out of that room with key relationships started, relationships that have helped me get to where I’m trying to go.
So yes, sit at the table. Metaphorically and physically. And don’t wait for someone to give you permission, because by the time they finally give it to you, it was yours already.