Build Leadership Table Manners

Furniture plays a central role in a recurring dream. I bet you have the same dream as well. And if you are like me, it wakes you up and keeps you up wondering about things like proper etiquette.

In my version, I’m a kid back in rural Wisconsin, reliving the weekly ritual dinner at my grandparents’ house. Grandma has just called us in for dinner. As I enter the house I see two rooms: the formal dining room with the big adult table set for the meal and the family room with small tables set up for the children. I really want to sit with the adults at the big table, yet as I enter the house, I see Grandma is deciding where to send me.

That scene happened a long time ago, yet the big or small table drama still plays out in the world of work as talent professionals yearn to have a seat at the table. In other words, we strive to be in the company of senior leaders and be an influential peer in enterprise decisions. The big table is the place to be.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves directed to the small table in the other room, where we languish with fellow “second-class” workers, equally passionate about their areas but lacking the credentials and status for the big table. Worse yet, some of us were sent back to the small table or are unaware that they aren’t ready to move up. It’s a professional nightmare.

As I awake from my furniture dream, I often think about how leaders I admire conduct themselves in big-table settings. Four table manners matter most:

Sit up straight: There is a confident posture leaders assume at the big table. We need to drop the humble, being-of-service slouching tolerated at the kids table. Expect to be respected. You have high-impact, high-value contributions your organization desperately needs to succeed. Even if you don’t feel confident right now, act like you are a confident peer at the big table. It will come over time.

No elbows on the table: Over-advocating for your area is much like the inappropriate elbow pose at the table. I once saw a junior manager standing in for his boss at a senior meeting make a repeated mistake of injecting the importance of his functional initiative over three different agenda topics. It was his only guest appearance with the senior team.

Assume the attitude of “business first and my function second” at the big table. You are there to solve business problems and achieve business strategic objectives. If visitors were observing the senior leadership team meeting, act in such a way that they couldn’t point out the talent management person in the room, as everyone is talking about the business first.

Eat your vegetables: To engage fully in the broad spectrum of business issues and strategies, you’ll have to know all aspects of the organization. Just being interested in your narrow functional domain is kids table talk. I’ve found the attribute of business-wide curiosity and developed business acumen separate the big-table contenders vs. pretenders in the talent management field. Staying up on the business is fundamental — like getting the required amount of daily fruits and vegetables. If that isn’t appetizing to you, then enjoy your time at the small-functional table.

Invite yourself to the big table: Early in my career, a challenging boss taught me to be aggressive about getting into the business discussions and meetings — even if not initially considered to be on the invite list. To do that, I had to be clear about what value I could bring to the key meetings and then ask or find a way to get in the room.

While at first sounding risky, it turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons of all. Unlike my dream, it isn’t Grandma — or the senior leader — who ultimately decides which table we sit at. It’s how we conduct ourselves as confident, assertive and well-mannered business leaders that counts.