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Who gets a seat at the table?

by Polly LaBarre on December 8, 2011


polly-labarre's picture

Who gets a seat at the table?

“That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.” —Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

Back in September I was lucky enough to participate in IBM's centennial THINK forum in New York City . The lineup included a staggering array of CEOs of the biggest, oldest, and most influential companies in the world, several heads of state (on loan from the General Assembly sessions at the UN across town), and a handful of boldface journalists and thought leaders. For all of the power on display in that room, the real topic of the moment was insurrection.

In the days surrounding the event (and the annual conglomeration of power that is UN week), Arab Spring continued to spread across the region and into the Fall. The Occupy Wall Street protests gathered steam in Zuccotti Park and across America. Meanwhile, the parliamentary victories of upstart, off-center (and off-the-wall) political organizations—including the loose confederation of Pirate Parties across Europe and Hungary's LMP or "Politics Can Be Different" party—shifted the sideshow to center stage.

The agendas may be inchoate and the uprisings chaotic, but the message is clear: the established way of leading, ruling, governing, and managing is not working anymore.

That's not exactly a newsflash, but what really struck me at the IBM centennial event was that the most tuned in leaders immediately got that it was not just not working for the 99%--it was not working for the 1% either (or wouldn't be much longer).

Just a little over a year into his presidency and already emerging as a bit of a populist maverick, President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III of the Philippines roused the global crowd of executives with his exhortation to "institutionalize people power. Embed it within institutions so people may easily make their voices heard." That's not optional, he went on, "People will always find a way to be heard."

Why listen? Not just to calm the unrest or even just because it's the right thing to do--but because that multitude of voices promises to open up the cloistered halls of power, flush out the stale air, and signal the future.

That's what Michael Ondaatje learned (and chronicles in his riveting new novel, The Cat's Table) during his 1954 ocean voyage from Colombo to England as an 11-year old unsupervised schoolboy, relegated to dine with an assortment of oddballs and outcasts and invisible to the elite denizens of first class. "Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table," he writes. "Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves."

Escaping that rut and rethinking who gets a seat at the table just might be the most urgent leadership imperative of our day.

Jim Whitehurst got a short course in doing just that when he arrived as CEO of the rough and tumble Red Hat from his post as COO of the rather more buttoned-up Delta Airlines four years ago. From his first days at the helm of the billion-dollar open source software company, which lives, breathes, and bleeds the values of open source development (not least: the best ideas win, no matter where they come from), Whitehurst realized "if I'm not called an idiot at least once a day then something's wrong."

The power of redistributing power came home to Whitehurst (and his fellow Delta alum Jackie Yeaney, head of strategy and marketing at Red Hat) in the course of introducing a formal strategic planning process to the fast-growing company. They quickly learned that the conventional approach of a few executives (and maybe a handful of outside consultants) drafting a strategy behind closed doors to present to the wider organization would never fly in an company that valued openness and participation as fervently as Red Hat. Instead, Yeaney, Whitehurst, and a wide array of Red Hat colleagues spent three and a half years inventing and testing a powerfully original and radically open approach to setting direction.

Yeaney unpacks that journey in-depth in her excellent entry in the HBR/McKinsey Beyond Bureaucracy Challenge, but let me just share a few of the compelling lessons on what every leader has to gain by re-setting the table.

Invite dissent--and build belief

At Red Hat, says Yeaney, "there is a firm belief that the best way to get great ideas is to get a lot of ideas, from a diverse set of viewpoints." Even if those ideas actively contradict what you think. As President Aquino puts it, ""Dissent is what speaks truth to power." Calling for ideas from the ranks is not the same as genuinely inviting dissent into the conversation. "You truly have to have no consequences for doing that," says Whitehurst. All ideas are welcome, but no idea is sacred.

Creating an environment capable of metabolizing a diversity of viewpoints (and even brutal criticism) only works if people are held together by shared belief. Whitehurst and his colleagues focus as much time on strengthening the Red Hat community's values of openness, transparency, and collaboration as they do seeking out new ideas.

Don't just invite people to the table--involve them in the most important work

If you want to derive all of the insight and benefits of inviting broad participation in charting your organization's future, it's not enough to just ask for ideas. "Red Hat employees generated LOTS of ideas," says Yeaney. But the real power in the process was recruiting people from all over the company to form a series of "exploration teams" to define key areas of focus. The leaders of those teams then "tapped the people with the most knowledge and the most interesting ideas to take charge of actually developing strategy and plans in each area," says Yeaney.

Just as important, those plans were never handed back up the chain of command for "final answers." The effect? Yeaney cites three key benefits: first, the process generated "more creativity, accountability, and commitment." Second, "by not bubbling every decision up to the senior executive level, we avoided the typical 50,000-foot oversimplification" of issues. And third, "we improved the flexibility and adaptability of the strategy." With the responsibility for planning and execution in the hands of the same people--the people actually doing the work--responsiveness to new opportunities or shifts in the market went up dramatically.

There's a corollary here: make the work visible--even if it's messy. While not every individual at Red Hat was deeply involved in the process, everybody was kept in the loop. A dedicated cross-functional "engagement team" charged with inventing ever new ways to maintain transparency and expand the conversation, and exploration and strategy team leaders narrated their work and called for ideas and feedback on an internal wiki. The conversation continues to this day with discussions about the strategic framework, specific initiatives, and progress reports woven into company meetings, team events, and new hire orientation.

Even if you think you still have the power--act as if you don't

There's a lot of passion in circulation and you have so much to gain by figuring out a way to enlist it to your cause (and so much to lose if you don't). Whitehurst took that lesson to heart--and reaped the rewards.

"My first response was, 'strategy's secret! You can't collaboratively do strategy.' But it turns out that 95% of strategy really can be open--what categories are we going into, what are our sources of competitive advantage, what are the value points for our customers. The process works better, the results are better, the execution is better when people not only know what the strategy is, but they know why the strategy got put in place . . . and they've had a part in making it happen."

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naveen-khajanchi's picture
It's an expression of unconditional love and care from the POWER centre's that needs to flow within ..generally it flows only in their heads and they become insecure about their power positions and work hard ONLY to retain the same i.e when they loose out .
ellen-weber's picture
Polly thanks for yet another thought-provoking blog on the value of seats offerd at a table.  I just listened to all three of your latest videos also and I'm the one cheering you on loudest from the bleachers. My comment mixes what you say here and what you challenge in your video question --  "What ideas do you stand for?"

You also ask in so many ways the compelling question: What ideas are you fighting for and what don't you stand for? Then you tossed in the finale -- that will lead new pathways forward - ARE YOU REALLY LIVING WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE? Again, great question that guides us to ask hard practical question about what others see here at Mita's Brain Center. Brilliant.

These are questions we're asking especially lately as we are now preparing to take the brain based Mita leadership approach into a very large international organization -- so I am deeply engaed in the wisdom of your "deeper meanings." (you likely know that the literal root meaning of "understanding" is to "stand under") and it's always an honor to "stand under" your well articulated ideas!

Still -- I have a critical question:

Polly, how might we see and experience both men and women offer and inspire more leadership advances here at the Mix? How so?

As I glance just to the right of my screen when I post this comment I see a list of dozens of good blogs (some of whom I know) and all that offer fine value. Where is more of the brain based notion that  WOMEN + MEN brainpower is needed to inspire any leadership community?

Is there an effort to move toward innovative leadership that includes more central ideas from more women as inspiration to the whole group? That would define the MiX in even finer new colors they may be missing by overlooking women's inspiration. Why so? Women's brains differ - which makes their inspiration uniquely different.  To illustrate why both genders are vital as leaders for entire group -   it's no secret new skills are required and inspiration needed from both genders.

Without more women's innovative insights to inspire MIX topics -  we'll all miss poignant inspiration. Let's be deliberate about expanding our shared list of almost exclusively valued men's ideas currently - to include women's inspiration.

As a leader of innovative leader programs internationally -- I benefit from far more inspired icons listed from far more inspired female leaders as well as men's. Are women missing seats at the MIX table here, Polly, as it appears in the inspired list of blogs inches away from my request here? If so -- we'll all lose!

How can we live the access the upcoming generation craves,  and make women's leadership ideas and innovative inspiration tips at least as numbered as our valued men at the MIX?

Can you help me to understand how it can happen, or can you help me to "stand under" the reasons why women are missing at the inspiration table? Would you agree that the new innovative culture changes will likely mix more permeable brainpower initiatives across genders when we welcome equal seats at Mix's table too? 

How can we illustrate to the world of change-makers how to welcome inspiration from those leaders so dramatically less represented here now? How can we live and model even more - how seats offered and valued at our table could well change and advance global management culture simply because they exist?