Obstacle #3: Can you hear me now?

“You make a good point.  And this idea makes sense.  Let’s talk about how we move this forward.”

My idea just received executive approval.  I was sitting around a small formica conference table with our head of operations, chief technology officer, vice president of services and vice president of delivery.   And the idea I proposed was just validated as a smart, new direction for our business.

I should be feeling elated.  But I wasn’t.

I had voiced the idea twenty minutes earlier.  At the time, the four men in the room looked at me, nodded and said, “That’s really not our core competency, Natalie.  I don’t know how much of a story we could really build around that.”

Fast forward twenty minutes.  Why were they suddenly saying that my story idea, a new direction for the company, was the right idea?

Because one minute before that moment, the head of services restated my idea. In his own words.  But still my idea.

Welcome to Obstacle #3
Why wasn’t I heard?  Why wasn’t I getting credit for proposing this bold new move?

I can tell you why – now, in hindsight, of course – but first let’s recognize that I am not alone.  There is plenty of discussion around why women feel they do not have a voice in senior level meetings or the boardroom.  Heath Flynn Holt, a consulting firm, wrote an article (Harvard Business Review, June 2014) about their 2012 study which identified some interesting thoughts from the male perspective:

  • over 30% of men felt women didn’t focus their ideas concisely enough
  • over 50% of men said women didn’t control the floor when they had it

This is compounded by women themselves stating that they don’t feel they are loud enough to overcome the chatter and verbal one-upmanship of a group of men and they feel at a disadvantage when surrounded by men who are not part of their support system.

When staring this obstacle down. how should I have tackled it? First, to borrow a phrase my Dirty Girl partner uses often, how did I “show up” to the meeting? And second, how did I want to show up?

Walk into a room already feeling at a disadvantage – outnumbered and unsupported by your peers – and that’s going to “show up” in how you present yourself.  Sit down dreading boisterous interruptions; you’re going to get interrupted. Worry about being challenged; you’ll freeze when you get push-back. Bring your insecurity to the table; self-doubt will sit down and have lunch.  They do that, our insecurities.  They feed.

But how did I want to show up?  Unsupported, nervous and insecure were not the words on the top of my list.  So before walking into that room – where perhaps being outnumbered is a given – think about who you want to bring with you.  You can’t change the fact that you are the only woman in the room.  You can’t change the fact that the men in the room are going to see you as a woman.  But you absolutely control what kind of woman are they going to see.

So what would that take, for you to show up as confident and knowledgable?  For one, it means excusing self doubt from the table, firmly, and dusting off the crumbs.  You know what you know. In fact, you know more than that.  Your ideas stem from the benefit of your experience and your intelligence –  the same traits that got you to this table in the first place.  When you “show up” as that confident, composed leader, that’s what your table mates see.

It sounds so simple to say, “Just push that baggage aside and be great!”

But it is simple.  It’s just not always easy.

Does defending your idea make you defensive?
The art of debate in the boardroom is remembering that we’re all there for the same purpose – for the benefit of the company.  Staying composed can be difficult if you’re interpreting every tough question as an attack – especially if your last interaction with Rob from sales or Kevin from human resources was not as productive as you would have liked. Staying focused on the facts and the key message will help you keep an even tone, avoiding any interpretation of being too emotional or highly defensive. Sometimes, bluntly reminding the people around the table of that goal – benefiting the company – can help alleviate the politics that can come into play when your idea is challenged and serve to keep you focused.

Why do they do it?  How do we respond?  

If I had asked my coworker afterwards why he stole my idea, I can pretty much guarantee you he’d stare at me like I had morphed into General Ackbar.

He didn’t steal my idea because he didn’t hear it. What he heard was, “Well… maybe… this might not be the right track… perhaps… it could be… we should consider…. I’m not sure this is the best idea but…”

Twenty minutes later, my coworker said, “Definitely… now… we must… I believe… this is… I know.”  Whatever nuggets of my idea did seep in, he simply made better.  More powerful.

So who’s idea would you follow?

It’s a generalization but I’m going to say it anyway: women have tend to frame ideas in softer, more hesitant language.  We don’t like to appear pushy.  We don’t want to be labeled arrogant. We know –studies tell us repeatedly – that we are not likable when we assert ourselves (that’s a whole other blog since we’re playing to a perceived bias, not a real one…) The mission in my meeting was to get my point across, to propose an idea I firmly believed would get the company to the next stage. Yet, despite being one of the most direct people I know and I still fell into this verbal pandering.  But who are we pandering to? We aren’t serving ourselves and we aren’t serving the men in the room, either. They don’t care. They don’t even hear us.

Had I framed my idea as I truly believed in it and used language to convey not just my faith in my idea but the knowledge I had to back it up – the market data, the understanding of how media works – I would have “shown up” far more powerfully.  And probably shortened the meeting by twenty minutes.

So, your turn: has this happened to you?  While each of us faces a different situation, often the dynamics around the obstacle are similar.  What’s your obstacle training look like?

As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome.  And don’t forget to share this blog!

N.B.  I am aware that I am posting my obstacles “out of order” numerically.  I will beg your indulgence. It’s just how I think.  And really, there is no good order to obstacles.  Is there?

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