Don’t “Blend into the Wallpaper”
Using your voice to get a seat at the table
Early in my career I was sitting in my boss’s office discussing the output from an annual regional planning meeting that I had attended. He was sharing feedback about me from our Southeast Regional Vice President and executive team. My boss said “I’ve got some good and bad feedback about you. Which do you want first?” “Uh, can I just get the good?” I thought to myself. He proceeded with : “The consensus is your analytical skills are exceptional and your perspective is really insightful when you share it, but you blend into the wallpaper and will never advance your career if you don’t start speaking up more in meetings”.
Whaaat?!! Blend into the wallpaper? Crap, do I need to get my resume updated? I couldn’t even remember what the wallpaper in the conference room looked like! And that was the point. No one would remember me or consider me for bigger roles if they didn’t know what I had to offer. I had great ideas in my head but was intimidated by all the men (think 1997, I was the only woman in most meetings at that time) who I believed to be more experienced or “smarter” ideas than mine. My fear of saying the wrong thing or looking stupid kept me from offering likely the one unique perspective in the room that could add value from a different point of view. But my goal wasn’t to be unique, it was to fit in, so I sat quietly and nodded my head in agreement to what “experience” had to say. Until that one line of feedback hit me between the eyes. It was not only the turning point of my career but stuck in my head whenever I was in a situation where I felt myself staying inside my head and not sharing my perspective. “Don’t blend into the wallpaper Kristin, you have a point of view.” That was often the mantra in my head when I found my naturally introverted style nodding at other people’s input vs. sharing my own.
While women are really finding their stride in this era of empowerment, I must say I still see loads of women holding back for the exact same reasons I did over 20 years ago. I want to help those women get out of their heads, get in the game, and earn a seat at the table. So how did I change my behavior and what can you do to get out of your head and into the discussion?
- Just Do It. This isn’t a famous shoe slogan by accident. You’ll never progress until you get out of your comfort zone and just go for it. I’ll admit I was nervous and awkward at first, but like anything, the more you put your hat in the ring more comfortable you get doing it.
- Know your facts. After that feedback session I prepared for the next regional meeting by diving into the details and getting myself informed about the facts. There’s nothing worse than the person in the meeting that “talks to be heard” vs having a fact-based solid opinion. I wanted to be able to support my opinion with strong data. Whenever I had my facts I felt confident and it always served me.
- Anticipate the questions. Before meetings I put myself in the RVP’s shoes to identify the questions and potential pushback he/she would have. Not only did it help me in the meetings, but it also built my strategic leadership perspective as I started to approach challenges as the leader vs. the doer.
- Prepare your elevator speech. I learned quickly that having the 30 second elevator speech about my overarching opinion was critical to stay grounded and focused when discussions started going sideways. I found myself often bringing a wayward conversation back to a grounding point using my internal elevator speech which not only gave me a strategic perspective but helped me build my influencing skills to coalesce a disparate group of opinions. Being a “dot connector” became one of my greatest strengths as a result.
My career flourished after that event. They say feedback is a gift, and although it stung at first, it truly was a gift for my future success. So if you find yourself holding back in meetings as your colleagues engage in great debate, just look at the wallpaper and ask yourself if anyone in the room will remember it after the meeting. Then make sure you don’t blend into it.
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