Are you pulling out a chair for others

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When I was 16, I found myself in the unusual position of being in charge of the mailings dept team of a large nonprofit organization.

I remember one mailing where, as I was given the request and plans, I saw some problems, so I went to the office of Rob, the dept head who had requested the mailing. I explained the problem and he and I proceeded to brainstorm a solution. After 20 minutes, we felt like we had a workable solution. Rob then called a quick meeting of the other Dept heads involved in the project.

Now to set the stage, there were eight people at the table, each of them a Dept head or someone with technical expertise involved in the problem. The youngest of which was 10 years my senior. Then there was me, the literal "new kid on the block", the 16 year old who could have easily passed off as 14 years old. I was the guy with no credibility, no natural reason why anyone would notice or pay any attention to me or what I had to say. I assumed I would just pretty much be silent in the meeting and that Rob would run the meeting since he had called it.

I was surprised when he started the meeting by saying that there was a problem with the current setup of this large mailing, "but Seth came up with a great solution", turning to me to explain our solution. He could have easily and legitimately claimed credit or used the term "we" and explained it himself. But he did something unusual,
  • He gave me all the credit
  • He gave me all the credibility I needed by calling it a great plan
  • He turned the spotlight over to me, making me the primary driver of the meeting conversation.
This was 25 years ago and I still remember his words so clearly. I would never forget the confidence boost it gave me, the generous way he shared the credibility that he had with someone who had very little.

My teenage years were very unusual. I started working part-time when I was 13, full-time when I was 15, and by the time I was 17, I was putting in 60+ hour weeks and loving it. Along the way, as the need arose, I was promoted to manager over various progressively larger teams, moves that seemed strange largely because of my age. Strangely, the first time I had someone younger than me working for me and it was when I was 19.

As you can imagine other employees were quite skeptical of me being put in charge, My own boss initially didn't think it was possible for me to handle these situations because of my age. But, interestingly, his boss, Dwight the department director, simply said, let's give it a try and see if he can handle it. And so, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool to see if I could swim.

The pressure that was placed on me at a very young age was unusual in our society but, I learned and grew so much during that time, it was invaluable to me.

One of the things I experienced during that short period of my life was a great deal of discrimination based on my age. People would:
  • Dismiss what I had to say based on my age.
  • Tell me I couldn't do things because of my age.
  • Dismissively patronize me as I was trying to get things done.
  • Go around me to talk to my team members because they were older and must be in charge.
  • People I had negotiated large contracts with over the phone would do a double take when we met for the first time in person.
  • People felt surprisingly free to challenge me when I made a statement; making me feel I had to always be on the defensive because it was so easy for them to doubt my credibility.
  • People felt free to talk over me at meetings, or in some cases, barely even acknowledge that I was there.
Today however things are different: I am a 40-year-old, 6 foot 2 inches tall, Caucasian male with a deep enough voice. Professionally dressed and articulate enough that I could go almost anywhere, in almost any situation, and be taken seriously, given the benefit of the doubt and looked up too. It's easy for me to walk into pretty much any meeting and be listened too.

I don't currently deal with that same discrimination that I faced back then because I grew up. but going through it and experiencing it was a valuable learning experience. As you can imagine at times it was difficult but there were these few people like Rob and Dwight who through small acts of support showed empathy and grace, giving me the chance and opportunity that I needed to accomplish what many doubted I could because of my youth and inexperience. They looked beyond what the preconception that others had and gave me a chance to prove myself.

Looking back at what they did makes me wonder about what I am currently doing.

Our society generally ascribes leadership and credibility with some combination of the attributes of tall, deep-voiced, light skinned, older men, who dress "professionally" and speaks articulately. Yes, you can find many, many exceptions, but this is a generalized statement. Rob and Dwight fit those attributes yet they took someone who didn't quite match up to peoples preconceived notions of leadership and used their leadership and credibility to gave him the opportunity to prove himself. They used their culturally accepted credibility and shared it with someone who lacked what they naturally had.

I now live a life where I have leadership and credibility attributed to me, I have gained this through a combination of my own efforts of hard work and things given to me by my DNA of which I had zero involvement. I now have a proverbial seat at the table. What am I doing with it?

Having a seat at the table is great and all, but are you pulling out chairs for others to come and join you?

To quote an overused quote from the movie Spiderman: "with great power comes great responsibility."

You may think to yourself that you don't have any superpowers. You’re not chairman of the board of anything, you don't fit the list of culturally accepted leadership attributes, so you may feel that you need to wait for someone else to come along to help you. DON'T. You, right now, have a level of leadership, credibility, and power. What are you doing with it? Are you sharing what you have and giving a hand up to others by bringing them to the same table and sharing credibility with them so that they can have the opportunity to do what you have done.

There is a scarcity mentality that makes us fearful of giving away any leadership opportunity or credibility building situations because we are afraid that if we give away any of what we have it will mean less for us in the future. Rob, the guy from the initial story, could have so easily and naturally run that meeting by himself, it's what I expected him to do. Instead, he did the unusual and generous thing of putting the spotlight on me instead of himself. I still look up to him as a leader because of it.

I recently watched a short video with Arnold Schwarzenegger. At one point he started talking about being a self-made man:

“I came over here with absolutely nothing. I had $20 in the pocket and some sweaty clothes in a gym bag. Starting out, I had this one little apartment and on Thanksgiving, the bodybuilders from Gold’s Gym came to my apartment and they brought me pillows, dishes, silverware, all of the things I didn’t have. None of us can make it alone. None of us. Not even me, who’s been the Terminator and went back in time to save the human race. Not even me, that fought and killed predators with his bare hands.
“I always tell people that you can call me anything that you want, but don’t ever, ever call me a self-made man. It gives the wrong impression, that we can do it alone. None of us can. The whole concept of the self-made man or woman is a myth. I would have never made it in my life without the help. I want you to understand this because as soon as you know you are here because of a lot of help, then you also understand that now it’s time to help others. That’s what this is all about.”

You have achieved what you have through a combination of your family, your DNA, your birthplace, your time of birth, your environment, your community, your educational opportunities, your own will, desire, and hard work. Some of that you can claim credit for (good for you!), some of it you had handed to you. Despite it being overused, "with great power, comes great responsibility"
  • Who are you helping?
  • Who are you giving a hand up to?
  • Who are you giving an opportunity to?
  • Who are you shining the spotlight on?
  • Who are you bringing into your network or group of friends?
  • Who are you bringing in front of your peers and saying "_______ has a great idea"?
  • Who are you pulling out a chair for at the table?

4 comments:

  1. Love this, Seth, and glad to have had a small part in your story! Here are a couple of notes from my perspective that might prove useful for your readers:

    * I really believed in Seth. To promote him, to push his envelope wider, was natural--not a put-on. It's not hard to get behind someone you actually think is up to the job. The trouble many of us face is that somewhere along the path of life we come to believe that if the job is going to get done right, it's going to have to be done by me. That's a dramatically inflated self-view--AND it significantly limits the growth of any organization, even the maturation of a family. It's really fun to push others to step up by stepping back far enough that they actually have to take hold, and the net result is growth for everyone involved. But do we really believe that others CAN do the job? Or have we become so jaded, calloused, self-centered that we really believe we're irreplaceable, the only one who can do the job right?

    * We might object, "Promoting others will cost me too much." Get this--I don't even remember the situation Seth describes here! How much did it cost me? Well, obviously not much--and it gained me a smart, hard-working partner who was fully engaged in the work. I didn't have to do it all on my own; I didn't want to! Turning the spotlight on others spreads the load--and gives them a chance to grow.

    Seth's article pushes me to evaluate my present way of living: How am I deliberately stepping out of the spotlight so others can step in? Am I cultivating opportunities for my kids to experience the weight of appropriate responsibility combined with a share in the rewards? How about my co-workers?

    I can see I have a long way to grow.

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    Replies
    1. Great thoughts Rob, I would be surprised if you had remembered this incident, it was such a small thing and yet my mind has gone back to that simple phrase so many times in the last 25 years.

      Never underestimate the impact of a small act of belief and kindness.

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  2. You could so easily replace the “because of my age” in this list with “because I am a woman.” It’s been so true for me in my professional career.

    Like this:

    Dismiss what I had to say based on my GENDER.
    Tell me I couldn't do things because of my GENDER.
    Dismissively patronize me as I was trying to get things done.
    Go around me to talk to my team members because they were MALE and must be in charge.
    People I had negotiated large contracts with over the phone would do a double take when we met for the first time in person.
    People felt surprisingly free to challenge me when I made a statement; making me feel I had to always be on the defensive because it was so easy for them to doubt my credibility.
    People felt free to talk over me at meetings, or in some cases, barely even acknowledge that I was there.

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    Replies
    1. You got it, I'm glad you caught that. It was on my mind the entire time I was writing this and I'm glad it came through.

      In some ways it's difficult for me to talk about inequality of opportunity because what I struggled with for a few short years is what you struggle with for your entire life and that shouldn't be the case.

      This was my attempt at pointing out that we need to take consistent action to eliminate that inequality in small ways by making sure we are putting others forward.

      Thanks for the comment.

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