Women don’t want a seat at the table – we want a whole new table

Loretta Brown

Appointing more women into senior leadership roles is essential. But it is NOT enough. Women want to go further and change the very nature of senior leadership itself.


Because the top table is broken.

I have worked with senior leaders – men and women – for more than 20 years and I can say categorically that ALL of them to varying degrees despair about the reality of life in top management roles.

These aren’t shrinking violets. They are highly accomplished and very capable CEOs and senior managers who are used to the rough and tumble of corporate life. But they are frustrated with how destructive and toxic that life has become.

But there is an exciting movement afoot of strong women (and men) who are determined to build a new top table, based on values, a stronger sense of purpose and new ways of working.

What needs fixing?

The leaders I work with say that things have become untenable and that much is broken in our current business and organisational models. We all know that senior leaders are under huge pressure. Competitive, disrupted markets and the crushing demands of short-term targets cause even the most functional teams to become reactive.

In addition there is an increasing focus on individual deliverables at the expense of the bigger picture. Team members have learnt to keep their heads down and fight their own patch. Anyone unable to deliver that month is likely to be dressed down publicly. This creates an environment where bullying and political games go unchecked. When anyone speaks up they often feel exposed and isolated.

“I’m not putting my hand up. Why would I want a bigger part of that lion’s den?”

“I keep my head below the parapet. It feels like a war zone.”

“I’m told to make my numbers this quarter – whatever I have to do, that’s all that matters!”

“This is cut throat. I don’t trust anybody here. We’ve been set up to shaft each other. I always fear that I will be the one to be pummeled today.”

“There is simply no regard for our people. My boss was enormously capable but he was gone the next day. We know we are expendable on a whim.”

A second frustration I hear about is the dumbing down of strategic direction. Teams default to a tactical approach that keeps them drowning in exhausting details, busy on the wrong things and in timewasting, bureaucratic meetings. My clients struggle with being asked to go in one direction one week and then told to do the opposite the following week. There is no real debate and team meetings become forums for banal information sharing and circular debates about car parking spots or the Xmas party.

“I feel worse because I can’t seem to make it work. You dust yourself off and start a new day with the best intentions. But it grinds you down. It’s like groundhog day”

A whole new table

Charles Handy, influential management thinker, claims that we are part of a “great disturbance” in values and that the ways we run organisations are no longer fit for purpose. My clients would agree.

But fortunately I am witnessing an entirely new, more optimistic way of thinking about leadership.

What I am seeing is that women are emerging as very strong advocates for this new thinking. They are recognising that a seat at the table doesn’t mean fitting into existing ways of doing things. A seat gives them opportunities to lead more fundamental change. They know that rules need to be redefined and in some cases thrown out.

“Yes! That is exciting. I could get behind that! I want to fight for that…”

I hear how women and men are starting to challenge century old organisational thinking and to radically rethink the objectives of work and business.  Delivering commercial success remains critical of course, but it is being accomplished with new priorities:

Bringing purpose front and center

What engages most of the female leaders I work with is purpose, not financial reward or status. Women want meaningful purpose to be the core focus of the organisation, not just a pet project at the fringes. Purpose is seen as not primarily to generate profit, but to build commercially successful, uplifting environments for workforces and to create value in wider communities.  

Not compromising ethics for commercial gain

My clients are extremely wary of the ethical slide they witness in executive decision-making when the stakes are high. The new way of thinking puts ethical codes at the forefront of any endeavour.

Ending short termism

New thinking leaders are challenging the madness of monthly and quarterly reporting. They understand that a longer term, strategic focus will not lessen accountability but will ensure a sustainable future that is “on purpose”.

Treating people as the biggest asset and source of growth  

A short-term focus has led to expedient and at times brutal treatment of people. A ‘new table’ is not just about being nicer to people, it is about knowing that the biggest asset is people. Commercial success remains crucial but is achieved by overturning the domineering, authority-based decision-making of the past. And by encouraging real dialogue rather than competitive spats from the loudest shouting members.

There are lots of examples of daring challenges to current thinking being made by our best leaders. Executive development has to help women challenge the status quo of organisational purpose and executive thinking. A top table filled with new thinking will attract more women and benefit everyone.

Loretta Brown

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