Who’s Sitting at Your Table?

The New Year gets me thinking about beginnings and endings. Where do you want to be in one year, or five, and how are you going to get there? How did I get here? For me, it started when I was four. We had Domino’s pizza for Thanksgiving and moved into the only house on Park Drive. Like clockwork, the neighboring industrial metal company would rattle our dishes at 3 a.m. with a repeated methodical whoosh of their presses. My parents purchased a construction company – crane, dozer, truck, trailer – and a large stockpile of sand out back. (It was the best sandbox ever.)

Growing up in, and working for, the heavy construction business provided an interesting perspective, especially for a woman in a predominantly man’s world. (Stick with me, guys.)

When I was 22, my mentor John took me out on my “final project manager exam.” Although John was there solely to observe, the project owner directed each question to him. John would look at me, I would answer the question to the owner, the owner would ask another question looking at John, John would look at me (again without saying a word) and I would answer the question.

This cycle continued for 30 minutes with John not talking until the final synopsis with the owner. (I choose to believe it was experience and not my gender that made the owner talk to John the entire time.) John’s understated comment when we left the site? “You’ll meet all kinds of people. Just treat everyone with respect.” He left little room for judgment. It was a good lesson.

In 1977, there were seven people at the company. In 2009, when my dad officially retired and my two brothers and I stepped up to fill his shoes (yes, it takes three of us), there were almost four hundred – and a recession. His parting advice when we bought him out? “If you can run it through the next five years, you’ll be able to run it for as long as you want.”

What an interesting five years that was. Hard work, sacrifice, painful decisions, traveling farther for projects and an amazing crew with a service mentality got us through a time when many of those in our industry were closing or moving out of state.

I was asked last year if I liked being the only woman at the table. It is an honor to serve. Agreeing might have implied that I don’t want other voices at the table. And I do. As an industry – and a society at large – we are stronger with multiple perspectives, with different people at the table bringing distinct voices to the discussion.

What can we do as leaders to be sure all those voices are heard? How do we create the space for respect? In a time when political debate devolves into name calling and a plethora of #metoo memes represent the experiences of women in the workplace and possible indifference or silence are endured, how will we react in the long term? Will society shrug? Will we go back to doing things as they were? What will you do to create a workplace of safety and civility for someone’s sister, granddaughter, or ANY person? What are you doing to create a respectful work environment?

One way to get people to the table? Incorporate mentoring programs into your training. Mandated training can actually create a backlash. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev reported on why diversity programs fail. People want to be their own person. They don’t want to be told what to do. Instead, ask for volunteers to mentor staff individually.

Another solution? Make sure all voices at the table are heard or at least have a chance to speak. In a 2016 New York Times article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” the internet services company noticed teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all assignments. Teams that struggled at one thing seemed to struggle at everything.

The researchers concluded two main components distinguished success and both related to how teammates treated one another:

1. Conversational turn-taking: ”As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well, but if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”

 2. Average social sensitivity: “A fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”

The members of the team felt safe taking risks in expressing ideas and feelings. In other words, everyone was treated with respect, which ultimately led to greater success.

Are you looking ahead five years? Are you creating the atmosphere where the next generation will thrive? Where ALL will thrive? So what can you do to mentor your successor?

Do what you can do right now to bring others to the table.

And most importantly, you’ll meet all kinds of people, so treat everyone with respect.

Tonya Wildfong is the communications director at Team Elmer’s. A University of Michigan graduate and track and field Big Ten Championship teammate, Tonya currently serves on the Chemical Bank Community Board and Impact 100 Traverse City. She wrote the children’s book “Bee in the Barn” and still likes to play in the sandbox with her remarkable husband and two entertaining children. She can be reached at tonyawildfongTCBNews@gmail.com.