Finding Your Seat at the Table: Insights and Advice From Booz Allen’s “Leading Together” Series

Sep 17, 2019 2:15 PM ET

Do you find yourself strategizing about what it will mean for your career “when this person leaves,” or “when that person gets promoted?” Are you putting your career advancement in the context of others’ roles and responsibilities?

This type of thinking is based on an underlying belief of scarcity--that there are only a finite number of leadership roles and that something needs to shift for your big break to happen.

Booz Allen Solutions Business Lead Dee Dee Helfenstein talks with Lisa Beaudoin, co-founder and chief customer officer at Perfect Sense Digital, and Melissa McDevitt Jiulianti, head of leadership, talent, and inclusion at Capital One, to bust the myth about scarcity in leadership roles and share how you can find (or make!) your seat at the table.

Research shows that women make up 40 percent of the workforce, yet women represent only 17 percent of professionals at the executive level. What’s more, only five percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs—a number which declined by 25 percent from 2017 to 2018.

With these figures lurks the perception that a limited number of leadership positions exist for women. During the June installment of Booz Allen’s Leading Together series on Facebook Live, Helfenstein, Beaudoin, and Jiulianti discussed how women can break through the “myth of scarcity” by using mentorships/sponsorships and asking for what they want to reach career success.

Finding opportunities—and the confidence to ask for them

Before co-founding Perfect Sense Digital, Beaudoin worked at AOL, WebMD, and The Wall Street Journal. “Curiosity, willingness to learn, and also being a good listener set the stage for me at every stage in my career,” she said. This listening involves looking for clues that could lead to new growth opportunities, “like an offhanded remark in a meeting that makes you want to do more or learn more or invest more.”

At Capital One, Jiulianti’s career evolved across departments and roles. Three years into her tenure with the company, a leader in the organization sent her on a six-month mission to talk to people in different parts of the company to learn more about the business as a whole and develop meaningful connections with colleagues. “It gave me confidence,” she said.

Take the initiative to ask for what you want, whether this be moving to a new department or taking a new job. “Ask people for time,” Jiulianti advised. “I’ve never really been told no.”

“There is no one path that a career takes. It needs to be owned and designed by you,” she said. And especially if you’ve built up the relationships throughout your career, she added, people are going to want to take risks on you and give you a safety net.

At Booz Allen and as leader of the firm’s Solutions business, Helfenstein has had to own her seat at the table. She talked about not being afraid to create opportunities for executive elevation and referenced a quote from Shirley Chisolm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress: If they don’t give you a seat at the table, then bring a folding chair.

Helfenstein followed this up with the notion of always having something worthy to contribute, which stems from advice she had been given along the way. “If you’re at the table and you don’t have something to say, you won’t be invited back,” she said.

Strengthening culture in a competitive world

In discussing how a culture of workplace equity is set from the top, Helfenstein noted, “At Booz Allen, we have made some significant strides in improving our representation for women.” She referenced Booz Allen’s board of directors and leadership team; women hold 42 percent and 55 percent of positions, respectively.

The interviewees also shared their thoughts about competition among women in the workplace.

Beaudoin said she tries to be an optimist in competitive situations. “I’m happy for everyone. If it’s not my time, it’s not my time.” Recognize the energy and intellect of other women, she advised. “You’re different people with different goals at different stages in life.”

Helfenstein said that she has seen how competitive it can be among women in the workplace. “But we need to be the cultural carriers of paying it forward, and we need to set a new tone for the next generation of women in the workplace,” she said.

It’s important to find opportunities to connect, Jiulianti added. She citied the power of reverse mentoring, “creating that moment of reaching out or up to someone.”

Beaudoin, Jiulianti, and Helfenstein also fielded audience questions about building executive presence, discussing salary, and resuming a career after extended leave for personal reasons.

“If I take time off to have kids, do I lose my chance to be a top executive?” one viewer asked.

Absolutely not, the three women agreed. If you’re fulfilling one part of your life—whether you’re starting a family, caring for parents, or pursuing other personal goals—“you come back better,” said Beaudoin.

Airing on the third Thursday of every month, Booz Allen’s Leading Together series profiles women carving out new career paths, taking advantage of their unique leadership styles, and overcoming the challenges of managing career and family.

Watch the video and learn more about women at Booz Allen.