Claiming Your Seat at the Table

Special Guest Blog Post by: Jonni Fenner (Assistant Chief, California Highway Patrol)

Sometimes you get an opportunity to sit among some very intelligent people where you glean great insight. I often find myself seeking these circles of people so I stay inspired and moving forward in this profession after 28 years. I happened to be sitting with a bright upcoming officer and we were discussing mentoring and how there’s an assumption that it’s available for everyone. As we started talking, we navigated around and through many challenges. One of those was how women fit into law enforcement at the “table,” and who mentors them. Is it different or the same for men. I shared with him that over my career as a young female officer, I didn’t have many mentors or people speaking into my career. I certainly had those that had an interest, but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, it didn’t even resonate with me that I even needed that until I was entering into my 10th year as an officer out on the beat. I realized I wanted to promote to sergeant but I didn’t have the faintest ideas of where to even begin. What I did know, was if the same mediocre guys I worked with could promote, then surely there must be a way for me to do it.

So, the conversation evolved from the simplicity of a mentor to help you promote to more of how women in this profession find their voice and bring it to the table. It’s different for women because we look around the room (or that proverbial table) and more times than not, we see all men. As women, we have our own baggage we bring anywhere and everywhere we go. Imagine if you’re a guy, and you worked where you were the only one, or two. Outside of being a very lucky man, think about how that would feel to not see more of you. As a black female, it’s even more uncomfortable at times.

From my lens, it took a long time to get past those first feelings of “Where do I fit at the table?” Oddly, that inner voice’s default settings fall back to negative self-talk. So, as I would sit at the table, I would first feel so fortunate to be there versus feeling like I deserved to be there. Then my inner thoughts would powerfully ring in my head making me feel like I shouldn’t even be in the same space and to just look confident but say little. As I was obedient to my own weak inner thoughts, I would sit there silently until I started to relax and listen to what was actually being spoken at those tables. I smile because what I quickly realized was what these men were saying was not profound or even more different from what I was thinking silently to myself before the discussion began. As I earned my way to more tables of varying levels, it was important for my voice to be a part of the conversation because it has value.

It takes intentional awareness and you will actually start to reassure yourself that you are deserving to be sitting at the table and you have something worthy of contribution to the greater discussion. I know that many men may feel the same way, but I will say for women, we also have stereotypes to contend with which cast our own doubts on our leadership, our abilities, and this hinders our effectiveness. Knowingly or unknowingly, men have an advantage over women in this profession because of their gender. They are more easily accepted as partners whether on the beat or in special assignments; in leadership positions and as executives. My caveat is “accepted” as initially they don’t have to overcome being a woman. Yes, when working with men, women have to compensate for that disparity in the work environment. We do this by either assimilating to the work attire; working extra hard to prove our competencies; continue our education when many of our peers will have less or none; we minimize the challenge of balancing home life with children and spouses so we appear to be on equal ground with our male peers, among many others.

I was sitting on a panel for a Women in Leadership conference not long ago and my peer chief saw the work satchel I brought in and laughed. She said she had one just like it in the car but because we were in uniform she didn’t want to carry it in. I told her why not. It’s professional, classy, and made for women just like us. Where does it say we always have to be just like them (men) in this profession. We should have the freedom to be us, women. At the same time, we had just finished eating lunch and my lips were dry. I felt self-conscious and applied my “clear” Chapstick or gloss, but my peer chief had slid off to a corner really quick and applied hers. All I could do was laugh at what we do to fit in. In a 2007 study, Catalyst found that women are held to a masculine standard of leadership. When we are perceived as failing to exhibit certain traditionally male leadership traits, we are considered to be incompetent, but when we do exhibit those traits, we are looked upon as unfeminine. So to that, I say carry your Coach briefcase and put on your lipstick and handle business!

Seeking out a mentor and networking is priceless but tricky. I love the phrase being a trained observer, which we all call ourselves in many of our professions. But what are we trained to observe as I find myself in observation of so many things. As I attend very high level meetings, I often watch the interactions of others during the meeting and on the breaks in between. I would suppose we call this networking. So, breaking down networking is another area women are starting to do much better than we did when I first entered the profession in 1988. However, the networking I observe is not the type that I prefer or would offer a mentee. I guess in regular old English it’s called ass kissing. The inauthentic interaction of those seeking a gain through their continual attachment to someone who can help them attain what they are seeking. But here’s a novel idea, have some integrity and seek out mentors who would not tolerate that behavior and actually sit down and have a real conversation with you about what you need to do to be successful. Someone who will remind you that who you are matters! Someone who will help you develop your weaknesses into strengths. Someone who will tell you to have some self-reflection and do some soul-searching on things you need to change to make you better.

Someone who will hold you accountable to being better than just good enough. The bottom line to claim your seat at the tables starts with dispelling your own thoughts and beliefs that can limit your potential. So, rethink those negative thoughts and rewrite your new story. Start today thinking differently and nurture those beliefs that will increase your confidence and personal power. Think bigger and aim higher. Have the courage to be you. What I tell my young daughter, is be who you know you were created to be. It will feel natural and good when you comfortably find that space for you. Never settle for status quo, never let anyone tell you can’t. You find a seat at the table and you sit in it and learn and grow your excellence. We will make mistakes, but so do they. We are all human first so don’t be overly hard on yourself if you’re not perfect. Don’t quit or give up. Breathe, exhale and pick yourself up and do it again, and again!

 

Assistant Chief Jonni Fenner has been with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) over 28 years, an organization with over 11,000 employees of which over 7,000 are sworn members.  Over her career, she has held field assignments throughout the state of California to include administrative statewide organizational oversight for community outreach, recruitment, grant management and innovative statewide programs.  In her assignment as Assistant Chief, she has worked in the Golden Gate Division, San Francisco/Bay Area as a part of executive oversight for 16 field commands with over 1,600 personnel that work in the nine Bay Area counties with over 100 cities and over seven million in population.  She is currently assigned in Valley Division within the Sacramento region where she is a part of the executive leadership overseeing 20 CHP commands spanning over 11 counties.  She has been incident commander for multiple critical incidents, civil disturbances, mutual aid events, and other high profile incidents. She is a Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) instructor and a graduate of POST Command College, Class 56.   She has served on the Women Leaders in Law Enforcement (WLLE) committee as a liaison and representative for the CHP for several years and is the current president of the Central Valley California Chapter of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).

In an evolving public safety climate, along with those challenges that will accompany it, she promotes leadership development at all levels, providing an environment for upward mobility, personal and professional growth. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Management and an advocate of organizational success which hinges on active engagement, effective problem solving, communication and leadership.

 

Contact information:

jfenner@chp.ca.gov

(209) 481-9644

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