I’ve spent the better part of my eighteen-year career in tech being the only one wearing heels at the table. In fact, the only tech lady boss I’ve had was in the Army out of all places. Below is a summary of the top tips I’ve learned from both men and women for how women can navigate a seat at the table.
1. Be Comfortable with the “C” Word
During my Army days, my first unit commander was a former Special Forces, Army Airborne Ranger. He pulled me aside after a week in his unit and curtly asked, “Lieutenant, what’s the most important word when leading your platoon?”. Before I could reply, he held up his right hand and formed a “C” with his fingers. He said softly, “Caring”. He went on to explain how empathy, with all ranks of my soldiers, was just as important as discipline, integrity and grit. “If you don’t know why they bleed, you cannot effectively lead”, he concluded.
As a woman, it’s a struggle to balance the feminine notion of caring with the often masculine world of technology. In an industry of binary and logic, caring is an emotion that is not often in the same stratosphere. Women can care too much and be accused of making an emotional versus a business decision. Balance that with caring too little and risk being viewed as cold where your directs are transactional.
Managers often implement metrics and key performance indicators to measure how people work. Yet it’s also important to know why people choose their work. This isn’t an attempt to make an argument about being liked. Rather, decisions are strongest when they are informed and made with awareness of the potential consequences. Even when your decision is counter to feedback you’ve received from your team, caring enough to ask for their input and why they choose to work for you/your company earns respect. Caring is a strength, not a weakness.
2. Say Yes! and Figure it Out Later
This is by far the best piece of advice I’ve received. Every career game-changer I’ve experienced started with me saying, “I’ll do it”. Setup a Linux cluster and configure a virtual private network? “I got this.” Manage a software engineering team? “I’m your gal.” Taking the opportunity requires the courage to say Yes. Figuring it out later is methodical.
Start with the end in mind and then plan out how you are going to get there. Set yourself up for success by immediately setting realistic expectations on when you can deliver excellence in that new opportunity. One approach is to lay out a road map that showcases milestones for your delivery. Even if it’s to deliver a proof of concept or a first draft…plot it and communicate it. Be sure to include whatever ramp time you need to get smart enough on the topic so you can start. Your road map should include quick wins that are tangible to business value or your manager’s intent. Delivering iterative value over a long period is better than spending months planning, only to deliver a deflated and outdated result. Road mapping your opportunity and setting target delivery dates builds your manager/customer’s confidence in your capability as well as your own.
Saying Yes comes with one caveat: the opportunity should be purpose driven. Being a “yes woman” for the sake of getting noticed leads to burn-out and regret followed by animosity. It’s equally important to ensure what you’re saying yes to adds value to your company/manager and to yourself and your future.
3. Build Career Capital
In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, author Cal Newport underscores the career differentiator of having valuable and rare skills, a.k.a career capital. It’s not the case that everyone can easily abide by the “follow your passion” mantra. I would argue it’s easier (and more realistic) to develop fulfilling skills that are so desirable, you don’t have to convince others (and yourself) of your worth.
While pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science, Newport notes how he was determined to understand the hardest academic research paper in his studies. Being able to solve the paper’s computational problems and easily explain the results was a differentiator in his field and he worked on understanding this one research paper until he mastered it.
Choose your skill, work like hell to become the subject matter expert and then continue to evolve and refine that skill over time. Take a page from the Kaizenmethod: your skill is only as relevant as the continuous improvement you put into it.
4. Promote Your Team
It’s often cited that women are their own worst champions but are otherwise great enablers of others. If you are an introvert or too modest to promote yourself, promote your team’s contribution to Leadership. Doing so not only showcases valuable team competencies but infers at your exceptional management capabilities. This in turn builds your credibility but not at the risk of your modesty. Examples include putting time (thirty minutes go a long way) on your supervisor’s calendar for your directs to present the latest project results. I can’t underscore enough asking your directs to present versus you. You might get plenty of face time with your boss, but that doesn’t mean your team does.
More subtle examples include “An hour with the Boss” where you invite your manager for an informal meet and greet with your team. Then offer snowball questions to your team members that allow them to note team successes in an informal environment.
5. Make Male Allies
Last, but certainly not least, make male allies. Women do not rise to the top in a predominantly male cohort via the denigration of men but rather by our ability to work across the aisle. In the eighteen years I’ve been in tech, many of my greatest advocates were men. I learned early that if you want change in the workplace, advocating for it outside the circle is a lot harder versus advocating it from within. (Another caveat: Not at the cost of your soul. If you’re in a toxic environment, steps 1–4 aren’t going to do you any good. Get out fast.)
Simply put, having male allies gives women credibility in a predominantly male work place. I’m not at all downplaying the need to have women allies in your arsenal…it’s assumed you already do. When navigating a predominantly male cohort, it’s imperative to have male colleagues that can vouch for your career capital and who aren’t afraid to give you credit.
As I stated earlier these overall tips aren’t about ensuring you are liked in order to move upward in a mostly male work place. As Reshma Saujani noted in her book, Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder, “Some people will get you and others won’t” and that’s ok. The focus instead is on getting results.