More than a decade or so ago the dean of a business school asked me to observe a class and give him feedback on why I thought the women “just weren’t speaking up.” After nearly two decades working for other organizations and 15 years running my own consulting practice, I’ve been asked more times than I can count for advice on how women can make a bigger impact.
After three and half decades in the workforce, my best advice is not gender-specific. It is: work hard, challenge yourself, learn continuously, find great mentors, learn to take and appreciate feedback and then do something about it, treat people well, don’t burn bridges (but do walk away) and most of all, get great results.
After you do all that, here are some other ideas.
Don’t wait for the world to change. Opportunities for women in the workplace, particularly in the United States, are immense. But the fact remains that women are still paid less for the same job and women are not represented equitably at the highest levels of companies, despite proof that their presence can help a company’s performance significantly. We, collectively, continue to change the world by getting results and making impact, but gender is still a factor in the workplace. So, in the meantime (while you — and we — work to change things), you have to figure out what feels most effective for you because you’re going to be on your own — still — in how you choose to navigate. At the end of it all, you have to dig deep, know yourself and work really hard. Sometimes you’ll feel alone. Sometimes you will feel outraged. Whether you like it or not, you will probably achieve more if if you make some adjustments. After all, you are trying to be successful in a system created by someone else.
Watch women who are successful in your organization and industry and try to figure out what characteristics seem to drive their success. Are they excellent public speakers? Are they actively involved in industry events? Are they clear about their message? Is their countenance positive? Do they frequently give public credit to others? Do they make sure their audience knows their qualifications or do they let results speak for themselves? How do they deal with conflict? How do they deal with men? How do they deal with other women? I’m not suggesting you need to be like them, but you can always learn and incorporate the good stuff.
Play to your strengths. In his recent book, The Athena Doctrine, John Gerzama’s work shows the qualities people are looking for from leaders and institutions: 70% of those qualities are perceived to be “feminine.” If you are collaborative, for example, that’s a extremely positive quality. Use it. At the same time, thought, just make sure to look out for the traits you might need to balance… our greatest strengths can in the extreme, create development edges. If, for example, your ability to collaborate is amazing, but you’ve gotten feedback that you need to work on being perceived as more confident, work on that. Inventory your strongest qualities — ask a few trusted friends. Ask some people who know you well. Most of the time, the qualities people value in you as a friend can also be put to work professionally. It helps to know what they are.
Know your purpose. This is not B.S. cliche positive self-talk. This is the best and most useful advice I ever got from one of my favorite women in business. If I am in a conundrum I can’t solve going back to this helps me find the answer. If I am worried about an upcoming pitch, this helps me be more confident. If I hate conflict and know I’m about to go up against a bullying loud negotiator, this helps me be sure and strong in my own style. Getting clear up front about what I am trying to achieve can help me steer clear of diversions. And, if something doesn’t work out, when the voice of my mother plays in my head (“did you do the very best you could?”) I always feel better after the fact if I was clear that I knew and pursued my purpose.
Take full advantage of training opportunities, particularly in the early parts of your career. If you are lucky enough to work for a big company that invests in training, go to every session you can. If you go in with the right mindset you will always learn something and you will also get a chance to be exposed to trainers who might be valuable personal resources for you, or assets you can tap into later in your career. Many companies offer training that goes unused. This is like throwing away money. Make it a priority.
Know thyself. Another layer of #5 is that often through interviews, on-boarding or development, you will have a chance to assess your own strengths and opportunities through instruments like Myers Briggs, HBDI, DIsc, Strengthfinders, etc. You may also be lucky enough to get a 360 degree evaluation. These are really valuable. Pay attention to what you can learn from them: don’t let the bad news stop you but let it be a good piece of feedback you can use to monitor and possibly change your own behavior. I’ve told the story many times about how when I finally decided to start my own business the final decision came after I received extensive feedback telling me all the ways I needed to change to be more successful where I was; I decided that too much of what they wanted me to change was what I valued most in myself. In that situation, the answer was to listen to what the feedback was telling me. I thought I would be giving up too many of my strengths to make the changes they wanted so soon after that I said goodbye. It was the right decision. That company was my first client when I started my own consulting practice.
Ask for individualized training. Once, the president of a company called me and said, “I’ve just found a diamond in the rough… she said she won’t take the position because she doesn’t have experience managing a P&L or with organizational development. I’ve got her set up with an old CFO friend of mine to take her to finance boot camp — can you help her with the other stuff? I think she will be a star!” I was so impressed with this whole situation — not just the guy who called me but the smart woman who knew what she needed to develop and basically demanded resources so she could set herself up for success.” Admitting you don’t know something and doing something about it is definitely not a weakness.
Join an industry association dedicated to the development of executive women. You will learn new things, meet new people and over time, as you and your peers gain more experience and clout you will have a powerful network. This is a strategy that often has short-term gains, but over time will become increasingly valuable for you. Recently, I helped a client write a speech for a talk at an industry group she helped found. She had a slide that showed the tangible commercial opportunities that came from connections she made at that group over the years. We stopped when she got to 12 but she could have kept going.
Learn where your boss is coming from vis a vis the women in his/her life. Many a time in my career I have noticed a man who went out of the way to help me or gave me an opportunity or stood up for me… and many a time I noticed that man had a working mom, a working spouse or a daughter. Sure, it may be coincidence, but I have found that men with direct personal experience like this can help accelerate a more positive environment, or help you navigate.
Respect the work of the women who came before. Recently, I talked until two in the morning with two very successful women who are 10+ years older than I am. It was incredible to hear their stories… how much change had happened in just the 10 years from the time they started their careers until the time I started mine. No doubt the battles they fought made it easier for me. The workplace was definitely even more of a jungle then, and people said and did some pretty awful things. The things people have said to me over the years would blow your mind. What people said to them and what they experienced blew my mind. It is important for everyone to remember it wasn’t so long ago that things happened all the time that would be grounds for immediate dismissal today.
Don’t think “it” won’t happen to you. I was told I was not given a plum assignment “because the client would relate better to a man” by someone I really respected at a company I loved who also told me I would be perfect for the assignment. It wasn’t that long ago. It made me sad and angry but more than that, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The lesson for me was sometimes it isn’t necessarily a bad outcome but the rationale can still be pretty awful. In these situations, my advice is to seek out the advice of a mentor (male or female) who you really respect. Be smart but also do the right thing. If you remember your purpose it may help guide you. I could have thrown a fit and made a big deal that I was most qualified but what good would that have done? They were probably right in some weird sexist way. Why work on a client when the moment I walked through the door would be twice as hard to impact when there were other alternatives? I went back and told them of another position that was open that I wanted, and they gave it to me and it turned out to be great.
Become part of the “Sisterhood.” I can’t emphasize this enough. Women must help each other and so many times we unconsciously propagate the system that protects gender inequity. Commit to raising your awareness to be the part of the change we continue to need. Help other women. Yes, help other people, but make an even greater effort to help other women. Mentor someone. Give someone an opportunity. Cast your net wider if you are hiring someone and all the candidates look the same. Give someone a shot. Don’t do it because you are doing someone a favor, do it because you might actually get a better outcome if your inputs aren’t just the same old status quo.
Ask, “where are the women?” Literally. Ask I am on two boards for a private equity group. They host an excellent conference every year for their boards of directors and CEO’s. The first year I went, I arrived at the opening cocktail reception and there was one other women in the room of about 75 people. It’s not like I went in with an agenda to of count heads, but I couldn’t help but notice, particularly since their holdings included a fashion company, a healthy food company and a restaurant (among other things). Sure, women know about lots of industries but it was amazing to me that they were missing a huge market opportunity. Every year, I ask about the women. I try to do it constructively and firmly and I try to make constructive action-oriented suggestions. But I always ask. While the numbers have not increased, the conversation has, and I know they listened because I have been invited so some interesting industry events at the suggestion of the men in this firm. So, the benefit is not just to them and potentially other new women they could bring on board, but to me as well.
“The first ten revolutionaries through the door always get shot,” said my favorite Human Resources guru ever. We were discussing my job leading innovation in a Fortune 500 company and he was trying to warn me that my very job description was going to lead to more challenges than say, the average bear. He was right. the metaphor may seem a little extreme but when you are in a situation where you are the first, or among the first it is always, always harder. This is true for any kind of diversity, not just gender. And it is true for new positions and people who are trying to evolve the company. There will be hard days when you are a pioneer. Cut yourself some slack.
Sometimes it’s not about gender. There are a lot of people who don’t like me. It’s (usually) not because I’m a woman. There are a lot of things people might not like about me or a lot of reasons why I might not be the best pick for the job. I don’t like it but I try really hard to understand what I could do better or differently next time. And I try really hard to make sure that as I point out possible ways to change, I use behavior-based examples and facts. Telling someone they “don’t listen to women” is a much less effective strategy than suggesting to someone that they just sat through a meeting where none of the women made even one comment and would there be a way to better access those resources in the future.
Remember your cheering section. No matter what happens to you, someone someone is cheering for you and believes in you. My best friend was publicly fired from a huge job. It was awful and undeserved. But she found through that experience an important lesson: people came out of the woodwork supporting her and telling her they believed in her. They reminded her she was far more than that one job or that one article or that one firing.
Your cheering section will get you through the hardest times. So make sure you’re part of cheering sections for other people.
Jane Melvin is a strategy consultant who helps her clients figure out who they are, what they do and how to do it better. She teaches creativity and is the chief shepherd of The Five Faces of Genius (a model to understand creativity styles).
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