Today, it’s no secret that women at the corporate level face obstacles to success. Sally Helgesen, co-author of the book, How Women Rise, says the solution is for women to throw away traditional behaviours and expectations of what success means. Helgesen talks to Kim Parlee about why women must focus not on the work they were hired for, but on being ambitious instead.
- We're often told that being great at work is one sure way to be recognized and get ahead in the corporate world. But according to our next guest, that may not be the case for women. She says being great at what you do may actually keep women stuck in their current rule. And it's one of the 12 habits women should break if they want to get ahead.
Sally Helgesen is an author-speaker in women's leadership and is an expert as well. And she wrote the book How Women Rise. And she's the co-author of that, breaking the 12 habits holding you back from your next raise, promotion, or job. And I spoke with her earlier.
- If you put all your faith into the idea that doing your job perfectly is going to get you to the next job, the next position, you're probably selling yourself short because you're focusing your attention on doing every detail perfectly rather than building the connections and the visibility that are much more important in terms of making it to the next level.
So I work with a lot of women who do that. And they get left behind in the dust, and then they'll complain. They'll say I was much better at my job than the guy who got promoted was. But the guy who got promoted was out there getting a lot of visibility for what he was doing and getting support for it. And that can be a rather embittering surprise.
- No kidding. Let me ask you, though, because we shouldn't-- and I want to be careful say this isn't that all women do this or all men do this. But there are tendencies, which I know that you--
- That's right.
- --you've looked at. But so why do women tend to do that more, again, doing a great job, keeping their head down, and doing the opposite of what you just said men tend to do.
- I think that when women do that-- and again, not all women do it. Not all men do it the other way. I think when women do it, they're often feeling insecure like they have to prove themselves to be the very best. They may have had earlier experiences where people have been skeptical that they were right for the job so they get caught in the trap of always trying to prove their skills.
And guess what? That serves them well early in their career. But you seek to move higher, those other political skills and that visibility and the connections you build are much more important for where you end up.
- I know your book is chock full of real life examples and the 12 habits which are holding you back, which we'll get to in a second. But just at a high level, what should women be doing then that is different than they're doing right now?
- Well, I think that women have to be very attentive to the idea of building allies from the first day when they're on a job, not think I'm going to put my head down, master the skills, and then look up and start building allies, but do that in tandem.
Women also need to, if they're not doing it, be very astute about the claiming credit for what they contribute. Often, I find women who will have contributed something really terrific will always say, oh, it was my team. Oh, it was my boss.
And while it's important to be a team player and while it's important to reflect glory on your boss, you also want to step up and learn to take credit yourself and not expect others to just notice and spontaneously value what your contributions are if you haven't articulated them clearly
- As I mentioned, you give a bit of background in the beginning of the book talking about perhaps the noble virtues that women have in terms that have made them act the way they do. Then you get into 12 habits. You just talked about one about expecting others to notice and reward you. What about the-- there was one here where I caught my eye-- disease to please. What is that?
- Yes. The disease to please is one of those behaviors that really can serve women well early in their career but really is a career killer later at higher levels. And what the disease to please is essentially is trying to-- is being deeply invested in the idea that everyone should think you are a wonderful person, meeting everybody's expectations, trying to exceed them, and trying to be liked by everyone.
It's going to get you to a certain level because people like to be around people who are wonderful. But after a certain level, you can have a very hard time asserting boundaries. You can have a very hard time holding people to account. And as I've seen with working with women who have this problem, you'll end up doing other people's jobs for them because you don't want them to fail. And that doesn't help them, and it overwhelms you.
- So what do you do then? If you're not doing-- if you're not pleasing, what should you be doing?
- Well, when you move to a higher level, what you need to do is you, obviously, you need to be a person who is very pleasant, open, open to hearing criticisms as well as praise, but you, when you hold someone to account, you need to really hold them to account. And you need to make it clear that you're doing this because you want them to have a chance to build the skills to do a job well rather than always stepping in.
One of the interesting things about the disease to please too is that I find in my experience that women who let this undermine them at work also let it undermine them at home. So they're always trying to please and anticipate what their kids and what their husbands want in a way that can be really exhausting and over the top.
- I think a lot of women's ears just perked up when you said that. [LAUGHTER] Another habit you talk about is minimizing. What's minimizing?
- Minimizing is-- it can be either words you use like, oh, I just have one thing to say, or this will only take a minute. So you're always prefacing what you're saying to suggest it's not really that important. It can be apologizing constantly, which as we know many women have a habit. They can't open a door without saying I'm sorry.
But it's also physical body language of trying to make yourself smaller always in the interest of showing other people that there is room for them or space for them, but it's essentially a submissive behavior.
So you need to find something in the middle, again, not I am a woman, hear me roar, but something in the middle where you have the ability to be physically and verbally assertive and stand your ground without always backing off. And especially with younger women, you see this behavior.
- Now, you mentioned younger women. And that's interesting because you focus in on millennial women. And you actually highlight the fact that it sounds as though as if they're having a-- or they're better at not having these bad habits than older women do.
- Well, I think that to some degree, that's very true, especially, say, that habit you mentioned earlier of expecting others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions. Millennial women seem much more comfortable claiming their contributions and having a plan for drawing attention to what they contribute.
But the minimizing and there's one other communication habit there, which we call too much that is offering too much information, too many words, too much background that I see that millennial women often fall prey to. So I think that one of the reasons this book is-- How Women Rise is having so much success is that women at every age are identifying with it and women at every level too.
- That was Sally Helgesen. She's author-speaker and women's leadership expert and co-author of How Women Rise.