How do successful women make it to the top, and does success even exist? In this article I would like to share my personal thoughts on how young women can advance in the workplace. I hope that professionals and employers will find these useful.
If this is not your first time reading Morgan McKinley’s content, you may well be familiar with our award-winning “Women in Leadership” programme, which I am delighted to be involved with for the organisation.
Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In may be old news now, not forgetting that she also apologised for writing it since becoming a single mum, but having recently read some of it (late to the party), it's given me some added ammunition to share with you my insights into being a successful woman in business.
As for making it to the top, I would argue that the top doesn’t exist, as success is unique to the individual!
1. Initiating change starts with you
To initiate change - for example, to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions - women need to understand that this change must come from them. Research and books all point to the trend that not enough women put themselves forward in the first place. It’s not up to your manager, team or CEO to notice you, nor to offer a promotion. You must seek the opportunity to create change, drive results and get noticed.
Problem is, it’s easy to be intimidated by change or even an opportunity, and maybe even more so if you step outside your comfort zone.
For example, a good employer will give you the tools and training to up-skill as good as the next person, male or female. The crunch comes when it's up to you to use those tools and climb to the next level. If you want to excel and better yourself, sure, use those newly acquired skills, but also trust in your own initiative. You may not be able to get everything in during a normal working day, but if you really want to initiate change, using your own time will be rewarded in the end.
Read up on your specialism; go on a course; speak with people who are looking to connect about the same topics. Seek out a mentor (more about this in a moment), and network. You never know when these contacts may come in handy!
2. Trust in those with experience
I mentioned the word mentor above. I turned self-employed in 2012, and was lucky to have a few different mentors I could approach about a variety of issues.
Before this, I distinctly remember a senior leader I had worked with who gave me what I now class as fantastic advice.
"You will meet people along the way and they will change your life."
As advice, it may seem vague, but the phrase has resonated with me. If you have had a similar experience, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
There's a very special problem that can occur when you're looking for a mentor: if you have to ask someone to be your mentor, the relationship may not be as authentic and as natural as a “unspoken agreement” that has grown from an organic professional relationship. I totally agree.
Structured mentors within organisations are a great L+D initiative but I would also advise you widen your network outside your usual peer groups.
A mentor-student relationship, based on a desire for the “student” to excel, will be rewarding for both. I found the best type of mentor was someone with whom I had previously built a rapport, from whom I could ask anything.
Look around! You might have more mentors than you think! The key is in learning how to take their advice and apply it to your life. If you need some help you might like to read this blog on how to find a mentor.
3. Invest your own time wisely, and ask yourself "Why?"
Initiating change or looking to increase your own visibility in the workplace is hard work. Dealing with your day-to-day activities will most likely take up the majority of your working day and sometimes it’s a challenge to stop and think. Look at your tasks: prioritise, and shuffle things around! Avoid looking at the clock, and definitely get rid of that 9-5 mentality.
When you put time constraints on yourself, you limit what you can achieve. Juggling different pieces of work when working with various clients, I have found I somehow have all of the time, yet none of the time in the world.
The flipside: if you plan your time well and work harder and longer on some days, you can allow yourself to loosen the reins.This type of schedule will allow you to progress your work-life balance. It's invaluable, trust me.
Challenge the status quo and ask yourself why, over and over. This creates change and brings results.
4. Focus on results, not hours or days
Much is said about flexible working being a key solution to gender equality.
I personally work flexibly, though always within client requirements. For me, this sometimes means working a 50-60 hour week to deliver on client work in busy periods. This might sound like hell for some people but I love it. However, I appreciate this type of set up might not be feasible or even attractive for some.
The point is, flexible working means different things to different people, so I do not believe organisations can or should have a one-size fits all model.
I don’t believe organisations can or should offer a one-size-fits-all model.
In my mind the start-up scene has it right. A recent client, ‘Turtl’, has a new school of thinking for their work ethic: to allow their employees to work however they see fit, as long as the work is completed by their deadlines and the lines of communication with clients and co-workers are uninterrupted. They call this the ‘Freedom of Responsibility’. I believe this is a great ethos for a company, since not everyone does their best work between the hours of 9am and 5pm, 8am till 6pm or whatever your normal office hours may be. Being flexible is about trusting people to harness their own motivation and to work in ways they find most effective.
If large corporations can adopt this I think we’ll see bigger changes in the gender diversity agenda. Something I think could be explored is flexibility by division or business unit – because again, a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work.
Going back to point one, if you are an employee wanting to work more flexibly and you believe you are driving results, then ask your manager for the option and put forward a viable business case to show that it will not damage productivity.
5. Align your values with the company
When people talk about a cultural fit, this is often the employer reviewing a candidate, to see how they would fit within an already established team.
I’d like to turn this on its head and say one of the key things I have learnt is before taking on a new role/ job or assignment, try to understand the motivations of the leadership team in the organisation. You can then ensure these align with your own. You’ll learn more about the company’s cultural fit and approach to flexibility too. This is very important to me personally and so I won’t compromise on this.
If you are relatively early in your career, you might not have access to decision makers, but you can ask your manager or hiring manager to share the leadership strategy or vision with you, and don’t forget to ask them as part of your interview / speccing process, how visible and accessible the C-suite team is to the business.
In my experience when the leadership team is open and easily accessible, this says a lot about the positivity and culture of inclusion within the company.
6. Share your personal mission and vision with those you work with
Think mission and vision statements are just for companies, well think again they should apply to your personal brand too. I worked with a very cool executive coach a few years ago. He worked with C-level leaders and had a very interesting theory that everyone’s career should be understood as a micro-business entity, with employments and contracts as business deals based on fit and suitability. This is a really good way of looking at your career and personal brand. With the changing world of work I can really see this understanding becoming more widely accepted.
Once you are clear you respect the values of the organisation and leaders you work with, the rest is all about having the dedication to achieve goals whilst understanding the path to success will never be clear or straightforward.
But remember: as well as financial remuneration (and perks and benefits if you get those), your aim/ hope should be to get experience from this job or assignment that is contributing to your longer term plans, so share your personal goals with your manager, to ensure the work you do will fulfil both the business and your own career goals.
7. Empathy is good, emotional outrage not so much
Traditional gender division and stereotypes exist in the work place. Research over the last 40 years demonstrates - gender division starts when we are nothing more than babies. Did you wear pink, or blue when you were a child? Did you play with trucks or dolls?
The question every woman should ask herself is this: are we, as females, allowing gender divisions to continue, and then getting upset by them? Or, are we leading by example?
Women are often seen as more emotional. It's viewed in a negative light, but that may be linked with the fact that we ride on the male narrative - that emotions are bad and should be hidden.
At the same time, however, those emotions shouldn't be a bad thing in work, provided we know how to keep them appropriate, and in check. Emotions and especially empathy are vital in some situations, but having emotional intelligence means you use the right emotions for the right moments. Empathy by the way is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Leadership coach and emotional intelligence expert Amanda Wildman explains how to develop empathy in this short video:
Develop the skills to diffuse heated situations and learn how to match responses with the correct emotions. These are really important aspects of being a leader, and part of the skillset taught by leadership training programmes today.
With those new skills comes the ability to separate those emotions from business. It's important to be able to manage a situation gently in order for it to be handled well, and for that, being able to compartmentalise your emotions - whether you're male or female - is key in putting the issue to bed.
8. Hire people better than you
Now, I didn't come up with this myself, but I have heard it from many people and I am sure you have too. On face value I am not a fan of this statement, as I would not choose the word ‘better’. I believe that no one person is better than another; each simply has a different set of skills and experiences.
My advice here would be to hire and surround yourself with people who are passionate about what they do and who have pride in their work. By all means they should be better at certain skills than you, and also possess skills that you don't, after all a successful business cannot run on clones! If you feel someone is better than you at something, you must never feel threatened by their abilities; you have your life path, and they have theirs. But you can both benefit from the association, and producing the best work for your organisation should always be your aim, hence you should always aim to work with the best people.
If someone is not performing well, perhaps their role doesn't suit their skills. If you can spot skills and qualities and build a team around this, you can really elevate in your chosen career. If you perform to a high standard, your team and those around you will do so too.
I recently enjoyed reading a book called Strengths Finder, and would highly recommend it to any team wanting to work more cohesively.
So there you have it, my eight tips. Whilst you may not agree with all, hopefully I have given you some ideas to think about. Why not let me know what you think in the comments below.