The power networking expert and author, George Fraser, spoke during a Black employee network event at work about how he felt when he finally let go of his old flip phone and joined team Apple with an iPhone. He said his flip phone was good (functionally it did everything he needed like make calls, texts, and even access the internet) but to him the iPhone was AMAZING! It was a whole computer that could fit in his pocket. George reminded us that in today’s competitive global economy it isn’t enough to be good, you need to be amazing. And quite frankly, when we really start to take stock of how much we are able to accomplish at work and at home, you will realize like I did that you are already amazing.
Too often we sell ourselves short and don’t acknowledge how significant our contributions are to the organizations we work in. As a single mom with two kids at the time, I was working as a strategic HR business partner to a large corporate division with over 3000 employees globally. I consistently delivered results and still found time to coach leaders, mentor young professionals, and volunteer outside of work. I could see the surprise on my manager’s face at times when I delivered what they thought would be an impossible task. Even things I thought were simple, seemed to astound some people who had not mastered the use of Excel or PowerPoint. I surprised them with my use of pivot tables and my animation skills.
At the end of the day, your success at work is going to be defined by your individual contributions, so it is on you to help the organization you work for recognize how amazing you are. There are a lot of good people working beside you, so it’s important to differentiate yourself. However, often it’s not our skills and abilities that hold us back, it’s the game that we are not playing well. We need to define what success means to us as individuals, but I’d challenge you that if you’re going to be in the corporate game, you might as well play to win.
In her book called Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discusses the scarcity of women in high leadership positions. As she explores the obstacles that keep women out of the C-suite, she observes that discrimination and harassment are real; mentors are rare and that you still have to be twice as good and able to juggle. Sandberg pokes holes in the stereotypes such as women are less assertive, reluctant to self-promote and bad at negotiating. She teaches women that to overcome gender barriers, they must sit at the table, not in the corner and lean in. I’d add that winning in the corporate game, requires overcoming the barriers all women and minorities face within the corporate environment. Here are the specific barriers that I’d recommend focusing on to achieve your definition of success:
1. Be mindful of your Presence. Leadership presence is a state of mind. If you feel like a leader, it will show up in how you walk into a room, how you dress, how you speak, and the energy that flows from your every pore. To take calculated risks, you have to know what you have to gain, and if you can afford to take the hit if it doesn’t go your way. You also have to learn to master your emotions which is understanding what pushes you off center and what brings you back to center. What is center? Well, the center of the body is peace, your emotional center. Practicing gratitude reduces fear – you can’t be grateful and scared at the same time. Finding an appreciative space will change your emotions and bring you back to center. The center of language is silence. I learned to practice silence by using the acronym W.A.I.T. – when you find yourself talking more than listening ask “why am I talking?” and make sure you’re okay with the answer. The center of the mind is acceptance. You stand tallest when your head is focused on possibilities while your feet remain firmly planted in reality. Finally, the center of the spirit is submission or yielding to a higher authority. Having a moral compass provides direction and recognition that there is a power at work in your life that is greater than you. Consider where “North” is for you and how you find it.
2. Learn the art of Submission. My choice of words is intentionally provocative, but there are a skill and a benefit to subordination. I mean it in the sense that you put someone else’s interest above your own and that’s something we do all the time as moms. However, within the corporate environment, it can be used to gain an advantage. Becoming the go-to person within your department, volunteering to lead projects or do extra work, and demonstrating active support for your boss’ agenda all serve to make them beholding to you. It comes back to reciprocation. However, you don’t want to volunteer for things that play into a stereotype such as coordinating the office party or ordering lunch for your team building event as a woman unless you’ve gained a reputation already for more substantive contributions.
3. Deal with the Politics. Stop saying you hate politics and recognize that politics is just a network of relationships within an organization that facilitates influence. Focus on building your support base so that you can expand your influence. As with anything else, politics is about who you know and who knows you. Your support base should include key players within your department or function, technical advisors, administrators who can get things done, people with access to information, people who understand the ‘system’ or people processes, as well as potential sponsors. A sponsor is someone at a higher level in a position that can influence your advancement and create opportunities. Having someone who fits these criteria in your network is crucial to making it to senior levels within the organization because you won’t make it unless someone is pulling you up.
4. Redefine your Potential. Organizations regularly assess the potential of employees based on how high up they believe the person can be promoted successfully. That assessment provides a target for succession planning. The assessment might consider how well you have performed in the past, your ambition and willingness to do what’s necessary to reach higher levels as well as the likelihood of opportunities being available when you are ready. While the organization will have a perspective, it’s important for you to weigh in on the factors that you can influence. Be clear about your aspirations and your limitations. Visualize what success looks like for you and talk about it with your management. Ambition is not a dirty word and we are just as ambitious as anyone else.
5. Let them see your Passion. With men is called assertiveness or even aggressiveness, but I like to say I’m passionate. I can go toe-to-toe with the best of them when I’m confident, and I’m coming from a value- or principle-based position. When you’re passionate about your work or your position, you’re willing to take personal risks. You put your reputation on the line, and you demonstrate your ability to stand up for your beliefs. It shows integrity, and if you’re able to take hits and recover quickly, it will result in success over the long run. You have to know when to draw the line so that your passion doesn’t come across as being abrasive (they have names for abrasive females in leadership positions, but you can always position yourself as trying to help. It’s what we do best).
6. Get comfortable with Power. Too many women and minorities worry about their title. We are waiting to be given position authority and fail to grasp the concept of personal power. As a parent, you exercise authority outside of work all the time. Within the corporate environment, you can use that same confidence which comes from knowing that you have the same right and privilege as everyone else in the room. You can respect the authority inherent in a position and at the same time exercise your ability to influence a decision and even impose your ideas. The one thing that always increases my confidence and my credibility is to know why I’m involved in a meeting or a project. Knowing the hat that I’m wearing clarifies for me and everyone else that I deserve my seat at the table. Then you can assert yourself from a position of knowledge and or experience.
We can be our own worst critics, and I had statistics working against me as a single mom in Corporate America. I had this unrealistic desire to be the perfect mom with a successful career, but I realized that it was up to me to identify what success meant and not let others define it for me. I carefully created a reputation for myself within the company based on my strengths and clearly articulated my career goals. Where I had once been scared the bottom would fall out of my career after I got divorced –and maybe it did from some people’s perspective – I’ve since had lots of opportunities to continue growing professionally and to expand my impact within the company. It takes courage to stand up to the many barriers that are faced by women and minorities in the workplace. The statistics may paint a picture, but it’s not a picture of me. I’m amazing!