by Karolyn Hart
I was fortunate. I had started my career extraordinarily early. Still in my mid twenties I had six years of corporate experience under my belt and I had just started a new job with a leader who believed in mentoring. (It’s hard to believe that I’m now in the 18th year of my professional life. Ugh. That’s for another article.)
Since the first day of my career in IT I had found myself surrounded in a male dominated industry and comfortable in meetings or working on projects where I was the only woman. That said, the turning point and the launching point for me in my career was when my boss at the time gave me some precious insight. For those of you young ladies (and even some older ones) who are in the midst of their career development, I wanted to pass along the Top 5 pieces of advice that I believe every woman who wants to succeed must embrace. Here they are:
#1 – Your work is not WHO you are, it’s WHAT you do – so don’t be so defensive.
My boss at the time was a very progressive equal opportunity type guy. That said, he pointed out that gender differences do exist. Men and women tend to view everything about the world differently. (If you doubt this, get married.) He put it to me this way. When a woman receives a compliment about her home it really means something to her. Not so for many guys who see their home as they place they sleep, shower, and …you know. That doesn’t mean they don’t take pride in their homes but the difference is that if you don’t like their home…they don’t take it personally. Not so for many woman who see their homes as an extension of their personalities. You insult a woman’s home and for many woman you are saying you don’t really like them.
This tends to translate into the workplace. When a woman has her work critiqued it can be a huge blow and if they aren’t prepared it can be disabling. The thing you must understand is that criticism is a gift. It helps you see the flaws or gaps you can’t see and will ultimately make your end product strong. Your goal is to get to the place where you are the one initiating and seeking out the criticism on your work.
#2 – Want to fight? Do it in the boardroom but be sure to let it go the minute you leave. While you’re at it – go for a beer.
Ok, I don’t drink but the premise is really important. When women get angry or disagree about something it can take much longer for them to get over it. If you want to understand why, there is a tremendous amount of research that talks about the physiological and psychological differences in men and women that make it difficult for women to just “let it go” but it’s not impossible.
Like Tip #1 it’s important to realize that a disagreement over a project or approach to something in the workplace does not mean you are not liked, or cannot have a meaningful relationship. I’m not condoning unprofessional bullying here in any way, that’s entirely different. What I am talking about is you sulking around because you didn’t get your way on a project and forcing your colleagues to coddle you. (Even now as I write this I remember trying to bridge the ice zone with one female colleague after I opposed her in a meeting. After the second day of me asking a third time “Are you sure we’re ok?” and bringing her a tea she finally came around. Really?) Here’s some hard loving truth for my female counterparts – while women are busy sorting through their complicated array of inter-office relationships and trying to smooth over how your behaviour made them “feel” – our male counterparts who went all “Braveheart” at each other in this morning’s meeting have already put it behind them over lunch and are now working furiously on meeting their next objectives. And you wonder why they are getting all the plum projects?
#3 – Don’t just socialize – use your network strategically.
Many women are conditioned from the time they are wee lasses to try and level the playing field, get along with everybody, and make everyone friends. Men think entirely differently. They want to know who the leader is and where they stand in the pecking order.
With that in mind, they think strategically about where they want to go and who they need help from (based on where they are) to get there. They offer up advice and service to another “You looking for an X? Ya, give Joe a call and tell him I sent you.” I’m oversimplifying this of course, but when was the last time you thought about WHO you know and HOW they could help you out? If that statement feels to you like it’s selfish or scheming – then you’re missing out. Men don’t apologize for being driven or their desire to achieve and other men instinctively get this and respect it. Here’s something else – they LIKE to do this so leverage it and more importantly ASK.
#4 – Get a Mentor. Not a “Life Coach” and Make It Someone REALLY Successful.
This by far is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Mentors are someone with years of business experience ahead of you who are going to save you from having to “learn the hard way”. I have a few mentors in my life and I didn’t select them on their gender, I selected them on their achievements. A mentor will help provide you advice when you have tough decisions in front of you, allow you to bounce off some of your innovative ideas, get you thinking about your next steps, and in my case literally pick up the phone to open doors for you. In my experience, life coaches don’t really create substantial business opportunities. They may help you learn more about yourself or clarify where you need to put your priorities, but it’s not the same.
#5 – Have a work/life balance. Take the first day of school off work to be with you kids. Set your priorities.
I don’t have children but watching my boss in action left a lasting impression. Here was a man who was unabashedly a family man – BEFORE it was “in”. Every year he took the first day of school off work to be with his kids. He took his holidays and he left at a decent hour to be home for dinner – every night. I wish I could say I mastered this like him, but I admit I am a hypocrite. I preach this to my teams and I genuinely mean it, but struggle. Lately, I’ve been trying to build in balance. Especially since I read that the COO of Facebook leaves work everyday at 5:30. It makes it rather hard to excuse my lack of balance.
However, what I know to be true is this. That I usually have my “a-ha” moment right after I take a break. That when I am rested and refreshed, I am a better team member and have more creativity than when I am not. That when I am tired, I am also burnt out, irritable and cranky. Not surprisingly, I can rarely remember a time where that boss was ever “irritable”.