Want to Rise in the Workplace? Focus on Where You're the Most Uncomfortable.
If you can't find your own blind spot, ask your colleagues and friends. They'll let you know.
A misguided assumption women sometimes have about mentors is that they should support you at every turn. I get it: We all want to "dwell where we excel, "and many of us are nurturing by nature. But as a result, we may end up with that great potential we have being held back by the societal distinctions made between men and women.
In response, I say, figure out where you’re weakest and then find a safe way to work through your weaknesses.
Some questions to ask yourself here are: How comfortable are you presenting to a team of male counterparts? Can you be persuasive? An you effective negotiator?
To improve yourself, put yourself into an uncomfortable position, i.e. find a contrarian audience. If public speaking makes you nervous, go out and speak to a tough crowd -- that’s the way to strengthen your weakness.
If you want to rise to your full potential, seek out challenges that will help you grow. Here are some ideas for how you can triumph over discomfort:
1. Speak the language.
When I was hired by the advertising agency Ogilvy to grow an interactive digital team, I had to fit into a strong pre-existing culture and act as a change agent. It was a real challenge. At the agency, creatives were the kingpins, and one well-respected creative director took to saying, “I used to understand what we did here until McClennan arrived.”
In short, I was viewed as a threat, but his words were also a signal that I wasn’t connecting with people -- I wasn’t speaking their language. I needed to find ways to connect the dots.
So, I stopped using the term UX (short for "user experience," which was a totally foreign concept in the early 2000s). Instead, I used an in-house term, “moments of truth,” to speak to all the touchpoints in the user journey.
I got so good at translating, from tech to advertising, that I started leading workshops so other tech folks could become similarly multilingual.
Another woman who has switched up her language -- to great success -- is Michelle Obama. When her husband was first running for president, her offhand remarks about him were sometimes misconstrued as a lack of belief in his abilities, as author Rebecca Traister as described in Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger.
Clearly, the former First Lady's insights paid off; she is now America’s most admired woman, according to a national poll, and her autobiography is on track to become the best-selling memoir of all time .
2. Bond with your board.
When I was CEO of Daily Makeover, a beauty brand, not only was my board all male, its members were also very chummy with one another; and I realized that sometimes I was outside the conversation.
So, I started setting up individual dates suited to those men's interests: coffee with this one, cigars with another, and so on. Trying to find the time after startup hours to meet and bond was no simple task, and it wasn’t as if we all liked one another, but I didn’t let that get in the way of my mission. Building those relationships helped me become a better CEO, and if I hadn’t charted a path into my male board members' territory, I would have remained where I started -- on the outside.
3. Know your worth -- and know what’s possible.
Recently, a former employee got in touch for support around negotiating a pay raise at a startup, and that brought us to a larger conversation about how many roles she had taken on and whether she wanted to stick it out or move to a larger corporation.
Like many women, she was feeling undervalued, underpaid and overworked, which is when it seems "easy" to call it quits without considering all the options. Together, we went through a process where she wrote down what she loved about her company, what she hated and all the roles she had taken on.
In the end, she decided to stay after negotiating a slight pay raise, more equity and the handover of one of her roles (which she disliked) to someone else. Ultimately, she realized she was passionate about the business and wanted to stick around.
One place that this kind of re-examination of roles has gotten a lot attention is Hollywood. There, where the pay difference between male and female co-stars has been making headlines. Think about last year's revelation that actress Michelle Williams had made less than $1,000 per diem to reshoot parts of All the Money in the World while costar Mark Walberg made $1.5 million. This scenario is hardly new; the Williams/Walberg gap was simply more widely publicized.
That publicity had an impact: On Equal Pay Day on Capitol Hill this past April, Williams shared the news that in her latest role, her earnings were equal to those of her male co-star's.
4. Get to the point
Of course, women aren’t the only ones who suffer from communication challenges, and on that note, I happily mentor whoever seeks me out. This includes men.
A few years back, I stepped in to support the founder of a startup that was essentially a precursor to Slack. Although this man was passionate, coming up with a clear, succinct message was not his strong point, so I helped him articulate a vision that would matter to his client. Then I flew with him to Chicago to close the deal that was his immediate goal.
Conversely, there are plenty of women out there who are strong communicators (despite beliefs to the contrary). If you want to see a pro in action, go no further than Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. She is known for her directness and reportedly begins her meetings by saying, “What are we here for?”
Walmsley’s candid style of leadership has helped to revitalize her business, leading to a flurry of partnerships, mergers and internal reorganization.
5. Get a second opinion.
What I have seen throughout my career is that people are unable to be objective with themselves, or maybe simply unwilling. (As long as the blind spot is there, you don’t have to take action.)
But everyone has a blind spot; no one is alone in this. We have to keep looking for it -- in order to cultivate humility and succeed in business at the same time. And if you really can’t find your own blind spot, ask your colleagues and friends. Trust me, they’ll know!
Jeannette McClennan is the founder and president of the digital technology firm, The McClennan Group. She has held C-level positions at five companies and has spent her career defining and developing innovative products and services for AARP, Holiday Retirement and HumanGood, among others. She is the co-author of Innovators Anonymous: Seven Steps to Get Your Product Off the Ground.