How Women Rise: Habits That Curb, Habits That Lift

Most of the behaviors that hold people back in their careers are gender neutral. Preeminent executive coach Marshall Goldsmith discussed many of them in his international bestseller What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

But in today’s marketplace, women face some specific—and different—challenges as they try to advance.

Fortunately, Goldsmith has partnered with his longtime colleague Sally Helgesen who’s considered the gold standard among women’s leadership experts. They’ve coauthored How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.

This is anything but a woe-is-me-I’m-not-getting-a-fair-shake-because-I’m-a-woman tome. It’s a smart and well-researched handbook for women trying to make the next step in their careers—as corporate ladder-climbers or risk-taking entrepreneurs. A key takeaway is that, for women in particular, the very skills and habits that may propel them early in their careers can actually jeopardize their advancement in subsequent stages of their work lives.

Helgesen and Goldsmith offer much more than just insights into the what of habits that constrain. They provide detailed tutoring on how to replace them with behaviors that produce excellent results.

Sally Hegelsen

Rodger Dean Duncan: You’ve identified 12 habits, or self-limiting behaviors, that you believe hold many women back in their careers and in life in general. How did you develop the list?

Sally Helgesen: It wasn’t scientific, but rather based on our combined 60 plus years of practice, working with women leaders and aspiring leaders all over the world. The 12 behaviors we describe are simply those we find the most likely to get in the way of talented women as they seek to rise. For Marshall, these are behaviors he has worked with as a coach. For me, these are behaviors I’ve seen in many decades of delivering women’s leadership programs and interviewing women leaders.

One thing we want to make clear: these are not uniquely women’s behaviors, and we’ve heard from a number of men who tell us they also identify with some of these behaviors. They are simply human behaviors, but they are the ones we see as most likely to get in women’s way.

Duncan: What patterns—and solutions—do you see regarding resistance to change?

Marshall Goldsmith: Resistance is a powerful force. As humans, most of us are resistant to change because it requires a lot of neural work to practice new behaviors. This consumes energy and takes us out of our comfort zone. But men and women often resist change in slightly different ways.

In my coaching practice, I find that a successful man who resists change often goes through three stages. First, he decides that whoever is suggesting that he change must be confused. Second, he decides that, while the general suggestion for change might be valid, it doesn’t necessarily apply to him for the simple reason that he’s been so successful. Third, he is likely to simply attack the person who suggested that he change, blaming the messenger rather than looking to himself.

Helgesen: A woman who resists change will usually follow a different template. First, she’ll react to the suggestion she change by feeling hurt, undervalued, even betrayed. This can be painful and result in a degree of paralysis as she takes the critique to heart. Next, she will ask herself what might have motivated the assessment. What were the circumstances? What perceptions might have been involved? Third, she will begin to examine her own actions and ask how she could have contributed to the assessment. She may still be deeply resistant to the idea of changing, but she will be open to asking what she might do differently. By internalizing the critique rather than lashing out, she creates a bridge that can enable her to identify constructive action.

Marshall Goldsmith

Duncan: How do organizations sometimes make it hard for people to change behaviors?

Marshall Goldsmith: People get typecast based on the past performance. “Marcy’s a good team player.” “Samantha’s a real workhorse.” “Jim’s great at building connections, a real schmoozer.” Such perceptions are rooted in reality, but they can make it hard for people to change because if they try to branch out their co-workers may push back. In this way, people can get stuck with an identity that may no longer necessarily serve their interests. For example, for Samantha to move higher, she may need to focus more effort on connecting with people and less on diligently crossing every t and dotting every i. Yet she may feel reluctant to adopt a new approach for fear she’ll disappoint people as she changes.

Duncan: Self-promotion is uncomfortable for many people. How can a woman call attention to her value and achievements without coming across as bragging at the expense of her team?

Helgesen: She can present it as information that other people need to know. We have a wonderful story about an engineer named Ellen who learned during a performance review that her boss thought highly of her skills but was concerned that she didn’t have enough connections. She felt terrible when she learned this because she’d always thought she was a great connector—a real go-to person who often helped get resources to flow.

For a few weeks she thought about leaving. But she then realized he didn’t see her that way because she’d never told him how connected she really was. So she began sending him a two-line email every Friday, simply listing the major people she’d been in touch with during the week. She got no response and was convinced he’d think she was wasting his time or being inappropriately self-promoting. But during her next review he told her that he appreciated what she was doing because it was information she needed to know. So that’s one approach.

It’s also important for women not to be overly fearful of being perceived as blowing their own horn or being “out for themselves,” something most successful men have little problem with. Backing off prematurely is probably worse for a woman’s career than stepping a bit over the line.

Duncan: You tout the value of a good “elevator speech” or statement of purpose. How does this help someone overcome the must-stop habits you write about?

Goldsmith: Crafting a simple strong elevator speech that describes what you want to achieve in your career is the first step in articulating what you have to offer. The clearer you are about what you have to contribute, the more able you will be to enlist allies who see value in what you are doing and want to help.

Duncan: Some women are good at building relationships but are less comfortable about leveraging those relationships. Why is that, and what’s your counsel?

Helgesen: One of women’s great strengths is their ability to build strong relationships and form deep and lasting bonds. This contributes to their emotional resilience and often makes them connectors within their organizations, go-to people who bring others together. But women don’t always benefit from the strong relationships they cultivate and nurture in the workplace because they are reluctant to leverage their relationships, by which we mean engaging others to help them meet either specific or long-term career goals.

When we ask women who are uncomfortable with the notion of leverage, they usually tell us they don’t want other people to think they are “using” them. Or they say they want other people to know they value them for themselves, as people, rather than as sources of influence. Or they say they fear being viewed as manipulative or self-serving. As a result, they sometimes fail to reap the benefits of their connections because they are uncomfortable with the transactional nature of quid pro quo that’s a standard way of operating in many organizations.

Women we speak with who get caught in this trap often fail to consider that engaging others to help them achieve their own aims can also serve the long-term interests of the other person.

Duncan: How are allies part of a person’s personal brand, and what’s the best way to enlist others who can really help you in your career?

Goldsmith: Your allies or network are your key source of visibility in your organization, community and sector. You are known by the company you keep. This is why over-focusing on developing expertise or doing a perfect job can actually keep you stuck—you may not have the bandwidth for building a strong ally network.

We particularly like to talk about allies because in some quarters there has been an over-emphasis on sponsors and mentors as the only path to success for women. Yes, having a great mentor and sponsor is a huge advantage, but they are not always easy to find. And if the chemistry isn’t great, they may not be all that helpful.

So focusing on building allies, informal connections at every level who you keep informed about your work and can rely on for help even as you are a resource for them is a great approach for virtually any woman. It also makes you more likely to attract sponsorship because it makes you more visible and valuable.

Our friend Tom Peters has known a lot of successful people in his very long and distinguished career, and he recently said that what sets them apart is that they spend about 80% of their time building allies. That’s a big deal. So it’s important to build you ally network from day one.

Duncan: When you list “Putting Your Job Before Your Career” as a bad habit, you write about the “loyalty trap.” What does that mean?

Helgesen: Research shows that women tend to be extremely loyal to their organizations. This is a good quality, rooted in a strength. But it can hold women back if they feel so loyal to their boss or their team that they decline to pursue opportunities to move ahead. We know an extremely talented associate producer who remained in the job for 11 years rather than the usual five because she felt so much loyalty to her boss. She believed that if she asked him to make connections for her with people who could hire her as a producer, he would think she was being disloyal. What she failed to consider was that he had become a producer very early in his career and so would completely understand her wanting to move on. When she finally approached him, he was extremely helpful, though he would not have volunteered because she had become so valuable to his team.

Duncan: Why does striving for perfection hold people back in their careers?

Goldsmith: Perfectionism can serve you well early in your career because it supports your doing outstanding work. But it can hold you back as you seek to rise because you are so invested in being precise and correct that you fail to take the kind of risks that characterize strong leaders.

Perfectionism betrays a lack of confidence in your own worth and ability and can make it difficult for you to trust others because you fear they may make mistakes. Perfectionism also creates stress for you as well as those around you. After all, in our many decades of work, we have never met a person who said, “I work with a perfectionistic boss and I love it!”

Duncan: You write that a good way to overcome self-limiting behaviors is to “unpack” habit clusters. What’s a good example of that?

Helgesen: Many of the behaviors we write about support one another.

For example, Expecting Others to Spontaneously Notice and Value Your Contributions often pairs with Over-focusing on Expertise and Failing to Enlist Allies from Day One.

Perfectionism often results in Rumination. Minimizing often pairs with Putting Your Job Before Your Career.

So we find it very helpful for people to think about how specific habit clusters may impact them so they can figure out the best actions they can take to move forward. What we don’t suggest is spending a lot of time trying to figure out why you are prone to certain habit clusters. Instead, taking action to address one behavior or even one part of a behavior at a time enables you to move forward. And enlisting allies to help is even more essential.

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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