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Sitting at the table and the self-promotion commotion – why women need to back themselves and how leaders, recruiters and media can help

By now you’ve probably seen the Sheryl Sandberg video from TEDwomen, and her 3 tips for making it to the C-suite.  As COO of Facebook, Sandberg has achieved dizzying heights of career success.  Her advice to other women seeking to do the same is as personal as it is practical, yet also acknowledges the social, biological and self-imposed obstacles that women face in defining their own career paths.  In a nutshell, she suggests that women increase their likelihood of success when they:

  1.  Sit at the table – get involved in the decision making and give yourself the greatest chance of success by putting yourself forward and negotiating what you want.
  2. Make their partner a real partner  – Sandberg is married to David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey and with two small children she admits that their marriage and parenting is a partnership in every sense.
  3. Don’t leave before you leave – in other words make conscious decisions to continue to advance your career, even if you plan to take parenting breaks, rather than changing down gears during this period.

They’re all good points but the one I want to focus on is the first: sitting at the table.  According to Sandberg: “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table.  And no-one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success or they don’t even understand their own success.”

The corner office is one thing but I think it’s as true of winning a new account, running your own successful business, negotiating the employment terms you want or making a major acquisition like a house or car or boat.  Substitute the “corner office” for whatever your goal is and the outcome is the same: you’ll garner more respect, develop and showcase more skill and demonstrate your passion and personal commitment when you personally sit at the table.

When I look back over my career I can identify a number of defining moments that all involved me personally sitting at the table.  One took place just after I made the transition from banking to business consulting.  I was involved in pitching a proposal to a major investment bank.  I was the only woman, the shortest serving and the most junior team member sitting at the table.  And I was the only one among a team of career consultants who had operational experience.  So when the client asked a sticky question regarding our proposed strategy and the likely impact on operations and regulatory compliance, all eyes turned to me.  Was I nervous? Of course! Did I give an answer that satisfied the customer’s concerns? Yes. Did we win the job?  Yes.  And did my reputation and perceived value go up in the firm as a result? Absolutely. 

Using simple analogies, Sandberg illustrates her point: the women who attended meetings with but nervously sat to the side instead of the table when the deal was being cut; a college memory of her overly confident brother who barely studied but was sure he’d top the class; and of women systematically underestimating their own abilities and their own success.

Time and time again we see that men who self-promote get promoted.  So why do women talk themselves down and men talk themselves up? 

Sandberg used the story of the Heidi and Howard Roizen case to illustrate that women get punished for behavior that is perfectly okay for men: historically the correlation between success and likeability has been positive for men and negative for women.  Yet with the growing body of evidence showing the benefits women bring to business, there’s never been a better time to challenge this position.

So recently, after watching the Sandberg clip, I posted a discussion on the sphinxx LinkedIn group inviting members to share their greatest success of 2010 and their goals for the new year.  Of our 447 mainly-female members, how many do you think have posted their stories?  A grand total of zero. Zip. Doughnut. None.

I get the sentiment, but if women truly want to get beyond the current situation of holding only 4% of line management roles in Australia, of holding only 10% of board positions and 2.5% of CEO roles then they need to get over ourselves and our reluctance to self promote.  Women need to encourage other women’s success and so do men, that’s true. 

Women often tell me that they don’t want quotas; they want to be appointed on the basis of their own merit.  If this is true then it’s time to wake up and smell the roses: while women are reluctant to share their wins and their success stories it’s tough for recruiters to find and appoint them.

There’s much that men and women, leaders and individuals can do to see more women are at the table:

  • Women can back themselves and trust in the opportunities that come their way.  When opportunity knocks, don’t ask who’s there.  Don’t be one of the 27% of women who turn down jobs because of a little self-doubt.  Don’t attribute your success to luck or other people around you.  Own your success and use it to create more.
  • Leaders can put women at the table.  Every meeting, every negotiation should include not one woman but many.  One woman feels outnumbered, outspoken, outvoted, different; while in balance women represent their half of the population, their sentiments, their experience, their views and their purse-strings.
  • Managers can balance the self-promotion commotion.  When a male shares his wins in a meeting, ask the women at the table to do the same.  When a male asks for a payrise, take the time to consider whether everyone on your team is remunerated fairly.  Who are the silent achievers on your team and do they know how much you value your contribution?
  • Recruiters can put more women on the table by building a network of quality women to put forward, by avoiding typical stereotypes about the ambition and aspiration of women and by seeing the opportunity in Generation F, particularly those who are ready to on-ramp rather than making it difficult for them to do so.
  • Media can share the success stories of women making it to the top, of the organisations that put women at the table, and those that do not.  Yes, it’s still news when organisations challenge the stereotypes, break down the barriers and encourage women to win new positions. And we want to hear it.

So… fancy a seat at the table?  Absolutely you should and for women in particular, there’s never been a better time to sit down and be counted.

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