“What’s your worth?” might be one of the more difficult questions that women, particularly in the corporate world, need to face. In this article, Sally Helgesen elaborates on the importance of confidently articulating and claiming one’s value as a key skill for women particularly those in transition.
The ability to strongly and persuasively articulate your potential value is a key skill for anyone in transition. This seems like an obvious point, but it’s a requirement women sometimes shy away from. In my thirty years of working with women leaders around the world, I’ve encountered a surprising number who routinely underplay their achievements. This has the effect of holding them back at various points in their careers, but the costs can be particularly high during transitions.
Let’s first look at the hows and whys of women not fully claiming their value. Then we can examine how this affects them during transition, especially when seeking to move to a new job.
Some years ago, I conducted a series of interviews with senior female partners in accounting, law, consulting, and investment firms. I wanted to learn what they believed had been responsible for their success in cultures dominated almost entirely by men. I was especially eager to get their thoughts on how younger women in their firms might better position themselves for partnership.
The responses to my questions ran a wide gamut, but in two areas were remarkably consistent. When asked about the greatest strength of the younger women in their firms, the female partners almost unanimously cited the ability to deliver high quality work. “The women here go the extra mile when you give them assignments,” said one partner. Said another: “They are extremely conscientious, crossing every t and dotting every i. They take deadlines seriously. They are meticulous and reliable. You can count on them to get the job done.”
When asked what the younger women in their firms were worst at, the responses were also remarkably consistent. Here are the most frequent comments: “Hands down, they are worst at bringing attention and visibility to their successes.” “They often work harder than their male peers but seem to go out of their way to avoid taking credit for what they’ve done, especially with senior leaders.” And, “A lot of our women seem uncomfortable using the “I” word, so they try to spread the credit around or even give it away. This might make them good people but it doesn’t help their careers.”
These observations were all made about associates in partnership firms, such as law, accounting, consulting and investment banking. But I find reluctance to claim achievements is common among women in every sector and at every level. For example, when delivering workshops to women at varying levels in organisations, I often reference my partnership survey and then ask, “How many of you are good at drawing attention to what you achieve?”
Usually, only scattering of hands go up. Sometimes, not a single woman describes herself this way.
When asked to reflect on why they struggle with claiming their achievements, answers vary. But two responses surface nearly every time: “If I have to act like that obnoxious blowhard down the hall to get noticed, I’d prefer to be ignored. I have no desire to behave like a jerk.”
And, “I believe great work speaks for itself. If I do an outstanding job, people should notice.”
Let’s examine the “obnoxious blowhard” answer. It’s quite common. A woman will frequently pick out the most shameless self-promoter in the organisation and decide that, if she tries to draw attention to what she’s doing, she will be acting like him (it’s usually a him). Since emulating this insufferable colleague’s behaviour repels her, she decides to keep her head down instead of trying to get recognised for her contributions.
There are two problems with this approach.
First, citing “the jerk down the hall” as an example of everything you are not and don’t wish to become betrays an either/or way of thinking. Either you exemplify the worse aspects of a given behaviour, or you behave in an entirely opposite manner. Either/or thinking offers no possibility of finding a middle ground, no graceful way, for example, to bring attention to the quality of your work without being obnoxious and self-serving. This then becomes a convenient way to justify your inability to find a middle ground.
Second, contrasting your refusal to claim credit for your own good work with an extreme opposite example can inspire you to feel morally superior to anyone who is comfortable doing so. This is unhelpful, because it gives you an excuse for buying into what is ultimately a rationale for staying in your comfort zone. Instead of asking yourself why you have trouble bringing attention to your successes and then figuring out an appropriate way to do so, you congratulate yourself on being a wonderful human being who doesn’t need to toot her own horn – and then try to take solace in that when you’re passed over for a promotion.
The other answer I frequently hear – “if I do good work, people should notice” – is also ineffective, particularly given how busy people are today. For example, I worked with a senior Silicon Valley engineer whose morale and career were suffering from precisely this misplaced expectation. She described herself as a “go-to” person in her firm, someone who had broad and wise relationships and made good use of them to keep resources flowing and connect others with people who could help them. She was therefore stunned when, during her annual performance review, her boss critiqued her for not being broadly connected in the company and so unable to spread the word about his unit’s innovations.
The engineer was deeply disturbed by this feedback. She said, “Here he was criticising me for what I thought I was best at, what I thought was most valuable about what I offered. I felt like he didn’t know me or appreciate me, which was discouraging, since I’d always thought we had a good relationship. But then I started asking myself why he had this impression. And I realised: how could he know I was well-connected when I’d never bothered to tell him? He didn’t monitor my email. He didn’t stand guard at my office to watch who went in and out. He didn’t know my value because I’d never told him! I just somehow figured he would know – or that he should know.”
Once she recognised this, she was able to shift her boss’s perceptions by deciding to present him each Friday with a list of people in the company she had connected with that week. “I felt awkward at first,” she reported. “I feared he would think I was wasting his time. But he appreciated it. He saw the connections I was making as strengthening him. And he told me, ‘This is information I need to know.’ ”
Her proactive approach gave her a way to more powerfully articulate the value she provided on the job, and came in handy when she applied internally for a higher position. She explains, “First, I had gotten over my shyness when talking about myself, so I no longer trying to be modest and non-threatening above all. And second, I now had enthusiastic support from my boss, who was able to make the case that I would be a big asset to any division in our company that wanted to spread the word about what they were doing.”
It’s easy to see why comfort with claiming your value is useful when making a transition. But it’s important to remember that people usually move to a higher position not just (or even primarily) because they’ve done well in their present job, but because they make others, especially higher ups, aware of their value while also making clear that they’re aiming for something more ambitious.
However, claiming your demonstrated value and articulating your potential value are not the same thing. Skillfully positioning yourself for your next job requires you to articulate why what you have done qualifies you for something more demanding. This can be particularly challenging for women.
For example, research suggests that women are more likely to be judged on their achievements whereas men are more likely to be judged on their perceived potential.1 This often provides men with a strong advantage when being considered for the same promotion as a woman.
Many commentators view this achievement/potential divide as a prime example of unconscious bias, and certainly this is often the case. But two examples from my own experience suggest that women may also be penalised for not explicitly making the case for their potential value or trumpetting what exactly they intend to achieve.
Two years ago, I undertook a survey of senior female law partners to find out what kept them in their jobs. There’s been a lot of research on why women leave law firms, and I wanted to look at it from the other side: what motivates the top tier of women in firms and keeps them engaged? I surveyed about 30 senior female law partners, many of them among the most successful in their profession. I learned a lot, but one takeaway was especially vivid.
The majority of them had made partner later than men with comparable qualifications who had been hired in the same year. Every one of them found this discouraging when it happened, and all of them were of the opinion that senior male partners tend to be more sceptical of what women can contribute. However, a surprising number also said that, when they inquired why they had not made partner in their first year, they were told that the head of their practice “had no idea” that they aspired to partnership.
As one survey participant said, “Why did he think I was working myself to the bone? I would have thought that was sufficient evidence, but apparently he was misled by the fact that I hadn’t been talking about how I wanted to make partner or saying what a great partner I would be starting on the day I arrived. My male colleagues had done so, so they were perceived as having fire in the belly, and their actions from their arrival were scrutinised through prism of “is he partner material?” Since I never said anything, either about making partner or about why I thought I could be successful at it, no one paid attention. I had figured that doing stellar work would get me there, but it was clearly not enough.”
Upon hearing that her practice head had no idea she wanted to be partner, this woman changed her behaviour. She says, “I began proclaiming to anyone who would listen that I was set on being partner. And I figured out how to talk about why my credentials and successes made me uniquely qualified. After I started doing this, I made partner within six months. And now I tell every female associate in our firm: if you want to be partner, you have to let them know, and continue to let them know at every opportunity.”
Discomfort with articulating your ambitions and your potential can be a hindrance to women in transition at any level, but it can have an especially severe impact when seeking a new job. I got a good lesson in this when interviewing search firm professionals in preparation for a book about behaviours that get in successful women’s way.2 A partner who ran a firm that placed health care professionals told me, “We get so many supremely qualified female candidates but we find women are often tentative when describing their skills and experience. For example, it’s not uncommon to come across comments in application letters such as, ‘I’ve never held a position like this before so I’m not sure if my qualifications are an exact match.’ ”
By contrast, she noted, “A man might typically say, “I have exactly the skills you are looking for and can easily meet these requirements because I’m excellent at x, y and z.” Maybe x, y and z have little to do with the actual job he’s applying for, but his confidence is so convincing it sweeps you along.”
A frequent upshot, the search executive explained, is that “the job may end up going to a less qualified man. Since he so firmly believes he can do the job, and since he views himself as superbly prepared, the employer who lists the position decides to give him a chance. Of course, unconscious biases may also be at work, but I also find that even highly qualified woman can be too hesitant in making the case that they are ready or have the skills their past record indicates they have.”
Knowing how to articulate both your proven and potential value – strongly, persuasively, specifically and with confidence and verve – can be of enormous benefit to women in transition. But the time to start practicing is before you’re looking for a promotion, or the next job.
About the Author
Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker and consultant who delivers leadership programmes for organisations and associations around the world. Her six books include The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, and The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations. Her new book, How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith, will be published in April 2018.
2. How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, available April 2018.