Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr recently co-authored Women Need to Realize Work Isn't School, a powerful call to action containing five straightforward guidelines that challenge women to re-think their approach to professional success:
1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority.
2. Prepare, but also learn how to improvise.
3. Find effective forms of self-promotion.
4. Welcome a less proscribed, full of surprise, career path.
5. Go for being respected, not just liked.
It's a brilliant piece of writing, and I intend to refer to it regularly in my work with clients and students at Stanford (where today the MBA Class of 2012 is just 39% women).
I want to augment Johnson and Mohr's perspective with two points: First, while I firmly agree that these five issues affect women more often and more severely than men, they certainly affect men as well. In my own professional development I've wrestled with each of these issues, and while I had an easier path as a man, it was nevertheless an intense struggle. (And it still is--I'm not suggesting that I've permanently resolved these issues for myself, just that I've addressed them and made what feels like meaningful progress over the years.)
And as I reflect on my male clients and MBA students, my sense is that every one of them is coping with one or more of these issues. From my perspective Johnson and Mohr have identified a critical set of universal challenges we all face in professional life, and they're shining a necessary spotlight on the unique difficulties faced by women in surmounting them.
Second, while these strategies point out the ways in which women can often undermine themselves and suggest useful alternatives, my experience as a coach tells me that simply knowing what we should do is rarely sufficient motivation on its own. In order to take effective action, we have to acknowledge and address the emotions that get stirred up by the prospect of doing so.
Any of us--women and men--who wrestle with the issues above can use Johnson and Mohr's call to action as a starting point to begin to understand the mental models that hold us back. And yet I suspect that sustained progress will depend on our willingness to understand ourselves at an even deeper level--for example, how our emotions affect our reasoning and decision-making or our performance under stress.
When we find ourselves acting in opposition to Johnson and Mohr's guidelines, it's likely that emotional factors are at play. Habitually deferring to authority, failing to improvise, rejecting appropriate credit for our performance, turning down surprise opportunities, focusing on being liked while failing to command respect--these are all professional missteps with a profound emotional dimension to them. Even as we're making such a misstep, we know it's the wrong thing to do, but somehow it feels better, safer, less risky to make the suboptimal choice.
So once our awareness has been raised and we know what we should do, our fundamental struggle in addressing these issues may be acknowledging and overcoming the anxiety, the embarrassment, the shame, the fear that well up when we contemplate taking that bold step. This is the complex and difficult work of self-coaching: engaging ourselves, understanding ourselves, and ultimately accepting ourselves even as we strive to do better.
Photo by Renato Ganoza. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.