In a world of inspirational memes and #girlboss Instagram posts, it’s easy to forget that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way forward at times. Sue Unerman is the Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom and Kathryn Jacob OBE is the Chief Executive at Pearl and Dean. Together they wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business. Their new book Belonging, The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality At Work is out on now. They answer your work questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work…
Question: I’m really ambitious, I want to get promoted, but I keep being told that I am too full-on. I’ve moved from a ridiculously pressured job to somewhere with a much better culture, and I enjoy it, but it feels like I’m too full-on for them. I guess they’re a little laidback for me, my background is to be always pushing things on. My boss is amazing, but she doesn’t quite get me. How do I achieve my ambitions and encourage my colleagues to be a bit more experimental and braver, do you think?
KJ: What is it that you do that makes them the most uncomfortable? Sometimes if your ambition is too obvious it can detract from your chances of promotion, especially if that is not the prevailing culture. You need to be a bit more subtle. For example, if you have a great meeting with someone, thank them by email and cc your boss. Or every month have a check-in meeting scheduled with your boss saying what you are doing, but specifically how what you’re doing is contributing to the group goals (not just your own), and offer to help more if there is anyway you can.
SU: Sometimes wearing your ambition very publicly makes your colleagues fear that you are only in it for yourself and your own career progression. Being ambitious is absolutely fine. Many women, over many decades, have felt compelled to hide their ambition and this is one of the contributors to the current situation at the top of companies where women are still in the minority in the boardroom. You need to show that your ambition is for the business you work in to win, and not just yourself. If you were to change every pitch for promotion that you’re doing at the moment into a suggestion for the growth of the business (that you could lead), this would help. I’ve spoken to some people who do this and are disappointed because their boss says ‘yes of course please go ahead and lead that project’, but they don’t immediately get the reward. My view is you need to be a bit patient. As you progress through a business its more like a marathon not a sprint. So, make the offer, do some amazing work, and then, and do this persistently, point out how you have contributed.
KJ: I just want to add a note of caution. f you are volunteering to take on more tasks be very careful that you are not the one given the impossible and unachievable jobs. So many women think that by doing extra elements of their role they will be seen as a better team player. Be mindful of what your core job role is and ensure that any extra tasks are related to that, and not some vanity project that is not central to your business. Earlier this week I was talking to a brilliant woman who is hugely capable. We discussed burnout. I said that women tend to take on tasks when they are already very committed. We said for instance, as an extreme example, only a woman would say: ‘Yes I’m about to go on maternity leave with triplets but of course if you need me to cover the Eiffel Tower with crystals I am certain I can pop all three babies into a backpack and just get it done!’ Don’t be unrealistic.
SU: Of course, Kathryn is correct, protect your energy levels. But it does sound like you have more energy to give at the moment. If this is the case find a way of not just delivering your own key tasks, but help your boss to deliver hers. I once heard a speaker say that her mentor had told her that the truth in business is that your boss does not really care about you. They care about themselves, about their own careers, and they really mainly and mostly think about you as an adjunct to that. This is of course not what your boss will tell you, and indeed, in some cultures your boss will care about more than others (which is what it sounds like with your new place of work). This understanding though is a useful way to think about how you achieve your ambitions .Don’t make it about what you want, make it about what your boss needs. And, above all, make sure that you communicate this to them on an ongoing basis. There is a behavioural economics principle, that is all about recency. Whatever our commitments and whatever we tell ourselves, we basically react to the last thing we have heard or seen. So, make sure when it comes an opportunity for progression that you’re the most recent person your boss has heard great stuff about.
KJ: The other key element is to get people within the organisation talking about you positively and spreading the word about your strengths. We like to call them sponsors, and there is an extensive description of them, and the rest of the team around you who can help you achieve your ambition in our new book, Belonging. Good luck with your career, we look forward to hearing about your brilliant progression.