YES! Climbing the corporate ladder is different for women. I recently spoke at a conference where the topic of women in financial services and leadership were both hot points of discussion. In truth, you are hard pressed to go to any event or corporate board room and not hear this very topic being discussed. We all want to be doing a better job of helping women to succeed, and see more female leaders sitting at the board room table.
After my keynote presentation, I stayed around for the celebration dinner, where I really had an opportunity to connect and get to know this amazing group of people who work for this company. Amidst the fun and laughter at the evening dinner table, the topic turned to women in financial services and women in leadership, and why it is such a challenge to attract and retain women in this field (or any male dominated field for that matter.)
The question came up, as to whether or not developing and promoting women is different, and while there were many different theories and opinions, I come down on the side of definitely yes! As a former banker, and a woman who came up through the ranks of a still male dominated industry to hold a senior level position, I know my climb up the corporate ladder was very different.
As a woman I needed to chart my own path
Now let me stop and say right there, that I would not be where I am today without the men who reached out to mentor me, lead me and open doors for me. Truly, I had some amazing role models and generous supporters most of whom were men. However, while I value and appreciate everything they did for me, what I had to do to succeed was different than what they had to do. A lot of things that work for men do not work for female professionals as far as career development and the rise up the corporate ladder, and as a woman I appreciated my male leaders but to succeed I needed to chart my own path.
So having put a stake in the ground, taking the position that men and women are not the same when it comes to career development; One of the smart, savvy female leaders of the company put me on the spot and asked me to explain. . She wanted me to share, specifically, what was different for me and what advice I would have for women looking to succeed in today’s world of financial services.
5 Strategies To Grab Hold Of Your Own Career
1. Just Own It – men and women are different, just own it! In general men are more comfortable being aggressive, asking for what they want, and ensuring they do what it takes to get ahead. As women we are, in general, caretakers putting others needs ahead of our own, more team based wanting our success to be in cooperation with everyone else, and more likely to wait for a promotion to come to us rather than asking for it. We need to understand that about ourselves, embrace these wonderful qualities, and then be willing to adopt of few of our male counterparts qualities.
I remember, early on in my career, being singled out by my boss as his second in command. He loved that he could count on me to represent him, get the job done, and do what it takes in any situation. It seemed the harder I worked, the better I performed, the more he gave me to do. All while, my male counterparts did just what they were asked, and rewarded for their efforts, given country club memberships, tickets to sporting events and bonuses.
Rather than getting mad, I just owned it! In other words, I looked at their behavior and mine, and asked why do I work harder and only get rewarded with more work, when they work less and get more? What I learned was men don’t wait to be noticed, they ask for what they want. So, the very next day I set up a meeting with my boss, thanked him for making me in his second in command, I loved the extra work he gave me (because as a woman I love helping others, I love doing more than expected) and then shared that I was curious, I wanted to know what I needed to do, what else did he need from me, to get a country club membership, a promotion and a raise.
Admittedly that took a lot of courage on my part, and I was worried about his reaction. I should not have been, he was so supportive, so apologetic that he had not seen it, and thanked me for coming in and asking for what I wanted. The result, two country club memberships, a bonus, and clear message that I was his second in command.
Just own it! As women we are not great at asking for what we want, but we have the power to learn from our male team members. Combining the strengths of who we are, with the power of what we can learn from them, puts us in clear control of our own careers.
2. Seek Then Adjust – ask for, take, and grab on to all of the advice that you can get, and then adjust it to fit your needs. In other words understand that the concept may be spot on, but the strategies of how to apply it or make it work may need to be adjusted given you are a female. One of my early (male) mentors told me in order to land the big fish I needed to get into the inner circle. His advice, join the country club and start playing golf.
Well lucky for me, I was a golfer so that was not an issue, but joining a country club, that was! The problem, for me, was that the country club would do nothing for me to open the inner circle. While he could play golf with the guys, that option was not open for me. Men and women did not play golf together unless it was a couple’s event. The real conversations, networking and opportunities to connect happened in the Men’s Grill. A grill that served the best food, the best beer, and the best opportunities to connect and meet the CEOs, C-Suite Execs, and high powered business owners. The only problem was, as a woman, I was not allowed in the men’s grill.
So while I appreciated my boss’ advice that I needed to get in the inner circle, I had to figure out a different way to get in there. While the doors at the club may have been closed to me, I discovered that joining local boards and strategically taking leadership positions created the same opportunity. Eventually, with those connections and a proven track record, guess who started asking me to play golf on Friday afternoon. So yes, always take any and all of the advice you can get, than adapt it to fit your strategy and your gender.
3. Obstacles Become Opportunities – As a woman, we all know, I am just going to put it out there, that one of the very first things we are judged on is that we are a woman. Often we are underestimated, overlooked or treated differently all because we are women, something over which we have no control. While that may not always seem fair, keep your eye on the prize and remember, the very things that give you challenges early on, become your greatest assets down the road.
Years ago, I hired a female banker who was not only young; she looked the part, unfortunately like she was about twelve. The moment she showed up to talk to a client about their financials, all they saw was a young girl, wet behind the ears, and someone who looked like their daughter. The deck was stacked against her before she even started. It was much harder for her to get an appointment, and for clients to take her seriously. Not one to let an obstacle get in her way, she stopped focusing on what clients didn’t like (her age and her youth) and she focused on what they did; a prepared, well informed and highly responsive banker. Within six months she had the reputation of the young girl banker who went the extra mile for clients, and who would get it done. Everyone knew her and her reputation spread because everyone was so surprised that she was not only an amazing banker, but she looked like she was twelve. Don’t waste your time and energy worrying about being young, female or whatever else you think is holding you back, just power on through and use it to your advantage in the future.
4. Performance Is Power – I know we all want to change the system, we all want to make it fair and just and right. Great goal, but if you want to change the system, you need to play and win at the system first. Performance is Power, the more you care for clients, the better your results and the more you help the company succeed, the more power you have. The more your words, your ideas and your actions will be taken seriously and get traction. In other words, the more influence you have to change the system.
That is the way it works, and that is the way it should work. Leaders and clients listen to people who are successful, professionals whose ideas and strategies align with their results. So if you want your organization to hire, engage and promote more women, then increase your performance and gain the power to change the results.
5. Share The Strategy – Why do we expect men to know how to create a culture that engages and promote women – they are men, not women. If we want to see more women be successful in business, then we need to step to the plate, take ownership and get results. I had so many amazing male mentors when I was coming up through the ranks, again men who gave their time, ideas and their energy.
As I made my way, following the above strategies and adjusting them to fit my needs, I committed to open doors and share my ideas with my other female colleagues, making the path easier for all of us. The only requirement that any of us ever had of each other was that we pay it forward. If we want to grab hold of our careers, we need to do what we do best, share the strategy.
Putting women in more leadership positions and ensuring more of us find success in financial services is not hard, it requires all of us to grab hold of our own careers, and do what it takes to put more women on top!
Meridith Elliott Powell is a keynote speaker, coach and business growth specialist; working with financial institutions to support leaders in their efforts to enhance client loyalty, fully engage their teams, and drive business growth. The author of three books, her most recent, Winning In The Trust & Value Economy ( a runner up for USA Best Book Awards) she is actively working on her fourth, Just Own It: Building Ownership At Every Level To Get Profits At Every Turn.
An award winning business professional, before striking out on her own, Meridith held senior level leadership positions in both finance and healthcare. When she is not keynoting, leading workshops or writing, Meridith can be found in the mountains of North Carolina cycling, fly fishing, and actively working to improve her golf game. Meridith’s tips, ideas and strategies about how to make this economy start working for you, and how to actively engage your team in the process, can be found on her website www.meridithelliottpowell.com ; there you can find her books, her blog, and watch her videos.