We still operate in a work world governed largely by men, but happily, women can equip themselves to succeed even on an uneven playing field. As president of the National Association for Female Executives, l offer a handful of strategies shared with me by successful women executives: five fundamentals for firing up your own career.
1. Plan it out
If you aspire to reach the top ranks, clarify your career direction early. In corporations, firms, foundations and nonprofits alike, you’ll find two paths. One includes jobs running the business (“line” or operations positions) and the other includes the support functions (“staff” jobs like human relations, communications, legal and finance). Chief executives must have had bottom line, profit and loss (P&L) responsibility with direct involvement with products, services and/or customers. You may love the influence that comes with these roles. To date, few women have trickled through this requisite pipeline to the top, so if your ambition inclines you in this direction, set yourself a two-year goal to land a P&L position.
2. Perform beyond expectations
Always deliver more, on time or ahead of schedule. Impress people over and over and build a track record, which counters the competency barrier that women still face. Results take time to accrue, so keep it up. Rock-solid performance — day in and day out — garners attention and respect.
3. Find sponsors
These are people who will offer critical feedback and targeted advice, but who also will use their clout to land opportunities for you. Unlike a mentor who advises you privately, your sponsor actively advocates for your advancement. But remember that since they will spend their capital on you, they must know and admire your work and capabilities, so you must earn their trust and respect.
Nobody makes it alone. Consider networking as part of your job. Women tend to focus on getting our tasks done, but men understand that hanging out and talking also equals working. They’re making connections and learning about opportunities. So join company networks, industry groups, nonprofit boards, PTA. Networking is the process of building mutually beneficial relationships, so encourage your networks to rely on you as you do on them — for job openings, new connections and hot tips.
5. Don’t hide your light
Boys start boasting early, while girls learn modesty — and may face real penalties when not demure. But women don’t get ahead if people don’t know about their accomplishments and skills. Develop a three-minute story about yourself that includes your key successes and captures your enthusiasm and excitement. Practice it in front of your spouse, your friends, your mirror. And don’t neglect to report your achievements to your boss, sponsors, mentors and even your network.