In organizations the world over, there are about as many women as men at the lowest levels of the career ladder. Yet, at each successively higher level, the proportion of women steadily shrinks. While 41 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women — a record high — that’s only 8.1 percent of the total. What’s holding women leaders back?
Together with seven executive-level women from various industries, I take a deep dive into this issue in my newest book, “Women on Top: What’s Keeping You From Executive Leadership?” Here are just a few of the more common mistakes we see women make:
We Ignore Glaring Red Flags
I made one of the worst decisions of my career when I decided to leave an established job for a promising vice president-level offer that didn’t have certain “non-negotiables” locked in. I ignored several red flags during the hiring process. Honestly, I should have terminated the negotiations the first time the hiring executive told me to “keep an open mind.” As months dragged on, and even more issues surfaced, I should have moved on. But I didn’t — and ended up “downsized” under questionable circumstances.
While it worked out for the best (I ended up starting my own thriving leadership development firm), the lesson was clear: We must acknowledge the road signs as they present themselves and change tack accordingly, especially if we’re heading toward Niagara Falls.
We See Valuing Our Personal Brand as ‘Bragging’
When I founded my company, we emphasized helping our female clients to articulate their value because so few of them could explain why someone should consider them for their next desired position. To them, it felt like bragging. Interestingly, men rarely seem to have this problem.
Linda Rutherford, senior vice president and chief communications officer for Southwest Airlines, describes women’s behavior this way: “We go heads-down. We try to do a good job and then we just wait to get noticed. For some reason, we think, ‘If they can just see how diligent I am, how hardworking I am, and see what a great work ethic I have, I’m going to get selected.’ We must be more organized and intentional about it and decide what our personal brand is. Then we must make sure the people we work with know what that is. Just say, ‘I can help here because I can do this. This is something I’m good at.’”
We Assume a High-Level Position Will Demand Too Much of Our Personal Time
When working with the women enrolled in our program, we realized some were taking themselves out of the running for senior-level roles because they feared they would have less balance in their life. When we asked them, “Do you think you could work any harder than you already do?” they realized the answer was no.
The reality is that most of us have an imbalance at home — between the woman’s role, the man’s role, maintaining the home, shopping, cooking, and raising kids. But you’re already living and working in that reality. You’re already working as hard as you have the capacity for. There’s nothing more going on in the C-suite that could send you over the edge in terms of work-life balance unless you simply don’t want to be in the boardroom, or the one talking to the investment community, or serve in the role of the company cheerleader.
We Succumb to a Victimhood Mindset
I’ve seen so many women play the victim card upon losing a promotional opportunity. Victimhood is a common trait that otherwise high-potential individuals must overcome if they’re going to achieve the ultimate level of performance their superiors believe they’re capable of. The solution is realizing that new opportunities can spring from every loss.
When you fail to win a promotion that you thought you should have been granted, ask yourself, “What part of this do I own? Did I not articulate my value in a meaningful way? Did I not raise my hand to take that risky assignment because I thought I didn’t check every box for it? What can I learn from this?”
If you believe you’re doing all the right things and you’re still passed over for promotion, then you must be honest with yourself. Are you in a no-win situation? If the proverbial handwriting is on the wall, then move on. Make your dissatisfaction known and look for an opportunity in an organization where the culture offers a better fit and there’s greater potential for upward mobility. Life is too short to stay where you’re not appreciated or rewarded fairly. Refuse to be a victim.