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Let it go: The number 1 career-buster for women

Tuesday, May 28, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Sally Helgesen

Being intentional about what you want to accomplish is essential for anyone seeking leadership, but in my experience it can play out differently for women than for men.

Being intentional means knowing what to embrace and what to let go of as you move to a higher level and assume more responsibility ― in your job and in the world. In other words, improving your leadership capacity requires mastering certain skills, but also requires knowing what to let go of. And it’s in the "letting go” part of the equation where I see gender differences emerge.

A couple of years ago, Marshall Goldsmith published an enormously helpful book: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful. Drawing on decades of experience coaching some of America’s most high profile executives, Marshall identifies common behaviors that keep high achievers stuck and shows how, by letting go of these behaviors, accomplished people can break through barriers and move to the next level.

Typical detrimental behaviors Marshall cites include needing to win at all costs; telling the world how smart you are; constantly contradicting others by starting sentences with "No,” "But” or "However;” claiming credit you do not deserve; hoarding information; passing judgment on others; speaking when angry; and failing to give others proper recognition.

Don’t be perfect — and don’t be shy

But I’ve seen other behaviors that are much more likely to keep women from getting ahead. Yes, there are women who speak when angry, pass judgment on others and obsessively make the point that they are right. But in my experience these "it’s all about me” behaviors are not the primary habits that hold women back.

I’m more likely to find women who are reluctant to claim their achievements, make sure their contributions get recognized or enlist allies who can help them develop a higher profile in an organization. I find women who keep their heads down and try to become experts in whatever they are doing before they start developing the kinds of connections that would make their own work easier and bring greater visibility to their efforts.

In other words, I see women who need to let go of hiding their light under a bushel. Rather than claiming too much credit, they claim too little, expecting or just hoping that if they do great work it will –– somehow –– get noticed.

Instead of talking about how great they are, the women I see in organizations are more likely to expend their energy actually trying to be perfect.

This is not just observation, it is a data point. For example, I once surveyed senior female partners in a range of partnership firms: law, accounting, consulting and investment banking. When I asked them what the female associates who worked for them were best at, the answer was almost unanimous: "The women are great at doing Grade A work. They cross all the Ts and dot all the Is. They are super-reliable and very conscientious.” When I asked these partners what the women associates were worst at, their answer was again almost unanimous: "They are worst at letting people know about the quality of their work.”

Does this resonate with you?

If so, you can benefit by thinking about how you might begin to let go of these career-busting behaviors. You can start by declaring your firm intention to do so. Then you need to develop a plan. You might enlist a trusted friend as a peer coach, telling her that you need to work on a specific behavior and asking her to hold you accountable for taking regular action to change behaviors that are holding you back. You could schedule a weekly phone call with her to report your progress and your setbacks. A simple commitment can pay huge dividends whenever we’re trying to change a behavior, but it’s especially powerful when we need to let something go.

Sally Helgesen is the author of  The Female Vision and  The Female Advantage as well as a speaker and a leadership development consultant. She can be reached at

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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