The princess path to derailment
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
I see too many women in my consulting practice. Too many women forced out (or wanting out) of firms and corporations. There are occasional performance issues but by and large, I work with exceptionally intelligent, competent, personable women. What's wrong with this picture?
First, the easy answers. Women (and minorities -- I see too many of them, too) are the most vulnerable when times are tough and even when they aren't. Second, the competing demands of career and family may jeopardize careers. Despite more part-time and other options to accommodate pregnancies and motherhood, women who choose these options may be marginalized: perceived as less committed and therefore, more expendable, when the organization shrinks or when promotions are being considered.
What are the main reasons that capable women don't reach they potential? According to research by the Center for Creative Leadership, the major factors are the mirror image of those that make high potential executives successful.
The Princess and the Pea
Remember the fable about the princess and the pea? It is the tale about the woman who could not adjust to anything less comfortable than her royal bed so that even a single lowly pea caused her agony. Is this a story about sensitivity? I consider it a story of an inability to roll with the punches, an introduction to the first derailment factor.
The first derailment factor is lack of adaptability, problems in adjusting one's style or activities to the changing demands of the job, career path, culture or organization. There is a human tendency to keep doing the same things that made us successful before. But as situations change, an inability to change and adjust to the demands of the situation may spell disaster.
Inflexibility can take many forms: an inability or unwillingness to change or develop a management style or other needed skills as the job or career evolves, or a failure adapt to changes in the job, culture, or organization.
A common form of lack of adaptability is over-reliance on a style that led to earlier success in the face of changing circumstances. Simply put, strengths can become weaknesses. Affability carried to an extreme can manifest as inability to listen; a strong task orientation can become an inability to perceive or consider the interpersonal impact of business decisions.
Some examples illustrate this phenomenon. Mary was a smart, motivated employment litigator, with initiative, drive, and personality to spare, and a body count to match. Others admired her can-do spirit, but as she moved up, she failed to learn how to work through other people to get things done. Her tendency to tell people what to do and how to do it, regardless of the firm's or her suordinates' needs, bred resentment and resistance in the ranks. When given feedback on the negative impact of her style, she blamed others for the problems: they were lazy, uncooperative, envious of her success. Complaints mounted, Mary dug in her heels, and the firm eventually terminated her.
Sarah was a star performer in a large financial services company. When the company was acquired, she opted to leave for a smaller, more entrepreneurial company. The more collaborative style and careful decision-making that characterized her successful style in the past did not work in the fast-paced, more rough and tumble environment at her new employer. She could not adjust. People were irritated by her consensus-based style and found her rigid and too slow to keep up with the deadlines and independent spirit. She lasted less than two years.
The Princess and the Others
A princess does what she wants, orders others around, and gets her own way. Relationships are one-way and only about getting what she wants. Which brings us to the inability to develop strong collaborative working relationships, the second derailment factor. As you move up, whether into management ranks in a corporation or a firm, interpersonal skills are increasingly important and technical skills are correspondingly less important.
Princess Mentality
Why am I using the princess example to talk about derailment? Why deliberately use a negative stereotype? Because I believe that there is something in the princess persona that gets in women's way. A year ago I worked with an entire array of princesses (and thought I might kill myself, them, or all of us): a WASP princess, an Italian-American princess, an African-American princess, a Jewish American princess. All of them are highly intelligent and accomplished women. All of them also have a sense of entitlement that interfered with their ability to listen to feedback, make the needed changes in their behavior, and pursue their career goals effectively.
Tips for Avoiding Derailment
  • Build relationships, not just careers.
    Building a successful career is more than accumulating a stellar record of professional accomplishment. Technical and professional accomplishments alone do not guarantee success in the long term. Advancing your career at the expense of building collaborative relationships will eventually catch up to you. The image of stepping on the shoulders of others to advance -- or of seeing the "little people" (or even the "big people") as vehicles for personal advancement is such a cliche that it is laughable -- or would be laughable if it weren't the unwitting undoing of many successful performers. Pay as much attention to relationships as tasks if you want to succeed.
  • Ask for feedback -- and use it.
    My mother used to irritate me when I asked her for feedback and didn't like the answer. And I was really furious when she pointed out that I only asked to hear what I wanted to hear. The moral: don't just ask for feedback, use it. You may not like what you hear but there is a far greater danger in not hearing feedback: blind spots, continued performance problems (often unwitting), and in the worse case scenario, derailment. Success requires adaptability and adaptability requires obtaining and paying attention to feedback.
    One of the most interesting findings from the research is the importance of specific, frequent, behavioral feedback on performance. Recent research actually found that the absence of feedback (a state that is familiar to many of you) can have as negative an impact on performance as highly critical feedback. The failure to receive feedback is most common for women for reasons that include the relative dearth of mentors to fears of gender discrimination to exclusion from informal communication networks. The last factor was mentioned by women executives in a 1996 study by Catalyst on why more women are not in top positions at Fortune 500 companies.
  • Learn from experience.
    Successful executives don't have fewer failure experiences than executives who derail. They lose jobs, blow assignments, miss deadlines, lose fights. What differentiates them is that they learn from the experience. The experience of failure does not guarantee learning. Those who learn from failure evaluate the situation carefully to understand what occurred and their own role in producing the negative outcome. Everyone makes mistakes, but successful people accept responsibility for their own contribution, learn the necessary lessons, and do not need to repeat their mistakes.
  • Learn from the market.
    Look beyond your current employer for information about trends, necessary skills, and other information that can be vital to your career survival. For example, rainmaking is a priority skill in law firms. Cost-cutting and productivity enhancing accomplishments have a wide currency in all kinds of organizations, not just law firms. Seeking opportunities to develop these broader skills can make you more valuable to your current employer as well as to the wider market.
    Keeping your nose to the grindstone is an understandable pressure and temptation, but if you don't look out for yourself, not just within your current organization, but within the legal profession and business more broadly, you may be in for a rude awakening. Trusting that hard work in your current job will ensure future success is naive and passive, rather than alert and active.
  • Don't wait for the prince.
    Do not unconsciously undermine your career by waiting for the person or assignment to make your success. Don't wait for the mentor, the perfect developmental assignment, or the sensational case to make your career. You and only you make your career. Passivity is the fast track to derailment.
Don't be shy: take career risks, gain profit and loss responsibility, volunteer for high-visibility assignments in the firm, the profession, the community. One of the frequently cited characteristics of successful women is their willingness to take risks and to seek challenges. But for many women, this aggressiveness is distasteful or at least not second nature. What can we do?
I remember the counsel of a friend when I was bemoaning a lost love. He described life as a banquet where for many people, life was all you could grab. Bruce pointed out that while I might not be inclined to grab, I could ask for what I wanted. My tendency was not even to ask, for fear of being pushy and for fear that if I asked, I would be refused. Like many "good girls", high achievers well schooled in the arts of courtesy and consideration, I was afraid to pursue what I wanted. The result was that I lost the man.
I observe this same reticence in many women executives and lawyers, whether it's a failure to go for the close or to assert their qualifications for the big assignment. The career stakes are high. Whether grounded in the princess mentality, a reluctance to be too forward, a lack of self-confidence, or some other basis, we can do a better job of pursuing our goals and avoiding the pitfalls of derailment. We can and we must.
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