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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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