During my first year teaching, I was asked to develop a course called “Women Leaders in American History” for Converse College’s leadership program. I decided to pair biographies and autobiographies of important women leaders with a book that examined the leadership strategies and skills of contemporary women leaders. That book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leading by Sally Helgesen, generated lots of excellent discussion among the students.
Helgesen argued that women often used leadership strategies that were particularly effective including skill in building relationships and nurturing them over the long haul, strong communication skills, and a preference for leading from the center rather than taking a top-down approach. Helgesen did not argue that these strategies were unique to women—men sometimes employed them as well—but she noted that because of the ways women are socialized, they are more likely to develop these particular leadership skills.
As my students and I analyzed women leaders from the nation’s past, we noticed again and again that many of the women used the strategies that Helgesen had explored in her book.
Because that book resonated with my students and me, I was intrigued when I saw reviews of Helgesen’s new book, co-written with the noted executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job explores specific behaviors that hold women back as they seek to advance in their careers. Drawing from the real-life experiences of their individual and corporate coaching clients, Helgesen and Goldsmith noted that often the behaviors that help people advance to a certain level in a career also became the behaviors that caused them to get stuck at that level. For example, the perfectionist tendencies that cause women to do meticulous work that gets them recognized early in their careers may cause them to become paralyzed when they need to make decisions in leadership roles.
Goldsmith had earlier explored similar themes in a book called What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, but he and Helgesen realized that many of the examples in that book were specific to men and that the behaviors that hold women back are often different from those impeding men. For example, they say that men might be held back by “claiming credit they don’t deserve [while] women are often reluctant to claim their own achievements. Instead of always needing to be right, women are more likely to be hobbled by the desire to please or the need to be perfect. Instead of refusing to express regret, women often can’t stop apologizing, even for things that are not their fault.”
Helgesen recounted a funny episode in her collaborations with Goldsmith that illustrated this tendency perfectly. She and Goldsmith were jointly leading a seminar for a group of women professionals. As is her practice, Helgesen prepared exhaustively, planning every detail of her portion of the presentation. Not only did Goldsmith seem to wing it a bit more, but he arrived without pants. That is, he got off the plane wearing shorts and realized he had forgotten to pack some khakis for the seminar, so he had to ask the host to stop by a store for a quick pants purchase before the seminar. Helgesen realized that she would have been mortified to seem so unprepared, but Goldsmith seemed to take it in stride. He also gave a great presentation that the audience loved while she felt her delivery was a bit wooden and less effective than it could have been. From the experience, Helgesen realized that her perfectionist tendencies were not only causing her to enjoy her work less, but they also impeded her ability to connect with her audience.
In How Women Rise, Helgesen and Goldsmith identify twelve behaviors that often prevent female professionals from achieving their goals including expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions, overvaluing expertise, and ruminating over setbacks, feedback, and interactions. They offer concrete strategies for adapting behavior in ways that better serves women and those they are leading.
How Women Rise echoes and elaborates on many of the themes in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, a book I reviewed a few months ago. It’s a useful source of great strategies for working women who want to advance and feel stuck.