Podcast: Sally Helgesen — How Women Rise in Business (Part 1)

For anyone in the workplace, the question of how to move to the next level is complex and often personal. As leaders and managers seek higher responsibility and authority and impact, we often find that the very skills that got us to where we are now aren’t especially useful in moving forward.

For women in the workplace, this challenge often can be even more complicated. Few people have thought, written, or spoken more on the subject than Sally Helgesen, world renown women’s leadership expert and co-author with best-selling writer Marshall Goldsmith of a really important new book, How Women Rise, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job. Sally notes that women’s distinctive strengths and behaviors provide them with many advantages. Yet the very habits that help them early in their careers can hold them back as they seek to rise. How could women identify and address the habits most likely to get in their way as they seek to move to a higher level?

Sally Helgesen, How Women Rise

Some background on Helgesen: She’s an author, speaker, and consultant with a clear mission to help women recognize, articulate, and act on their greater strengths. She’s written a number of books, including the best-selling, The Female Advantage, Women’s Ways of Leadership, held as the classic work on women’s leadership styles, and continuously in print since 1990. Sally delivers workshops and keynotes in corporations, partnership firms, universities, and associations globally. She’s consulted with the United Nations, and led seminars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Smith College. So how do women rise? That’s what we discussed.


Chris Riback: Sally, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Sally Helgesen: My pleasure Chris. Good to be here.

Chris Riback: The book title is, “How Women Rise, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.” Let’s get right into it, because I confess I was struck by one component of the title, and then in reading some of the other things that you’ve written, I see it there too, so I really want to hear your point of view on this. The 12 habits holding you back, and you even call them self-sabotaging behaviors.

My initial reaction to it was, could someone feel like that’s blaming, I don’t want to say the victim, but that’s blaming the person. It’s your fault for why you haven’t risen. Or is that maybe part of the point? It’s meant that taking one’s own life and career into one’s own hands. You can’t always control others but you darn well can control your own actions. So tell me about that particular component.

Sally Helgesen: That’s exactly it. In this book Marshall Goldsmith, my co-author and I sought to focus on what women had within their control. We recognize and understand that there are structural and cultural impediments in organizations and in business that get in women’s ways. We recognize that and appreciate that.

There is, if there’s not a glass ceiling, there may be a glass wainscoting that still exists for women. However, what we wanted to do was focus on ways in which women could maybe not so much self-sabotage, but could undermine their own ability to get to the top through relying on behaviors that might have been helpful to them earlier in their careers, but that can begin to undermine them as they move higher.

That’s really what we were trying to look at. The template here was Marshall’s wonderful book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, in which he looked at behaviors that can get in the way of successful people. Most of his coachees, Marshall as you may know is ranker number one executive coach in the world. Most of his coachees, probably 75%, have been men.

I went to him at one point and I said, “This template is wonderful, and I love this book, but for women,” because I’ve been doing women’s leadership workshops around the world for the last 30 years, “but for women some of these behaviors don’t apply, and there are significant behaviors that I’ve seen undermine success for women on their way up that aren’t represented here. So why don’t we collaborate?” And look at that.

So for men and women both, behaviors that served you well earlier in your career can get in your way, but in this book we wanted to focus on those that can get in women’s ways in order for them to be able to have some tools and some ideas about how to create more satisfying, rewarding, and sustainable careers that give real scope to their talents.

Chris Riback: Based off what you just said, you have done this for a while. What’s your take on the moment that we’re in now? Whether it’s the MeToo movement, or just the general awareness. On some levels, I feel like you guys might have top ticked it here in terms of timing. A book on how women rise during the MeToo movement, in this moment in our culture where there’s at least some awareness. I guess there’s some action too. I don’t want to … There’s some action as well around gender inequality, opportunity, and that sort of thing. How would you characterize the moment we’re in right now?

Sally Helgesen: I think it’s a moment of heightened awareness, and I think it’s a moment where we sense a shift under out feet, both in terms of MeToo and looking at the prevalence of sexual harassment that does remain in the workplace, but particularly in terms of the pay equity issue. I think that there’s a lot of pressure around both of these right now, and the pressure is the result of women who have, feel that they’ve been and have been working very hard, and making a tremendous number of contributions to their organizations, and don’t feel often that they’re fully recognized, certainly know that they’re not being fully compensated, and have become impatient with that.

I have been watching this … An earlier book that I wrote, The Female Advantage, Women’s Ways of Leadership, which was published in 1990, and was the first book that looked at what women had to contribute to organizations, rather than how they needed to change and adapt. Ever since that book came out in 1990, I’ve been making my way as a women’s leadership expert. I’ve doing workshops for women all over the world, basically since 1990, to help them in different ways recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths.

This book, How Women Rise, is very much in that tradition. I have had a front row sit as a witness to watch the environment change. I will tell you that from the helicopter view I have had, it has been, yes, perhaps slower than an idealistic person would have hoped for, but it has been consistent. The world has changed significantly for women, organizations have.

There’s much greater acceptance and recognition of their strengths, and an understanding that those can be harnessed to make organizations successful. But that movement that I’ve watched for the last 30 years has been in some ways steady, but in other ways inconsistent. It moves forward, and jerks, and starts. I think this is one of those moments that there is a jerk and a start and increased awareness and recognition.

It’s very, very exciting to publish a book like, How Women Rise, in this environment, because one thing my many decades have taught me is that when it comes to publishing a book, or putting new ideas out there in the marketplace, timing, if not everything, is almost everything.

Chris Riback: It seems to me as well, in terms of connecting what you’ve written with the times that we’re in, because of the increased awareness, because of the expectation for, “There better be some action now.” I would assume that people, women in … are looking for actual tools. It’s like, “Okay. There’s this opportunity. There’s this awareness. There’s a moment where there’s some expectations for action. Now what? Now what I’m supposed to do? How do I take this?”

Sally Helgesen: That’s exactly right. I think that times of action, and I feel that we’re in a time when people are eager for action. Times of action are not characterized by a lot of angst and self-searching and feeling stuck. Times of action are saying, “Okay. What can I do? How can I move this forward?” I feel that, How Women Rise, is very, very positioned to do that. It does a great job I believe, and it’s based on decades of experience of articulating what the behaviors that get in women’s ways actually look like. It’s got lots of examples of that.

It’s got examples of how individual women who are stuck, or are sabotaging to some degree their own careers because of these behaviors, how they address them. And then it’s got a very strong template for action moving forward that is based upon the coaching practices that Marshall developed, and how we have both applied those when working with women. I think it’s a very actionable book, and that’s really the purpose of it. Again, the environment seems to suggest this is a time when this is what people want.

Chris Riback: It’s a PR and marketing person’s dream, and author’s dream. Let’s get into it. You identify 12 habits based on research. They all come to life of course through stories, and while some of the names of course have been changed, real stories of women in the workplace, and the habits that perhaps have gotten in their way. Let’s run through some of them, and also really, when we get done, I’d like to ask a little bit about this notion of habits as well, because changing a habit, you know surely better than I do, it’s a lot about changing behaviors and routines and approaches.

You’ve written about that, about approaching change from a purely psychological perspective, and how daunting that can be. We’ll just choose some of the habits that stuck out. The first one, reluctance to claim your achievements. That is so hard for many of us perhaps. Sorry for this, not so much for our president. He seems to be very happy to-

Sally Helgesen: He doesn’t have any trouble with that.

Chris Riback: No, he’s good on that. Should we all brag more?

Sally Helgesen: I don’t think we should all brag more. One of the messages in this book is every single one of these behaviors is also rooted in a strength. I don’t think bragging really serves anyone. But what I have witnessed consistently over the years and worked with women on, is giving, automatically giving credit away to others, to team members, to collaborators, to bosses, and really refusing to accept it.

We have a wonderful example in the book. It was a woman I worked with who was head of a nonprofit in Pittsburgh. She had partnered with the head of … A guy who was the head of a very successful, much bigger nonprofit in Pittsburgh, and putting on a big, big fundraising event. When the local newspaper interviewed her about it, she talked almost entirely about what he had done in order to make this a success. The next day they interviewed him, and he also talked almost entirely about what he had done to make the event a success.

When the piece came out in the paper, her board was very upset with her. “Here you spent the entire time giving credit away to him. You should have taken some of that.” I remember her saying to me, she said, “I thought I was being generous to him, and I would have expected him to also be talking about what I did.” But of course he was talking about what he did, because he was focused on pleasing his board.

This was a big learning curve for her. It was a big learning effort. The point wasn’t to brag. He didn’t brag. He just represented what his actual contribution had been. But for some reason, she felt that being a wonderful person entailed her talking just about, exclusively about what he had done. I’ve seen women play out that behavior often, to the point where it’s very difficult for them to say a simple thank you when someone compliments them for a job well done

In Part 2 tomorrow, Helgesen discusses “Ellen,” a Silicon Valley engineer who received very surprising feedback from her supervisor. Helgesen also explains what’s next — what one should do after identifying the habits holding you back from your next raise, promotion, or job.

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