By Karen Eisenberg
Beverly Norman-Cooper was content in her job as a regional communications consultant for Kaiser Permanente when she got a phone call from the CFO’s office: would she be willing to move to the national division to manage communications for an important new initiative?
“There was a lot of risk involved for me,” she recalls. “I was happy where I was, and I had a lot of freedom and flexibility.”
The new job would be both complex and political. “It required a tremendous amount of change and communicating the importance of that change to an organization of more than 170,000 people,” she says.
Norman-Cooper decided to take the plunge, and that decision proved to be a game changer for her. Ten years and several positions later, she is now executive director of supplier diversity for Kaiser Permanente, a position she describes as the culmination of her education and career.
Norman-Cooper’s trajectory illustrates the kind of calculated risk taking that is essential for a woman seeking to advance her career in an executive landscape still dominated by men. While women make up 45 percent of the workforce in S&P 500 companies, they hold just 25 percent of executive- and senior-level positions, according to a 2015 analysis by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating women’s progress through workplace inclusion. Only 4 percent of S&P 500 companies are run by female CEOs.
Women also trail men in compensation. Compared with their white male counterparts, full-time female workers earned just 79 cents on the dollar in 2014, according to the American Association of University Women. The gap was even greater for women of color, with African American women making 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men earned, and Hispanic and Latina women making just 54 percent.
Dismayed by the numbers? Don’t be. Whether you opt to stay at your current company or make the leap to a new employer, there are steps you can take to jump-start your career and boost your pay. We asked three experts for their best advice.
1. Rock your job. Success in the workplace starts with being a great performer. “If you deliver on what you say you can do—and you help your team, manager, and organization succeed—people will take notice,” says Jan Combopiano, senior vice president for research and chief knowledge officer at Catalyst.
But showing up every day and doing a good job isn’t enough. “Your talent needs to grow as quickly and as constantly as your industry,” says career and life coach Ann Daly of Women Advance, a former women’s studies professor whose website offers tips and webinars.
Position yourself as an expert in your field or content area by reading books and journals, attending workshops and conferences, and cultivating new skills. Figure out the challenges that your organization faces and devise solutions.
“If you’re the payroll director for a large tech company, how can you make the process cheaper, quicker, or more accurate?” asks Daly. “By solving problems and recognizing opportunities, you add value.”
2. Toot your horn. Some people think that if they keep their head down and do a great job, people will take notice. “We keep waiting for our fairy godmother to tap us on the shoulder and whisk us away to a fabulous opportunity,” says Combopiano. But if you wait for the phone to ring, it may never happen.
Disussing your accomplishments is the first step. “Managers often perceive that the people who report to them contribute less than those people believe they contribute,” says Kristine Perez-Foley, an executive coach and leadership consultant with the Korn Ferry and Hay Group. “That’s why it’s important to get comfortable talking about what you’re working on and communicating your success.”
Putting yourself in the right place at the right time is another must. “Volunteer for an important job or committee,” says Combopiano. “When your boss’s boss says he’s holding open office hours, show up and tell him about a project you’re working on or a problem you solved.”
3. Build your network. “Finding the right job is all about who you know,” says Daly. “So the single most important piece of advice I give to women is to start building their social capital from the very beginning and never stop.”
Your primary source of contacts is the people you know. This includes colleagues from current and previous jobs, high school and college classmates, neighbors, family, and friends. “You have to feel comfortable that you have stayed in touch with these people so that they wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you for a job or set you up on an informational meeting,” says Daly.
Online networking sites like LinkedIn are another great tool. To make the most of them, keep your profile up-to-date, build your contact list, join groups related to your industry or job function, and check in frequently to maintain your visibility and see what your contacts are posting.
Professional organizations are a gold mine of networking opportunities. “Go to the monthly luncheons and meet the players,” urges Daly. “Attend online activities like workshops and seminars. Raise your profile by becoming an officer or committee chair.”
An added benefit of membership in professional organizations is the annual salary surveys many conduct. This information is essential when you’re negotiating for a new position or asking for a raise.
4. Cultivate sponsors. Women seeking to move up the career ladder were once advised to find mentors. But new findings suggest that mentoring may not be as beneficial to women as it is to men. An ongoing project by Catalyst found that men’s mentors are more highly placed than women’s—and more influential in helping them secure key jobs and promotions. Instead, career development experts encourage women to seek out sponsors.
“These are people with clout who passionately support you and are willing to put their name on the line for you,” says Perez-Foley. “When they say, ‘This person needs to be promoted,’ other people in the organization listen. People with sponsors have a higher level of job satisfaction, and their careers accelerate at a much more rapid pace.”
How do you cultivate sponsors? “Find out who the power players are in your organization or industry—the people who are making things happen at higher levels,” Perez-Foley suggests. “Then figure out how to strategically network with them in a way that helps them see your value.”
5. Be strategic. Not all leadership opportunities are created equal. “The key to growth, whether in salary or in career progression, is getting on those highly visible assignments that are important to an organization,” says Perez-Foley. “You could be doing great work, but if the right people don’t see it, and it’s not currently important to the business or marketplace, you won’t get the same traction.”
Learn as much as you can about your company and industry. Read annual reports and industry publications, visit corporate websites, and stay current on marketplace trends. If, for example, you learn that your company is eager to expand into emerging markets, highlight your fluency in another language or time spent living in a developing country.
In Norman-Cooper’s case, her new role involved creating a communications strategy to help Kaiser Permanente’s stakeholders understand why the organization had decided to voluntarily embrace Sarbanes-Oxley, a law designed to improve the accuracy of corporate disclosures. “The president and CFO viewed this work as critical,” she says.
Create your own opportunity. “It’s called job crafting,” says Combopiano. “You might say, ‘Now that we’re engaged in this new business, I think we need someone in this role to help drive that forward. I would be the perfect candidate.’”
6. Negotiate for what you are worth. Women are much less likely than men to negotiate their compensation. One study of graduating MBA students found that half of the men had negotiated their salaries, while only one-eighth of the women had.
“You’ll never have a better opportunity to ask for what you want than when you’re beginning a new job,” says Perez-Foley. “Even if they counter your offer, you’ll end up with more than you started out with.”
Use resources such as salary surveys done by professional organizations and job sites like Indeed to learn the average pay for your position, industry, and region. Leverage LinkedIn to find contacts who work at the organization you’re targeting and may be willing to share information. Armed with this data, you can walk in the door with a clear idea of the salary you deserve.
7. Keep asking. An annual performance review is another great opportunity to revisit your salary. “Your boss is primed because he or she has been going through the budget, and knows what he or she can give this year,” says Daly.
She encourages women to avoid mentioning their feelings and what they “deserve” and instead to use objective data to make their case. “Point to measurable contributions wherever you can,” she advises. “You might say, ‘I drove a new process that enabled our plant to reduce errors by 7 percent.’ Data is hard to quibble with.”
8. Step outside your comfort zone. If you want to advance, be prepared to take risks. Try new things, and accept that you may fail now and then. “You have to be able to take some knocks, dust yourself off, and get up again,” says Combopiano. “Being persistent pays off.” DW
Karen Eisenburg is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.