Women often find it challenging to stand out in the workplace in a way that leads to advancement. Here are nine tips to draw attention to your work in a strategic way.
By Ellen Lee
Early in her career, Jasmine N. Davis made her way around the networking circuit. She was putting herself out there, meeting new people, and following the prevailing wisdom for getting ahead. But she soon realized that she had nothing to show for it, except for a large box of business cards. Taking time to reassess, she realized that she needed to network with more purpose, such as seeing if someone influential would also be at an event she planned to attend, and being ready with something thoughtful to say.
“I’ve learned that everyone at a networking event is there for a reason,” says Davis, who worked her way up from bank teller to vice president and associate manager for Wells Fargo Advisors. “So I stopped going to events unless I had a reason. For me, it wasn’t about collecting business cards anymore. It was about meeting people who have impact and can have an impact on my life.”
She had been making a rookie mistake—and a common one. Climbing the corporate ladder takes more than simply working hard and letting your work speak for itself. As Davis and other successful women can attest, there are additional ways to raise your profile in the office.
The reality is that strategies that work for men don’t always work as well for women. A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit that researches women in business, found that women can make many of the “right” moves, such as seeking high-profile assignments, but still not fare as well as their male counterparts. Worse, women can be punished for using the same tactics as men: Another report on women in the workplace by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org found that women who take actions such as lobbying for a promotion are more likely to be called “intimidating,” “too aggressive,” or “bossy.” Men, meanwhile, are more likely to say that they are rewarded with the raises and promotions they want without having to ask. The result: Though women have higher college graduation rates than men, their representation in the workplace narrows significantly as they reach the top. Only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, the report said, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color.
For women of color, visibility is also more complicated than simply standing up to be recognized. Women of color tend to be “visibly invisible,” according to a report by Patricia Sosa VerDuin and Shannon M. Cohen, W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellows. For instance, they may be invited to the table, but it is more for show, with their contributions and ideas disregarded. Or they are overlooked, despite raising their hand.
The good news? Women have developed ways to stand out in the workplace. In the same Catalyst study, researchers found that the tactic with the greatest impact was letting others know about your achievements. Women who did so advanced further in their careers, were more satisfied with their careers, and had higher salary growth.
Women also advanced further in their careers if they proactively networked with influential people, as Davis learned to do.
In other words, women who want to move up the ladder need to cultivate their presence at work. Says Amita Mehta, vice president of administration at Prudential Financial, “We have to own the narrative if we want to succeed.”
1 Seek out sponsorship.
Sponsorship is key to women advancing in the workplace, according to research by Catalyst. While mentors help by offering guidance and advice, sponsors go a step further: they’re the ones who can promote you and your work to senior executives, suggest that you be placed on high-profile projects, and invite you to key meetings. And since studies have found that it’s frowned upon for women to promote themselves aggressively (unlike men), sponsorship is a way to circumvent the social norm.
The trouble is that nearly half of women of color report that they do not have mentors and sponsors who can help them stand out. Developing that relationship can be akin to dating, says Davis. What worked for her? Over time, she reached out to senior leaders to have a quick lunch or a cup of coffee. She’d look for things they had in common, and if they clicked, she would ask to meet again. Not all of them became her mentors or sponsors, but the meetings weren’t wasted: they still helped her build relationships with leadership.
2 Brag about your colleagues.
Champion your coworkers and encourage them to brag about you. Women have difficulty bragging about themselves, but have no trouble bragging about their friends, research from Montana State University found. The solution? Make a pact with trusted colleagues to speak positively about one another whenever you’re in front of a senior executive. “Whenever we’re in front of leadership, we talk about how amazing the other person is,” Angela Ty, managing director in the alternative investments practice at KPMG, says about the deal she struck with a friend at work. “I think that it actually resonates better because it shows that you’re not into yourself. You’re helping each other grow.”
3It’s not just about you.
Similarly, raising your profile doesn’t mean speaking poorly about your colleagues. Instead, performing well with your team reflects well on you. Mehta learned this lesson as a basketball player in high school and college. “That’s why being a team player is so essential,” she says. “When you elevate others in your game, that elevates you.”
4 Build your community.
In a large corporation, it’s easy to feel small. Early in her career, Ty joined the Association of Latino Professionals for America, an organization with chapters throughout the country. Once she was hired at KPMG, she also joined the company’s Hispanic Latino Network. Getting involved with both groups helped her meet new people and feel comfortable stretching her wings. “It’s important to find that smaller community because it makes it feel like home,” she says.
5 Be in the room.
Or on the golf course. Early on, Mehta saw that her male colleagues were hitting the links with clients. So she picked up a club on the weekends and taught herself to play golf. While it helped that Mehta was athletic and had grown up with three brothers, learning to tee up was not so much about the game as it was about networking. She didn’t want to take a backseat. “I noticed that this is how business is done,” Mehta says. “That’s how you develop relationships and get that sale or business—out on the course. I didn’t want to be at the home office manning the phone.”
6 Speak up.
Be prepared with your 15-second elevator pitch, so that when you happen to run into a senior executive, you have something to say. The same applies when you attend a meeting or a networking event. You don’t need to be the keynote speaker to be noticed—you simply have to raise your hand to comment or ask a question. And if you’ve made a point to be in the room for an important meeting, make it count. “I always was thoughtful about what I’d say,” says Katya Nieburg-Wheeler, senior vice president of creative marketing solutions at Barclays. “Every time I spoke, I made a statement.”
Don’t wait to speak up, adds Mehta. Discussing your accomplishments at your performance review is not enough. It should be part of your regular dialogue. “You have to self-advocate because people aren’t going to do that for you,” she says. “You have to articulate what interests you. It’s less ‘I want this job,’ and more about planting seeds about being open to opportunity.”
7 Volunteer for those projects.
Then hit it out of the ballpark. Volunteering to organize a corporate or internal event gives you a legitimate reason to connect with senior executives. Davis stepped up through the company’s employee resource networks. Among her volunteer responsibilities, she recruited executives to speak on a panel, which helped her build relationships with them. Volunteering also gave her the opportunity to add new skills to her résumé: she showed that she could manage a team of people, which helped her land a coveted spot in Wells Fargo Advisors’ leadership training program.
8 Say “yes” to being in front of the room.
Though she has worried that she would not have anything of value to say, Ty has pushed herself to say “yes” whenever she’s asked to speak. “The audience is very forgiving,” she says. “You think they’ll be criticizing you and listening to every word, but people are not as judgmental about you as you are about yourself.”
In one instance, she was asked to run a training session on executive presence—to an audience of senior partners. “I was tempted to say ‘no’ because in my head I had disqualified myself,” she says. But she said “yes,” and it led to an even bigger opportunity, to lead a fireside chat with the keynote speaker at a conference.
9 Own it.
So you may be called bossy. Or intimidating. Or aggressive. Nieburg-Wheeler certainly has. But she also connects with her colleagues because they see that she’s authentic.
Trained as a tennis player in her native Russia, she was once challenged by a senior executive to a tennis match. Her father encouraged her to lose the game, fearing that winning it could jeopardize her relationship with the executive. But Nieburg-Wheeler decided she couldn’t. “I made a conscious decision to play the best game I could,” she says. “I was not going to lose on purpose.” Nieburg-Wheeler ultimately lost the game, but kept her self-respect. “I stayed true to myself.” DW
Ellen Lee is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in local and national publications such as Working Mother, CNBC.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle.