THE INC. LIFE

How Can Women Rise Up? By Breaking 12 Habits That Hold Them Back

The habits aren’t bad in themselves, but become counterproductive as women rise up.

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BY Kimberly Weisul - 13 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote What Got You Here Won't Get You There, he identified a key trait that often prevents leaders from moving into top positions at companies--namely, a reluctance to share credit.

But after teaching leadership workshops for women, and after talking to longtime friend and executive coach Sally Helgesen, Goldsmith had an "aha" moment. Reluctance to share credit, it turns out, is not a problem for women. In fact, imploring leaders to spread praise around (which Goldsmith does in his book) is lousy advice for many women. Most women leaders need to be convinced to take credit for their accomplishments.

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Hence, a new book was born. This one, How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back From Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, co-written with Helgesen, is geared toward women who want to move up in their organizations. The premise--that the skills that have helped women move up so far are not the ones needed to advance to the next level--is similar to that of What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

But the specific habits cited in this new book are going to resonate with women much more than men. So, yes, there's refusing to take credit for your accomplishments. But there's also overvaluing expertise, putting your job before your career (essentially, an overabundance of loyalty), and minimizing the physical and verbal "space" one takes up.

The most common habit of the 12, says Helgesen, is perfectionism. She calls it a foundational behavior that gives rise to some of the other habits, such as people-pleasing. Why? There are psychometric studies, says Helgesen, that show that women in organizations tend to be more rewarded for being precise and correct, while men are more rewarded for taking risks.

At first that doesn't sound so bad. Precise and correct sounds a whole lot better than imprecise and wrong, after all. But it becomes dangerous. "It makes sense that women would internalize the message that I have to be perfect to get anywhere," says Helgesen. If you expect yourself to be perfect, you're more likely to expect perfection of others, she says. That makes it hard to delegate, and discourages others from wanting to work on your team.

At the very top levels of an organization, it's vision and the ability to take risk to fulfill that are most valued. "When women get turned down for the top slot, it's often because they're not seen as sufficiently bold," says Helgesen.

In the book, Helgesen and Goldsmith seem to anticipate the obvious objection: That it can't possibly be good for society, or for women, if women adopt the so-called leadership habits that so many find objectionable. In describing the habit of "minimizing," for example, the authors write about how when someone enters a meeting late, the women who are already in the meeting will push their chairs together and gather up their personal belongings to accommodate the newcomer. The men won't budge. Wouldn't it be better to get the guys to squish over a little rather than telling the women to stay put?

Helgesen admits that the 12 habits are not bad on their own. Yet they become counterproductive as women rise higher in a world in which the rules of engagement have been set by men. "Every single one of those 12 habits is rooted in a strength," says Helgesen. "Sensitivity, concern for other people's feelings and aspirations, a becoming modesty. We are certainly not saying to get rid of that side of yourself. We are saying that those good tendencies can have a shadow side that can be more apparent as you rise in an organization." Having a desire to be liked by everybody, for example, can be a great asset earlier in one's career. Later on, though, it makes it hard to give constructive criticism and to hold people accountable.

That fits with the rest of Helgesen's very pragmatic approach. She and Goldsmith fully realize, she says, that there are structural hurdles and biases that hold women back. "By focusing on habits and behaviors we're not trying to blame women," she says. "We're saying, 'let's focus on what you can control immediately to increase the likelihood you're going to have a satisfying career that has real impact.'" She believes that's the only way the culture will shift to a more equitable one, and is eager to help it happen.

Despite the new focus on harassment brought about by #metoo, Helgesen believes there has been real progress. In the 1980s, she says, she worked for a regulated utility that had a line item in the budget for strip clubs. The clubs were considered an unexceptional venue in which to entertain clients. "I understand that progress seems to be slow," she says, "but if you have that perspective, things have changed fantastically."

She also doesn't think #metoo is really discouraging men from mentoring women. Her take: "I think people are tough enough, especially male leaders. Are you kidding me?"

She does think men might be a little bit more self-conscious now. She recently saw a colleague she hadn't seen in ten years, and greeted him with, "Tom, you look great." (It was Tom Peters, although Helgesen is reluctant to drop a name.) His reply, "I'm so glad you said that, because now I can say it to you."