Catfight! Reframing the Conversation Around Competition and Comparison Among Women.

Part 1 of 5.

I could spew data for days about competition among women. We could talk about all of the reasons why women see competition negatively, why when we compete with each other it’s seen as catty, how hostile competition is a mask for insecurity, and on and on and on. I could waste a bunch of time with the data but it would only reinforce what we already know.

Competition is seen negatively by most women and when we compete it’s seen as catty by everyone else around us. And these realities around competition and how women perceive it starts a at a very young age.

Instead, I’d rather spend my time talking about how we can change the conversation around competition and comparison. I’d rather talk about how we can instill healthy ideas of competition in girls and women. I’d rather solve problems instead of ruminating over them.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting, in-depth, the five things we can do to change the conversation around competition and comparison as part of my advocacy work for the Stand Beside Her Movement. One-by-one, we’ll unpack the problem and identify what we can do both individually and collectively to shift the conversation around competition.

Changing the Conversation Around Competition:

  • One: Live More Honestly
  • Two: Focus on Personal Goals
  • Three: Check Yourself
  • Four: Support Each Other
  • Five: Speak Up and Out

Let’s start this week with number One: Live More Honestly.

One: Live More Honestly

The rise of social media exposure at a younger and younger age has amplified the issue of comparison among women and girls. We display our “highlight reel” instead of our struggles, failures, and less-than-perfect selves. Do I post pictures of my kids at their cutest, me at my skinniest [looking], and the fabulous moments of my life more often than the photos of me looking frumpy, with a messy house and dirty kids? Yes. Should I? Maybe and maybe not. This isn’t about what you post on social media and it IS about what you post on social media – at the same time.

Changing the conversation around competition and comparison among women and girls requires us to live more honestly.

We have to live more honestly and we have to share our whole story more openly. I look at some professional women and think, “Man I wish I was at their level. I wish I had what they have.” What I don’t see, is what it took for them to get there – the struggles, the tears, the grit, the sacrifice. I only see the outcome.

It’s like a before and after photo of a weight loss journey. We look at these side-by-side photos and can visually recognize the results. We see the outcome of the hard work, but what we don’t see is what happened in-between those two photos for that individual to get there. As it turns out, what happens in the space between those two pictures is what is truly important to understand – not just the outcome. If we did know, it would likely make the success even more impressive.

The path to success (however we personally define it) is messy, complicated, and hard. We have to be more honest about that. We can’t just show the before and after “photos” – it gives people incomplete data. The space between where we started and our success is what is most important to openly share.

We can strive for what other women have. We can desire to be like other women, too, but what we can’t do is compare ourselves or our journeys to partial data. When we live more honestly it helps women and girls see that the “dream” is attainable, but it’s hard work. It doesn’t come easy or naturally – and anyone who says it does…well I call BS.

I’m certain that women look at my career and what I have achieved and want it. I have a cool job and I’ve had a ton of really cool experiences. They might be chasing a similar dream to me. What I haven’t always done a great job of was sharing the sacrifices, the struggles, the mistakes, the hard work, and the grit it has taken me to get here. I don’t talk openly about the important friendships that withered away while I was chasing a career. I don’t talk about the birthday parties, the funerals, the weddings, and the important life moments I “passed” on to say “yes” to work. I don’t talk about the loneliness I felt. I don’t talk about the failures and what I learned from them.

Yet, had I shared this part of my journey more openly, I hypothesize that it would be less about “beating me” and more about learning from my experiences. It would be less about getting to MY outcome and more about getting to their own. It would be less about beating me and more about all of us winning. It would be less about competing with each other and more about helping each other succeed.

Now What?

So what do we do with this? Here’s some ideas to get started now.

  • Be intentional about what you put online – I know you’ve likely heard that 1,000,000 times, however we have to consider the precedent we’re setting for other woman. Don’t be afraid to share the less-than-perfect parts of your stories more publicly. It allows others to avoid your mistakes or navigate difficulties with more ease.
  • Ask other woman about their challenges – We all have them and most women will share that stuff when asked one-on-one. Don’t be afraid to ask women to share the struggles and challenges they faced on their journey to success.
  • Travel your own path“One who walks in another’s path, leaves no footprints.” You have to travel your own path, one that is your own. Make decisions for you and the outcome you’re chasing.
  • Share it – At every opportunity, pass along the wisdom you’ve gained. Things are unnecessarily competitive when women don’t openly share the formula to success. Don’t hoard the lessons, share them.

In retrospect, throughout much of my early career, I was so focused on making sure it looked like I had it all figured out, that I was qualified, confident, and had everything “under control”. That hasn’t helped a single woman who’s come after me. Living more honestly and sharing our journey more openly allows us to begin to shift the competition and comparison that often rears its ugly head while we’re chasing our dreams. We have to share more openly, live more honestly, and give advice more freely to end the unhealthy competition. Doing so more than anything, helps the women who come behind us succeed – and succeed more authentically.

Learn more about the movement inspiring girls and women to shut down unhealthy comparison and competition called Stand Beside Her by visiting http://www.standbesideher.org/ . I’m proud to support and advocate for this movement.

until we break more glass…

Be the Driver of Your Annual Review: Four Things to Do Now.

Regardless of the process your boss or your organization uses to evaluate performance, you can and should be the driver of your annual performance evaluation. As a young professional, I was always a passive participant in my annual reviews. I would sit down and wait for the feedback. I would cross my fingers for a raise. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t set myself up for success in those conversations. As a result, it’s no surprise that I always left disappointed with overwhelming feelings that my supervisor “missed stuff”.

I didn’t drive the conversations in my annual review. I simply participated. As a result, I likely missed some opportunities to learn, grow, and advance. We have to be our own best advocates and we CANNOT be passive participants on our career journeys.

It’s time to put yourself in the driver seat of your annual performance evaluation. Below are the four things you can do to ensure success in your annual review.

One: Log Your Successes and Accomplishments

Your boss isn’t responsible for logging everything you have accomplished within the year. If you assume that they know all the work you’ve been doing to accomplish your goals, advance the business objectives, and ensure success – you’re dead wrong. Supervisors and managers generally only record the stuff you’ve done REALLY well (on occasion) and when you’ve screwed up. Their memory is spotty at best. If you’re relying on their memory for a raise, promotion, or more responsibility – stop.

We have to be our own best advocates and we have to be tracking daily the successes and accomplishments we’ve made throughout the year. Start a Success Journal (read the blog about success journals here).

If you’re headed into an annual review and haven’t been logging your accomplishments and successes all year, here’s what you need to build a list of:

  • What you have done in the last year to achieve the outcomes outlined in your job description.
  • What you have done in the last year to help your team, division, or department achieve its annual goals.
  • What you have personally done to advance to business objectives of the organization.
  • What you have done to help your boss achieve their goals.
  • What additional responsibilities you have taken on or job functions you have performed in the last year that are outside you job responsibilities (and that you have not been additionally compensated for).

This list should represent tangible things you have done, outlined with as much specificity as possible. No list is too long and no thing is too little. Once you start logging accomplishments and successes daily, this list will be easy to compile annually, but if you’re just getting started, focus on listing as much as you can think of from the year – then edit/combine the list accordingly.

Two: Know Your Areas of Improvement.

No human is perfect and no employee should ever leave a performance evaluation without places where they can improve. Don’t leave the list of “improvement areas” up to your supervisor or manager. Make the list for them. Don’t just own your mistakes, come with the solutions, too. Reflect on what you should have/would have done differently and what you learned from those mistakes. Showing up as a problem-solver makes your boss’s job a heck of a lot easier. They’ll appreciate that you came to the table not only with an awareness of where you can improve, but with solutions to do so.

Use that conversation to focus on areas you where would like to grow or places you know you need additional training or support in. When you focus on these things, it helps make your case for more professional development, access to more important meetings/people, and opportunities to learn and grow in the next year – not just punitive action for some mistakes you made in the past.

Three: Share the Data in Advance.

Send you successes/achievements and your areas of growth well in advance of the meeting. In most cases, managers and supervisors are given a set amount of dollars during the budget period for raises for the whole team. By the time they get to the performance evaluation meeting with you, they’ve already made decisions about who gets how much. If that’s the first time your supervisor is seeing information about accomplishments, don’t expect a merit-based raise or promotion. You’ll likely get less than you want – and definitely less than you deserve.

Sharing the data in advance also allows you to frame the conversation at your annual review. It sets the foundation with your supervisor where they already understand your contributions over the last year. As a result, you spend your time talking about what’s next for you, your role, your career, instead of what happened over the last year. The conversation becomes future-focused, instead of a “review of past work”.

If you’ve got a performance evaluation coming up soon, send the data ASAP. It’s never too late for you boss to make decisions about compensation, benefits, or perks that they can use to reward the good work you’ve done.

Four: Ask for What You Want.

Always, always, always ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is that they say “No.”

Do you want more money? How much more do you want? What are some other ways beyond salary that you could be compensated? Sometimes, employers are strapped with salary dollars, but they may have other creative ways that they can compensate you like bonus money, more vacation, etc.

Do you want more training or professional development? What training or development do you want? What’s the financial implications and cost of those opportunities? What will you gain from them? How will they help you better achieve the business outcomes?

Do you want more responsbility or a promotion? What job functions or responsibilities would you add? Why do you believe you’re prepared for those? What job functions/responsibilities would you remove as a result of these new tasks? What would your job description be?

Don’t just walk into your performance evaluation with a list of demands. Again, bosses love problem-solvers who make their jobs easier. If there are things that you want, ask for them, but come with the data, the options, and the information to make the case for those things as well.

What Happens if I Do All of This Work and Get Nothing?

It’s entirely possible that you could do all of this work and get no where with you manager/supervisor. If that happens, ask specifically for what you can do in the next year to position yourself for a better review, more money, or more responsibility. Ask them what their priorities are and how you can help achieve them. If they are able to clearly outline what you need to do, get it in writing or send a follow-up email to that fact – and then spend the next year working to achieve those things. Ask for quarterly or monthly check-ins to make sure your on track. Remember, success isn’t measured by you – success is measured by your manager and company leadership. Use their measuring stick to determine the work you should be doing.

You might not get immediate answers to your requests, especially if its the first time your boss is hearing it. Don’t get frustrated when the answer is “I don’t know,” or “I need to think about that/check on that.” Give a little grace and ask for a deadline to get decisions on your requests.

Either way, you have to be the driver of your annual performance evaluation. Don’t be a passive participant – take ownership over the experience and make it work for you.

Until we break more glass…

Attitude: The Unfair Expectation Women Face at Work.

I hated performance evaluations. I always greeted them with an overwhelming sense of dread – and I never really thought too much about why, until recently when I was writing a blog about preparing for an annual performance evaluation (coming next week).

When I was early in my career, I always felt like I had something to prove. As a result, I was constantly [over]analyzing everything I did and trying to figure out how I could be better at my job. So when I walked into my first “annual review” I felt pretty confident that I knew what feedback I would get. I probably knew better than my boss what I needed to work on, what I was putting off, and the places I could improve. I wasn’t worried about the conversation.

There I sat, across from my boss, ready to hear the things I already knew, get a pat on the back, and be back to work. Section after section I was met with “meeting expectations” and “exceeding expectations” with very little insight on places I could improve or specific examples of what I could do better – nothing unexpected. When we got to the final section of my review, “Attitude,” I was given, “Needs Improvement”. I was immediately confused.

What followed was a stream of statements like:

“You’re too blunt.” “You need to be better about filtering what you say.” “You need to be nicer in your communication.” “You’re aggressive.” “You speak your mind too much.” “You need to smile more when sharing an opinion.”

I sat there flabbergasted. I had never been called aggressive in my life and as a girl that was moderately bullied in my youth, being told to be “nicer” was a punch in the gut. I didn’t understand. Was I a direct communicator? Yes. Did I have opinions and state them? Yes. Was I assertive, passionate and driven? Yes. But I’d never been told that any of it was a bad thing. It felt deeply personal. Never in my life had someone given me negative feedback that felt so directly tied to who I was as a person and NEVER had I gotten feedback that my communication was a problem.

(With one tiny exception being the t-shirt I proudly wore as a 6 year-old that stated “I love my attitude problem”. Hey, it was the 80’s.)

For years to come, I consistently got feedback about my communication. I consistently was called “scary,” “aggressive,” and “blunt”. I consistently, on almost every evaluation, was told I was doing an exceptional job – except for – you guessed it – my communication.

All those years and all that feedback shook my confidence to the core. I found myself constantly second guessing if I was “too much” in a meeting, holding back from sharing my opinion because I had already talked too much, and generally sugar-coating feedback and comments that should have been delivered more directly. It was like an out of body experience. It felt inauthentic. I hated it.

It didn’t last.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to stop caring about the feedback and to be true to myself – regardless of the way my actions were perceived. Somewhere I along the way I realized that it wasn’t me. It was them.

The truth is, women are more critically judged for displaying assertive and confident communication. An article in Harvard Business Review states, “While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles.” In fact, their research showed that 76% of references to being “too aggressive” were found in women’s reviews.

The reality is that the expectation for women in the workplace is to be smiley, happy, empathetic, compassionate, warm, inviting, and motherly. When we, as women, don’t fit into the expectation that people (both men and women) have for us, the behaviors are seen as problematic, unacceptable, and often get in the way of our advancement.

So what do we do about it?

First, we have to evaluate every piece of feedback we receive. We have to ask for examples of the problematic behavior and request insight on alternatives. We then have to vet each of those instances against our gut. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this feedback objectively true or is this feedback subjective?”

Second, we then have to do our due diligence and find what is useful in that feedback by asking ourselves: What within this feedback is helpful? How can I use this feedback to get better (even if it is subjective)?”

Third, we have to pay attention to individual triggers that people have about our communication. Perhaps it’s a certain word or phrase you use that turns them off. Maybe it’s a certain topic. Pay attention and use that information as data to adapt, retool, and find different ways to get your point across to people – in a way they can hear it. Communication is 100% the way the message is received and 0% the way the message was intended to be received. We can’t change intrinsic or unconscious bias overnight, but we can adapt our style so our messages are heard and accepted more often in spite of that bias.

The point in all of this to not let our communication be the thing that holds us back from advancement. This Forbes article highlights women who’ve been successful in the aftermath of “bad communication” feedback. Each of the women took a different course, but all of them refused to allow the feedback to stand in their way – or shake their confidence.

Was some of the feedback about my communication warranted? Probably. I was young and hadn’t quite learned the art of finessing one’s communication to each individual. In the end, I used that feedback to find a way to be myself; direct, passionate, assertive, driven, but in a way that gives my communication power instead of weakening it. I’ve found a way to authentically deliver messages that can be received in the way I intend them. I’m still a straight shooter and I still regularly get feedback about my communication style. Am I okay with it? You bet.

Until we break more glass…

The Most Important Book You’ll Ever Own.

It’s of average size and comes in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. It has no publisher, no title, and no reviews on Amazon.

The author is you.

The book? A Success Journal.

The concept is simple: Have a dedicated place where you regularly record your accomplishments. Big ones and small ones. Personal ones and professional ones.

No one else is sitting around recording everything you’ve achieved. Your boss, advisor, or mentor isn’t going to regularly track all the things you’ve done. You are responsible for tracking your accomplishments. If you don’t have a Success Journal, run your fingers to your favorite online retailer and buy one… now.

Why? Data.

So you can better advocate for yourself. For that promotion. For that job. For that raise. For that title. For that grad program. For that leadership position. For that award. For you.

It’s easy to forget everything you’ve done over the course of a year – over the course of a job or position. We often sit down in performance evaluations, job interviews, or in conversations with our supervisors and mentors without the data that demonstrates our achievements, our skills, and our potential. We scramble to update our resumes and are flummoxed trying to figure out “what we did” while we were in a specific role. We leave annual reviews frustrated and disappointed because we didn’t get the raise we were hoping for. And if any of these statements feel familiar to you, it’s time for a Success Journal.

I am currently coaching a young professional. It’s her first time ever supervising staff and in addition to leading a team she was tasked with creating and implementing an enormous project in a very short window of time. This project required her to engage lots of different stakeholders, work in partnership with some really important people, and would make a significant impact on her organization. It was a no fail situation. At the start of her engagement I had her start a success journal. Ninety days into our engagement, we checked in on successes.

She had a little list that looked a little like this:

  1. Finished and launched big project.
  2. Trained staff.
  3. Happy staff and clients.

Everything on that list is true, but nothing on that list accurately encapsulates the true work and success she has had in the last 90 days. Each of those achievements are more likely ten smaller achievements that better represent all of the work she has done and truly highlight her skills as a young professional. Take that list into a performance evaluation and your supervisor will be less than impressed. Turn that list in to 30 specific achievements that highlight what when into achieving those goals – and you’re destined for a raise, a bonus, or a promotion.

I’m not going to lie, a success journal takes work. You can’t look at a Success Journal like homework you have to do. You have to look at the Success Journal as an investment in you.

Ready to get started? Here’s a few tips to make it a success:

  • Write something down every day. I don’t care if your only success today is, “got so-and-so to call me back”. Write it down. It’s much easier to edit away the stuff that isn’t that big of a deal, than it is to remember what you did in April. You’re also more likely to capture the little wins along your way to the big goal.
  • Ask yourself, “What went into achieving this?” Try to subdivide and parse out everything that went into achieving those successes. The more you try to separate your achievements into smaller ones, the clearer the picture becomes on what your true talents, skills, and achievements are. It gives you concrete examples to use when applying for jobs, awards, promotions, or leadership positions.
  • Include personal successes, too. Don’t just write down things you achieved in your job or “leadership position”, but record things that are a part of your personal and/or volunteer life, as well. While you might not be able to use them for a promotion, they come in handy for resumes and applications.
  • Review every 90 days. Take a look back at your successes every 90 days. Highlight the big stuff. It’s important to look at how far you’ve come and use those things to inspire new action, set new goals, or give yourself a kick in the pants.

Look for a blog coming soon about how to use these successes to advocate for that raise, promotion, or job. Until then, start recording those successes!

Until we break more glass…

We Have a Pipeline Problem

The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2019 study was recently released and while it shows that over the last five years women have made significant gains in representation in senior leadership, as well as companies’ commitment overall to gender diversity – there is still a glaring and widening gap.

While the majority of college graduates are female (around 60%), women still remain underrepresented at every level in business. That lack of representation only grows as women move up the ladder. Women represent 48% of all entry-level positions, 38% of managers, 34% of senior managers, 30% of VPs, 26% of senior VPs, and 21% of C-Suite employees.

With less and less women at every level of an organization, it’s no wonder we lack representation at the highest levels of leadership. It’s not surprising that I constantly hear our clients and business leaders alike say, “We just can’t find any female candidates.” It’s true! Organizations have exponentially less women to choose from for leadership positions because there are fewer qualified women. But where are all the qualified female candidates? The pipeline problem begins for female talent at the very beginning of a woman’s career and compounds the further and further you move up the proverbial ladder.

McKinsey states, “We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager.”

Let me put all of this plainly for you: More women are graduating from college than men, yet men are getting promoted more often than women at every level in an organization. The biggest problem however is that first promotion into first-line management. In fact, for every 100 men that are promoted to a first-line management position, 72 women are promoted. The data is worse if you are a black woman (58 for every 100) or a Latina woman (68 for every 100). This inequity has a long term impact on the career trajectory of women, as well as the achievement of gender equity overall.

It bears repeating, we have a pipeline problem. We will never achieve gender equity at the highest levels of leadership if we can’t fix the first “rung of the ladder”.

So what do we do?

First, we have to invest in women who are early in their careers. Organizations are quick to invest training and coaching dollars in women who are already in leadership – helping them prepare for that next level. While that will always be a good investment, we have to invest in training and coaching for entry-level and early career women, too. We have to teach young women how to advocate for themselves and take ownership for their own careers right out of school (or maybe even in school). More on this in a coming blog.

Second, we have to make evaluating performance and considering employees for promotion more fair. That requires us to make the process less personal and emotional and make it more quantifiable and measurable. We have to train evaluators on the unconscious bias that can often creep in when evaluating people (because we’re human and it’s inevitable) and create systems and criteria that can “check” that bias. We have to ensure that our talent pools are equitable, not just for senior positions, but for front-line management as well.

Third, we have to track the data. Does your organization know how long women stay in entry-level positions before they’re promoted or leave? Do they know how that compares to men? Organizations have to start tracking the data that shows where their pipeline problem begins. I’ve always said, “You can’t fix problems you don’t know exist.” We have to look at hiring pools, promotion pools, and our gender ratios at every level. We have to look at the data to find the problems before we’re slapped in the face with them.

All-in-all, the data tells us a story. It tells us that over time, we have made progress toward gender equity in the workplace, but we still have a long way to go. It’s time to start talking about breaking glass and fixing broken ladders.

until we break more glass…

*This blog was cross posted at The Center for Leadership Excellence.