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How Women Rise: Break Self-Limiting Habits That Can Hold You Back – Sally Helgesen

Have you ever felt like there was something holding you back in your career, but you couldn’t put your finger on it? Well, today on the Atlanta Small Business Show, we welcome Sally Helgesen, speaker, leadership consultant and best-selling author of the book How Women Rise. Cited in Forbes magazine as a premier expert on women’s leadership, Sally has been committed to helping women leaders around the world articulate and act on their greatest strengths in the professional setting.


Bridget Fitzpatrick: Sally, thank you so much for joining us today on the Atlanta Small Business Show.

Sally Helgesen: It’s wonderful to be here, thank you.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Sure. Now, can you talk to us a little bit about the inspiration for writing the book, How Women Rise?

Sally Helgesen: Certainly. My co-author on this book, Marshall Goldsmith, had written a fantastic book, international best-seller a number of years ago called What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, about the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful people. I’d used the book in some leadership workshops I’d done. While I loved the underlying idea that behaviors that serve you well early in career, or when your business is small, can get in your way as you seek to move higher or your business expands.

Sally Helgesen: I was also very aware that some of the behaviors that he talks about are not necessarily behaviors that are problematic for women. So, when a mutual friend suggested we collaborate on, basically, a What Got You Here Won’t Get You There version for women, I just loved the idea and How Women Rise is the result.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. Now, do you think that women have a tendency to be harder on themselves in business, and why or why not?

Sally Helgesen: I think women do have a tendency to be harder on themselves across the board. In fact, Marshall said that he’s worked with women who were congressional medal of honor winners, CEOs, women at the highest level, university presidents, and he has never once worked with a woman in his work as a leadership coach where he didn’t have to tell them, “Please, don’t be so hard on yourself.” And anyone who works with women on an ongoing basis knows that this is often a problem. We can be very difficult on ourselves, judge ourselves harshly, feel like we have to do things perfectly or else we fail, and this can really get in your way. And especially, it can get in your way if you’re a business owner.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. You talk about the perfection trap, which is probably what you’re talking about there. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that?

Sally Helgesen: Yeah. The perfection trap is that feeling that either you succeed on every point or you have absolutely failed. It’s really interesting. Research shows that women, in organizations, tend to be valued and promoted based on their ability to be precise and correct, whereas men are more likely to be evaluated and promoted based on their boldness and strategic thinking.

Sally Helgesen: So, women get feedback that being precise and correct is important, so they tend to emphasize those characteristics. And while they’re very important early in your career, you need to develop a risk taking capacity as you move higher, and you certainly need to develop an ability to make … to take measured risks when you’re a small business owner.

Sally Helgesen: So, that perfection trap can get in your way. The other thing is, perfectionism can make you difficult to work with. It causes stress for yourself, but it causes stress for the people around you. I’ve been doing the work I’ve been doing for 30 years, and no one has ever said to me, “I work for a perfectionistic boss and I love it,” never, never. So, you cause stress for other people as well.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. Now, do you find any other hindering behaviors that you see often when you’re working with female professionals?

Sally Helgesen: Oh, certainly. I think that minimizing your achievements, using minimizing language, saying, “Oh, I just have one thing to add,” or, “Do you only have a moment?” That’s one of the habits that we identified. But one of the chief habits that many women struggle with is, it’s a two-fold habit. It’s a reluctance to claim your achievements and it’s also expecting others to spontaneously notice and value what you contribute, rather than having to bring their attention to it yourself. And this is completely understandable, women often get negative feedback that they’re being overly aggressive, sucking up too much air, or being self serving if they talk about what their achievements are to a greater degree than men do. Women get tagged as overly arrogant and overly ambitious. Again, in a different way than men do, and this can make women hesitant to bring attention to their achievements.

Sally Helgesen: But, if you’re moving forward, if you seek to rise in your organization or especially, obviously, if you have your own business, you need to be able to claim, to articulate, to be clear about what you offer, about what you contribute, about why it has value, whether it’s to the other people in your organization, or to your customers and clients, you need to be clear about that instead of expecting others to notice.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. Now, as a business owner, I’m gonna change gears a little bit on you here.

Sally Helgesen: Okay.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: But as a business owner myself, I’ve come across a few men who take issue with my leadership because I am a woman. Do you have any advice for the men watching that still might take issue with women in leadership roles?

Sally Helgesen: Well, I think that it helps men tremendously to understand some of the behaviors that do get in women’s ways. And in fact, one of the responses we’ve got into this book, which came out in April, and the response has been pretty overwhelming. It’s become very successful, but it’s stirred up a lot more interest from men than I had anticipated, than we had anticipated, and part of that is because men say, “I find this really helpful in understanding how to work with women in my organizations,” to how to work with women as peers, as colleagues, as competitors, or “How to work with women who may be in a position above me.”

Sally Helgesen: So, it’s really about being able to adapt to the situation by understanding the kinds of things that can get I women’s way. So, it can really open, I think, men up. But I do wanna say one other thing, I think women often will back off prematurely because they’re afraid of getting criticism from men about their leadership style, and this holds women back. So, it’s a way of almost proactively anticipating criticism and trying to accommodate it. That doesn’t serve women very well. We have the right, you have the right to be a leader and to position yourself that way and to act on your greatest strengths.

Bridget Fitzpatrick: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Great advice and good book, How Women Rise. Thank you so much for sharing your advice and we look forward to having you back on soon.

Sally Helgesen: Thank you, great pleasure.

[Originally posted 10/4/18]

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