November 17th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Ask the Right Career Questions. Now.

filed under Next Level

Feminine Business 2By Hua Wang (Chicago)

Women face a variety of obstacles in their efforts to advance to upper management. The majority of upper management are made up of men, and bosses tend to promote people like themselves. The absence of performance feedback, mentoring and formal career guidance can further hinder women’s career progression. Below is a guide to the five questions women need to ask in order to get the next promotion.

How Do I Talk About My Strengths?

Bragging is often seen as a dirty word, but effective self-promotion can significantly help you land a coveted job or advancement. Due to cultural factors, many women are uncomfortable with taking credit for their accomplishments and fear that touting themselves may backfire.

During job interviews, for instance, men are much better than women at crisply describing what differentiates them. Women should know what the choice assignments are, speak up for them, and let influential people know what they’ve done.

How Do I Make My Intentions Crystal Clear?

There are several key points when a woman’s career can be jeopardized—for instance, when she gets married or pregnant, or when she takes a maternity leave. At these critical points, it is a good idea to make it clear that you’re going to return. Have a top performance record and make your goals known to your superiors.

Women have to guide their own careers and not expect their manager – or manager’s manager—to do that for them. You have to stand out and let it be known the kind of job you are doing and what you want to do in the future.

Unlike their male counterparts, research shows that many professional women tend to think in terms of immediate job fulfillment instead of long-range career ambitions. By the time they really hunker down, they have developed a task-oriented style that can make their transition into middle management bumpy. Women are often assumed to take criticism personally and that they won’t delegate well.

It is important not to let anybody make career-damaging assumptions about you and your career. Back up your words with actions that illustrate your commitment. If you want an overseas assignment, for instance, you need to be particularly vocal in expressing your interest during meetings and performance reviews. You can find mentors with foreign experience, assignments that require international travel and project teams that include foreign divisions. And you must aggressively address managers’ concerns.

Getting to the top requires setting goals and preserving – along with a willingness to seek stretch assignments that challenge and yield broader experiences.

How Can I Communicate Better?

Research shows that women sometimes use too many words to deliver serious messages, tend to downplay their contributions and undermine themselves by using qualifiers and other vague language. Other communication pitfalls include phrasing statements as questions and using an upward inflection at the end of statements, which indicates doubt.

How do I network?

Women tend to build relationships based on friendships with like-minded individuals. Women may not be as skilled as men in building a broader, if shallower, network of colleagues and contacts. Men learn from a young age the concept of reciprocity—“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”—which helps them make casual connections that are overtly transactional yet powerful, because both parties benefit. Women, by contrast, don’t like to impose on friends and so must be coached to think about strategic alliances.

To be effective leaders, women can tap into their relationship-building strengths. The ability to develop deep, authentic connections can help women find mentors and sponsors to advance their careers and provide counsel.

How Do I Approach Mentoring?

Success requires a careful navigation through murky waters—avoiding dead-end staff jobs, improvising in childcare crises and excelling at gender politics.

Aim to build your own board of mentors. Modeled after a corporate board of directors, this means forming an advisory panel of experts from inside and outside your firm. Expect the composition of the board to keep changing. At one stage of your career, for example, you may want a more career-aggressive mentor. At another stage, you may want a woman who has been through the experience of balancing family and career.

When it comes to building that board, mentors can come from outside your workplace and even your industry. Happy hunting grounds include alumni groups, professional societies (particularly women’s professional groups), and community groups. Many larger companies have in-house women’s forums or women’s networks.

As a mentee, try to act like an equal with something to give as well as get. For example, you may offer a view from the frontlines to a senior manager or some up-to-date technical expertise to an older co-worker.

2 comments

  1. You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours, Women's Success Coaching

    [...] Glass Hammer had an article this week called “Ask the Right Career Questions. Now“. This article speaks to the fact that men are better at networking to get ahead. Men learn [...]

  2. Christine Brown-Quinn

    Let’s not forget to leverage our feminine strengths as well – using intuition, being able to listen and building solid teams – not letting our egos get in the way.

    Women can adopt an effective style of management and leadership which is different from the traditional “male” model.