Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, wrote “Lean In,” a book that tells women to be assertive and have the self-confidence to fully embrace success. It also encourages men to be real partners at home so their wives have a better chance to achieve their dreams in the workplace.
A short time after Sandberg’s book came out, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns gave a speech at a conference organized by Catalyst, an organization aimed at boosting women in the workplace. Burns, the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, said one of the secrets to her success was marrying a great man 20 years her senior who could retire and stay at home with their kids once her job got more demanding.
I agree who you marry is one of the most important decisions you can make in regards to not only your personal fulfillment but your professional fulfillment. I know many friends whose husbands were not willing to sacrifice any of their career ambitions, meaning the woman had to make all the sacrifices for the family so their kids didn’’t grow up to become guests on Jerry Springer. Most of the women I’ve worked with in high-level positions are also single and/or childless. Some told me they felt it was a deliberate choice for them to either have the career or family – but they realistically didn’t feel they could have both.
But while I admire Sandberg and Burns and agree with a lot of what they say, I also think their advice is not entirely practical. Both women are extremely wealthy, with the resources to be able to hire teams of nannies, maids, and chefs to alleviate the stresses many working women feel over having to find childcare, perform domestic chores, and make dinner without snapping and consuming an entire bottle of vodka.
Sandberg and Burns are the exception, not the rule. Sandberg says it herself in her book, writing that women make up only 14 percent of executive officers. While that’s appalling, the solution is to not just listen to the few women at the top, but to also get practical advice from women in the middle of the fight – the women in corporate America who are still struggling to be successful while managing to fit in a load of laundry and soccer games in between PowerPoints and conference calls. Women who are married to supportive husbands but still find themselves trying to balance the responsibilities of work, family, friends, and health without going completely bat shit crazy or becoming a raging alcoholic.
Women, shall we say, like me!
I’ve been in middle management in the corporate world for more than a decade, slowly climbing the ladder. Each day is a balancing act: How can I do my job well, spend time with my husband and friends, and also keep “me” healthy and happy? It’s frustrating, exhausting, and also very rewarding if I do it right – which I rarely do.
So move over Sheryl and Ursula. Here’s Cookie's practical advice on how to succeed in corporate America when you aren’t in the corner office – yet.
- Don’t try to be one of the guys. I have known women who feel like to make it in a man’s world, they need to act like a man, which they translate into being more aggressive and brash. But the most successful leaders I’ve known – men or women – get ahead not by being bulls in a china shop, but by setting clear expectations for themselves and others, building and encouraging collaboration, and keeping their eye on the goal despite roadblocks and distractions. Most women naturally enjoy bringing people together and are experts at multi-tasking and keeping things organized. We can use that to our advantage to shine instead of grabbing our crotch and pretending we enjoy talking about golf.
- You are nobody’s mommy at work. I’ve had a lot of women at the office try to mother me, which is a good way to piss me off. If I wanted to work with my mother, I’d check myself into a mental institution. Women have this tendency to take care of others and to nurture, which is awesome ANY other place but in the office. Do your job, and let others do theirs. You don’t need to take care of anyone else or feel you are responsible for anyone else. I know sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but we are all adults here.
- Dress and act like you mean business. If you want the corner office, dress and act like you are already there. I see so many women who dress like they have totally given up on everything (including a hair brush) most likely because they are exhausted. But how many CEOs do you see wearing jeans and flip-flops to work? If you LOOK like you don’t give a shit, people assume you really don’t. Worse yet, if you walk around with your head down and act like you’d rather be getting a root canal, people won’t take you seriously. Own it. Make people notice you for the right reasons when you walk into a room.
- Quit your bitching. Your boss is a douche bag. The woman in accounting is a whore. The guy who watches You Tube videos on his phone all day didn’t get you the report you needed. I get it. Life sucks. Go home, pour a glass of wine in a water goblet and bitch to your husband or your girlfriends. But DON’T bitch about it at work. Unless it is a clear violation of the law or your company’s policy, suck it up at the office. Don’t make yourself out to be the office complainer. All it does is distract you from doing your best work, and bring down the people around you. And that won’t get you anywhere.
- Be your own best friend. I read an article once that women will fight tooth and nail for a friend to get a raise or promotion, but rarely do it for themselves. Few women negotiate well on their own behalf. Think of yourself as your best friend as you prepare your yearly self-review and show the same tenacity you would for him or her to argue your own worth.
- Evaluate the rest of your life like you do work. At work your performance is constantly evaluated. If you do well, you are rewarded monetarily. If you are off track, you are made to adjust. There is no such formal evaluation process of how we are doing in our relationships or emotional life. But happiness is not just about career fulfillment. You need balance in your life – a sense of confidence and joy about who you are when you aren’t in the office. Take the time to evaluate the other areas of your life once and awhile and find ways to improve. If you are happy outside of work, you will have more energy and focus to kick ass in your career.
- You can have it all, but maybe not all at once. We put more pressure on ourselves than any outside source. We want to be smart and successful. We want to be good wives and mothers and friends. Oh, and we want to be thin and beautiful too, please. If we aren’t all these things we feel a sense of failure – like we are less than we should be. But it is an unrealistic expectation to have it all, all the time. Men don’t put this pressure on themselves. And we would never think of putting this kind of pressure on our children. So why do we do it to ourselves? LET IT GO. You may go to the gym five days a week one month, and eat an entire cheesecake in one sitting the next. You may hit one project out of the park one day, and miss a deadline the next. Learn from your mistakes, and try to get better. But let go of the unrealistic notion that you can do it all right, all the time. The more you forgive yourself for being human, the more you will find joy in all the superhuman things you do.