A wise woman told me early in my career, that I should hire to my weakness. In other words, figure out the things that I am not particularly good at or that I hate to do and hire people who excel at these things. For example, I am not a great detail person. Assembling a spreadsheet for budgets was something that made me pull my hair out. Could I do it? Yes. Would I hate every minute of it? YES! So in the past, being aware of my strengths and weaknesses has helped me to pull together successful teams.
This sounds quite simple and logical. However, human nature often leads us in a different direction. Our default behavior is to hire people most like ourselves. We are most comfortable managing people who are similar to us. The end result? We don’t have the balance and strength in our team that will help us be successful.
In Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness, she examines the human desire for familiarity and explains how it narrows our perspectives, limits our experiences and exposure to different thinking and opinions.
“Embedded in our self-definition, we build relationships, institutions, cities, systems, and cultures that in reaffirming our values, blind us to alternatives. This is where our willful blindness originates: in the innate human desire for familiarity, for likeness, that is fundamental to the way our minds work.”
How does this behavior limit our success in business? When we hire people most like us, we don’t have the advantage of diverse opinions and rich experiences that people with different backgrounds and skills offer. This is one of the main arguments for more diversity on corporate boards and in executive positions. Studies have shown that companies with more diversity at this senior level outperform other companies. And on our teams, we want that balance of skills as well.
As we think about building relationships to further advance our career, we also need to keep this in mind. Don’t build a network solely with people who are familiar and most like you. Seek to develop the strategic relationships that can impact and influence your career.
Be aware of how your willful blindness can sabotage your efforts to be successful and stretch your comfort zone to seek out those who can best help you to meet and exceed your goals.
This past week on my radio show, GPS Your Career, I had a lively discussion with Margaret Heffernan about what it takes for women to be successful in business today. Quickly the conversation turned to the importance of building relationships for career advancement and the hesitancy we have to leverage these relationships. In other words, we don’t ask. We don’t ask for help. Why?
An interesting study was done over thirty years ago in the New York City subways by psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram. In this study, first year graduate students were asked to go into the subways, board a crowded train, and ask someone for a seat. The results were important on a couple of levels. First of all, what may be surprising to most of us is 68% of the people, when asked directly to give up their seats responded positively. People genuinely want to help others!
But there’s another important point. The people who had to do the asking in this study were traumatized by the task. The “ask” was so difficult for them and so far from their comfort zone, they became physically ill in some cases.
Why are we afraid to ask? There are most likely many psychological explanations. But put yourself in the position of the person being asked to help. Wouldn’t you too respond positively? People want to help especially if they understand what you need.
What are the lessons here for us?
- Most people want to help. The study shows that even strangers will help others when asked.
- You must communicate clearly what it is you need so that people can help you. In this study, the percentage of people who gave up their seats decreased when they weren’t directly asked.
- Understand your fear of asking is holding you back from receiving the assistance that can make a profound difference in your career.
It is vital for your career advancement to understand the politics in your company and the way decisions are made. Your network should not merely consist of people you like, but also people who can influence your professional growth. Identify these people, build relationships with them and ask for their help if appropriate.
At first, practice asking for help from those you feel comfortable with and build your “asking” muscle.
Secondly, always offer to help others even when not asked. This will also help you to feel more confident when you make the request.
What does it take for a woman to be successful in business? My guest today, Margaret Heffernan, will give us some direct answers. Margaret has been a CEO five times during the course of her own successful career, and she has interviewed hundreds of women executives and entrepreneurs as part of the research for her books. As a result of her own experience and these interviews, she has discovered many interesting truths about professional women, and today she will share with us how women advance in corporations and what makes women business owners successful.
Dr. Margaret Heffernan produced programs for the BBC for 13 years. She then moved to the US where she spearheaded multimedia productions for Intuit, The Learning Company and Standard&Poors. She was Chief Executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and then iCast Corporation, was named one of the “Top 25” by Streaming Media magazine and one of the “Top 100 Media Executives” by The Hollywood Reporter. Margaret now blogs regularly for CBS Moneywatch, Inc.and the Huffington Post. Her third and most recent book, Willful Blindness : Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was shortlisted for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book Award 2011. She teaches at the University of Bath in the UK as well as Simmons College, Boston and Babson College.
I often talk and write about the importance of having self-confidence for business success. I believe that when you connect with your value proposition, you can talk about your accomplishments and talk up your business with confidence and authenticity, and that most people associate your confidence with competence.
But here’s another take on the subject. According to author, Margaret Heffernan’s article for CBS News,
The best work isn’t done when you’re confident. The best work comes from pushing yourself beyond what you know you can do.
And she quotes Steven Spielberg on the topic:
You know how many movies, I woke up in the morning, gotten to the set and said, ‘What the bloody hell am I going to do today? I have no idea how to attack this scene.’ All the planning that I did from the safety of my office is no longer valid because the day, the weather we have, the new ideas the actors came to the set with that morning, have trumped every single of my best laid plans and I have to start from scratch.
I get stage fright every single morning. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be a director. You can’t make a great movie from a position of great confidence. The more nervous I am, I think the better the films turn out. Confidence sometimes is a bit of an enemy.
Margaret goes on to say,
Sports coaches will tell you the same thing: Confidence is an outcome. It’s what you get after you’ve done the work, taken the risks, pushed yourself beyond the comfortable, the planned and the knowable. It’s your reward for courage and, if you use it correctly, it will encourage you to take big leaps next time. But it will never offer guarantees, real or imagined.
The question is what comes first here, the chicken or the egg?
Does it take confidence to stretch yourself and move out of your comfort zone or does confidence come from knowing that you took the leap and succeeded?
This past week, I interviewed five time CEO and author Margaret Heffernan on Head over Heels Radio. Our discussion covered many interesting topics relative to women and business, but one that really got my attention was what Margaret refers to as “portable power”.
Portable power according to Heffernan is unique to each person. It is the sum total of your skills and experience, your professional and personal networks, and your financial independence. You own this power and take it with you wherever you go.
I have given this topic more thought and a couple of questions come to mind. How many women are actually aware of their portable power? If they were more connected to their portable power, would they behave differently?
Let’s try to do our own assessment. How would you rate your own portable power as defined by Margaret Heffernan?
1. Skills and Experience
- List all your business and personal skills.
Business: i.e. computer skills, analytical skills, business acumen, selling skills, creativity, problem solving, team player, visionary
Personal: i.e. organized, tenacious, passionate, loving and nurturing, soulful, healthy, focused, outgoing
- List your business and personal experiences
What has your experience in business taught you?
what companies have you worked for?
what different types of positions?
what have you learned about running a department? your own business?
WhatÂ life lessons have you learned?
living in different parts of the country, the world
2. Rate your personal and professional network strength
Who is in your personal network? Look at your email address book, Facebook and other social media friends, your cell phone contact list.
Estimate the number. I bet it’s a lot, right?
Your professional network consists of business colleagues from past as well as current positions, people you have met through networking events and online.
Count your social media connections as well.
Which is larger, your personal or professional network? Where is your strength?
3. Rate your financial independence
How much money is in your checking account? Your savings account?
What about your 401K? stock portfolio?
Do you own your own home?
Are you worried about paying the rent each month?
How long can you live comfortably without a pay check?
How do you rate your financial independence?
IfÂ “portable power” is the sum total of all of this: your skills and experience, professional and personal networks, and financial independence, how powerful are you? Where do you need to devote more time and effort?
AND, will the knowledge of your “portable power” affect your decisions about whether or not to leave your job, start your own business, or leave a bad relationship?
Knowing how much power you have builds the self confidence to choose and make sound decisions. You take this power with you wherever you go. It’s who you are.
Sometimes I think we can make things much more complicated than they really are. We analyze and dissect and re-analyze our behavior and the implications of our behavior until we forget our original intention.
I could be wrong here, but I think we, as women, especially professional women, expend a great deal of energy second guessing ourselves. Do you find thatâ€™s true for you? Why canâ€™t we just be our authentic selves and act accordingly? Why donâ€™t we believe that if we act authentically itâ€™s enough to be successful?
I recently read a great article by Margaret Heffernan about â€śWhatâ€™s the True Test of a Tough Leader?â€ť Margaret tells the story from her own experience of trying to be tough and prove to everyone that she had what it took to lead a company. The article describes a dinner she had with a union boss where she ate the duckâ€™s tongues, chickenâ€™s feet and gizzards he had ordered, to prove to him that she could be tough on negotiating new contracts. Of course, she later realized how foolish she had been. Being tough in this case could have meant being true to herself and signaling the waiter to order something else. Which behavior would have been easier for her to â€śswallowâ€ť? :>)
Margaretâ€™s article speaks to the issue of women trying to play someone elseâ€™s game; trying to prove themselves as tough leaders. I think we all fall into traps occasionally when we play someone elseâ€™s game in business because we think that we â€śshouldâ€ť act a certain way to be respected or noticed or promoted. I have read countless books and articles on female leadership, for instance, Â that speak about what it takes to make it in business, that call for women to learn behavior that is not in alignment with their authentic selves. Will we ever really be successful this way?
The more reading we do; the more advice we receive; the more confused we become and the more we begin to second guess ourselves. First and foremost, we need to believe in ourselves and have the confidence to trust our instincts. Without that foundation of trust, we can be influenced and pulled in so many directions that we lose the focus of where weâ€™re going. Armed with a strong belief in self and a strong sense of our identity, we can then evaluate the advice that bombards us every day and decide whether it works for us. Isnâ€™t this better than turning ourselves inside out to try to change in a way that will never really work for us in the long term?
So how do women in business succeed? How do we become successful in a male dominated culture and still be our authentic selves? First of all, we need to recognize what value we bring to an organization or situation and be confident that our talent and experience benefits the company in a variety of ways. Then we need to think strategically about how to best communicate our value and to whom. One of the major issues I see with my coaching clients is the inability to see what value they bring to the table, either in their job or with their own business. How can you â€śsellâ€ť yourself to others when you donâ€™t understand this?
Connect with who you are and what value you bring and from that position of strength and confidence, evaluate the advice you receive. Donâ€™t play someone elseâ€™s game. We can be â€śtoughâ€ť by making a connection to our own power and we donâ€™t need to eat duckâ€™s tongues to prove it!