I was at the library recently and there was a beautiful, little blond girl who was having fun playing with automatic door. She would step to the side so the door would close, then jump out in front of the door and say, “Open Sesame!” I couldn’t help but think to myself, I hope all the doors she faces in life open as easily – knowing full well they probably won’t.
Most working women have experienced more closed doors than open doors, especially as we rise up the ranks in our careers. We then have to use our intelligence, skill, wit and intuition to figure out ways to get around the closed doors, if we can’t find a way through.
There’s an extraordinary few for which doors seem to open more readily, Fortune’s 2012 list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business for example. Most of the women on the list are 50 or older and have no doubt knocked on their fair share of closed doors.
What’s more impressive are the five women on the list who were under 45 – Heather Bresch, CEO of Mylan; Susan Wojcicki, SVP of Product Management and Engineering at Google; Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; Gisel Ruiz, EVP and COO of Walmart US; and the only one under 40, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. These powerful women have opened doors for themselves as well as other women leaders.
Here are five ways you can open doors and empower your career based on advice from five of the most powerful women in business:
Create Your Own Opportunities
If you find yourself facing a closed door, even a locked door, don’t view it as a roadblock, instead look at the door as an opportunity. Women often think they don’t have a choice when it comes to their careers. As a result, we’re less likely to look for opportunities and try new things.
In a profile on wvliving.com, Heather Bresch talks about growing up in a paternal, Italian family that believed “the boys were somehow entitled to all the opportunities, which left the girls to create their own opportunities if they wanted to succeed professionally.” Crediting her mother with giving her the confidence to follow her ambitions, Bresch notes that in addition to working hard and learning her industry inside and out, she created opportunities for herself by discovering what problems needed to be fixed, figuring out ways to fix the problems, then following through to actually fixing them.
The next time you’re faced with a problem, see it as an opportunity to fix it. Creating your own opportunities by fixing problems in your organization is a powerful way to open doors and advance your career. You’ll also quickly build a reputation as a problem solver – a highly valued skill in all companies.
Invest In Your Skills
In today’s job market, you have to have well-developed and demonstrable skills in order to compete. You’ll close your own doors if you don’t have current skills or if you’re complacent and let your skills become stale or obsolete, especially if you’re in an industry or job driven by technology.
Susan Wojcicki recently wrote an open letter, Google exec to girls: Tech needs you on cnn.com, in response to the groundbreaking documentary Girl Rising. In her letter, Wojcicki advocates for increasing the number of women in technology. She cites a report which highlights a significant decline in the number of women graduating college with computer science degrees and her concern about the impact of this decline. According to Wojcicki, “If this trend continues, fewer women will have the skills necessary to participate in the tech sector. As a result, fewer women will hold leadership positions in tech, and we’ll miss out on the opportunity for women to shape the world around us.” I contend that her statement is true for any industry. At the pace in which technology and the world is evolving, it’s crucial for highly skilled and talented women to hold senior leadership positions in every company so that the needs, issues, desires and welfare of both genders are represented.
In her letter Wojcicki contends, “If you invest in learning technical skills, soon you won’t just be consuming technology, you’ll be defining it, creating it and sharing it with people all over the world.” Again, I would suggest that the same is true for all industries. So, invest in your skills. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to develop your knowledge and skills. Knowledge is power and power opens doors.
Get Comfortable Leading
Leadership creates an unusual conundrum for women. Studies have shown that women in leadership positions are viewed more negatively than men in the same or similar roles. As a result, many women shy away from leadership roles.
In her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, March 2013), Sheryl Sandberg describes herself as being “bossy” as a young girl. She acknowledges that her same behaviors and characteristics if in a boy would be described as a “leader.” In a recent McKinsey interview, she discloses, “I sit here today not having a comfortable relationship with power, ambition, or leadership. For men, leadership, power, and ambition are unambiguously good words.”
What sets Sheryl Sandberg apart is her willingness to put herself out there not only by writing her book, but also by starting the global Lean In community. In the McKinsey interview, she says, “I want to change the numbers at the top. I’d like to know that in my daughter’s generation, they [women] are not going to be 14 percent of the top jobs.” I say, amen to that!
If you’re not willing to lead, you’ve closed some very critical doors to your career path. You don’t have to take a huge career leap. Look for opportunities to develop and get comfortable leading – volunteer to lead a small project, agree to train new team members, seek out a position on a non-profit board.
A significant part of the value you bring to a role and an organization is not just your skill or expertise, but YOU. Your values, personality, strengths, ideas, questions and perspective all contribute value above and beyond the daily tasks expected of any job. There are probably lots of people that can do your same job, but no one can perform the job the way you do – and that’s what can set you apart and open doors.
Last year, Gisel Ruiz gave a keynote address at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum. She spoke about the importance for women leaders to be authentic in order to better position themselves in the workplace. The write-up from her keynote summarized her point, “You can define what you will or won’t stand for and what you believe, but the breakthrough is how you demonstrate your values and principles at work, she said. ‘Reveal your whole self at work – consistency is the cousin of integrity. That is being honest with who you are. Bring it all to work. Your ‘true north’ will never change.’”
I’ve often been the only woman in a room filled with men. It was uncomfortable when I felt pressured to act like “one of the guys.” My perspective changed after a leadership coach told me, “Just your presence changes the conversation.” I knew she was right. I didn’t have to say a word. By just being a woman in a room of men, the conversation changed. That realization was very empowering. I knew I’d never need to act in a way that wasn’t true to who I am again, because I had more power when I was authentic.
Push Through It
Every career has challenges. I don’t think you can truly be successful without the wisdom and knowledge that comes from facing challenges. You should seek out new challenges, stretch yourself, test yourself. If you don’t, then you’re not growing and developing.
In CNN’s Marissa Mayer: Six life lessons from Yahoo CEO, Mayer put it best. She said, “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough. Sometimes that’s a sign that something really good is about to happen. You’re about to grow and learn a lot about yourself.”
There will always be doors blocking your way. Just say, “open sesame” then push through them!
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