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Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape Excerpt from Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape

by Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D. with Linda Villarosa

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Introduction

From my unique perspective as a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, one of the world's most renowned business schools, I am constantly amazed when I look at the confident, polished women we are sending out into the world of work. This is a new breed of corporate woman -- second- and third-generation working women who are more prepared than any other generation in history. They have had access to the finest education money (or scholarships) could buy. They are well traveled and worldly, and they understand the larger global picture. Quick thinkers, they are also technically astute, smooth, and agile. I'm constantly surprised at how well they play the game, often thanks to some excellent coaching from their own mothers and fathers, who boast a wide range of business experience. Some parents walked the halls of top-tier companies, while others worked in small businesses or ran mom-and-pop companies of their own. When their daughters enter the corporate marketplace, the young women have the sense of "I belong."

This is a far cry from my own humble, shaky beginnings and those of many of my generation, who came of age in the sixties and seventies. We had little knowledge of the landscape. In fact, for me, it was so unfamiliar that it was best to look at it as foreign terrain.

Nothing in my history prepared me to enter the Ivy League elite world of education or to step into the offices of Fortune 500 companies. I was adopted into a working-class family in the South Bronx. My father had only an eighth-grade education; my mother completed only seventh grade. The business world was closed off to women in my generation. As a group, we were destined to be teachers, nurses, social workers, secretaries, and telephone operators.

In high school, one of my teachers -- thank God! -- looked at my record and saw that in everything but math, I got good grades. He told me, "You can go to college." That was a shocker.

I went to Mills College of Education and by my senior year was the student body president. One of the few people in my neighborhood who went to a private college, I felt extremely blessed. I was married at the very young age of twenty-one, but one of the main reasons my marriage didn't work was that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and my husband objected. When, newly divorced, I finally did go after the degree, my best friend's mother warned me that I was going to over-educate myself and never get married again.

In 1986 I was short-listed for a job at Yale's business school, and I was terrified. It was a chance to move into the sacred land of elite higher education, and I wondered if I really belonged. Would I get the job? If I did, would I screw up? The same year, around the same time, Whoopi Goldberg was up for an Academy Award for The Color Purple. Although I wanted her to win, I remember thinking that if she won the Oscar, I wouldn't get the job at Yale. My mind-set was based on scarcity: I thought in terms of limited options and opportunity. I couldn't believe the universe would bless two black women; the pie of opportunity and options didn't feel big enough. When Whoopi lost, I was sad, but I thought, Yes! Here's my chance.

I did get the offer to teach at Yale, and right away I called my mother. Her response was very tepid, like "Uh, oh, okay." I was disappointed that that was it. Later that evening, she called me back and told me that she had gone to the library on Fordham Road in the Bronx, because she didn't know anything about Yale and needed to understand what it was all about. The librarian had told her that Yale was an Ivy League school for rich white people, and my mother was worried that it wasn't a good place for me. "Who is going to take care of you?" she asked, clearly fearful. There were no congratulations on my accomplishment.

These days, my female students have mothers, fathers, and even grandparents who graduated from schools such as Yale. They are extraordinarily prepared; they have been preparing since kindergarten. Though these women are blessed with gifts, privileges, and opportunities I never dreamed of, they are still not ready. Despite their polish and drive, their skills, education, and confidence, there is still plenty to trip up these women in this complicated, fast-changing corporate landscape. That's why I decided to write this book.

It's because they are so prepared that they think all of the barriers have been removed and all they have to do to succeed is be competent and skilled -- that discrimination is over. They think the world has changed completely and that women are treated just like men, people of color just like whites. Even in the era of Barack Obama, this isn't entirely true, of course. There are still biases, both in terms of attitudes toward women and people of color and in terms of discrimination found in organizations' practices and policies.

Even setting aside the residual discrimination that still exists, my students have a ways to go. Though they have the smarts, the game has changed, and they generally lack the practical, social, and emotional skills necessary in present-day companies to ascend to the highest levels.

I was recently consulting at a large, well-established family corporation and had an intense counseling session with a very bright, well-educated, and skilled young woman. She was in the early stages of her management career and had been with the company for about a year and a half. She complained of being supremely frustrated and stalled. "I work so hard, but I'm not getting promoted," she told me in tears. "I have a mentor, I attend seminars, and I think I'm doing everything right. But nothing's happening. I'm thinking I'll just quit."

After listening to her for a while, I asked about her social interactions. "Have you had coffee with any of the senior people in your area?" I asked.

"No, why should I do that?" she responded. "That's a waste of my time."

This woman's attitude is similar to that of many, many other young women. Without realizing it, she was very focused on her career in the narrowest sense. She put her nose to the grindstone and never looked up. She was stuck in old-school corporate thinking.

In the new corporation -- which is international, relies on technology, and has a smaller middle-management level -- you have to do so much more than work hard. (But you do have to work very hard!) You must also show that you are socially competent, using all of your emotional intelligence. This means developing people and relationships. The young woman I was working with didn't understand that. Like many others, she didn't want to do the work to build the relationships that are necessary to move forward. She thought it was enough to do her job and go home. But people need to know who you are and what you bring to the table. To do that, you have to interact with people on a social level. In fact, a high-level corporate friend once told me that early in your career you're paid for what you do. Later you're paid for whom you know.

Starting out, skills and performance are always 100 percent of what is required. If you're a woman or a person of color, it's probably 110 percent. You need that just to get a foot in the door. But at higher levels, those who succeed have a more subtle set of qualities. They are team players, they're top-notch communicators, and they've created an internal buzz about themselves. They care about developing other people as well as themselves because that's what leaders do. They have learned to integrate their work lives and personal lives. Without complaint (in public, at least) they are on call 24/7. These women and men have done their homework and know the company inside out; they understand where it fits in the larger industry, where it's been, and where it's going. They are flexible: they can move not only up but also laterally. And they are leaders, able to motivate, communicate, inspire, and make tough choices. These are the skills that separate those who thrive from those who merely survive.

But there's one more thing, and it's extremely hard to grasp. In order to succeed you have to bring your whole self to the table. This is especially true today. Advances in technology have created greater transparency. Everybody's watching. So the higher you ascend, the more important it is to be authentic and comfortable with yourself. The finest, most accomplished, most effective leaders don't hide who they really are. In fact, the best leaders generally have a great deal of self-awareness and have learned from the bitter and painful experiences that shaped their lives and enabled them to move ahead.

When I explain this concept to both my students and my consulting clients in corporations around the globe, I often get confused looks or blank stares. Many of them see leadership in the old pattern -- the mold of the great white father. But this is an out-dated paradigm, and older employees often have the most trouble with this new, more open style of leadership. The old way was to watch, listen, learn, and copy. When I started out, I patterned myself after the white male I thought I needed to be in order to fit in. Rather than being a leader, I was a follower.

I spent all my time trying to turn myself into one of the white boys. I straightened my hair, got a couple of very basic dark suits, and did what my advisor told me to do: "Don't push any buttons." My only concession was that on my lapel I wore a little African pin, an akaba doll, to remind me who I really was.

Finally, after not too long, I realized that I wasn't happy, wasn't fulfilled, and wasn't getting anywhere. So I took the time to rediscover my passion and to follow it. I cut off the perm and got my natural hair back. I ditched the European, malecentric clothing and threw on some flowing outfits and bright colors. That's when I got my voice back, and that's when my career began to thrive both in research and in the classroom. The lesson I learned was that you can get in the door, but you won't be successful, particularly as a leader, unless you bring your whole self in. That's a lesson I want to teach in this book, along with encouraging you to bring passion to everything you do.

I'd also like to share another critical lesson, one that's not in most business books: the importance of being happy. This book cannot just be about how to succeed in what is a spanking new, highly competitive, hard-driving corporate world. It's also got to be about finding happiness and fulfillment. The people who are most successful in the highest levels of companies are not single-minded, seemingly psycho workaholics. They have lives -- whole lives -- that give them pleasure and joy.

As you read this book, I think you will find yourself in the pages that follow. I worked very hard to be inclusive. I often don't see myself in career books for women. So I made sure that this is a book for all women in various stages of their careers. I put special emphasis on the experiences and challenges of women of color. It can be difficult for any woman, but it's especially hard for those of us who are black, brown, or yellow and/or who come from humble origins. I am especially sensitive to those of you who are immigrants and/or first-generation corporate. I understand that you weren't socialized early on about the corporate world. You didn't have a father who sat at the dinner table schooling you about business issues as he talked about his day. And your mother didn't take you with her to work, where you could play "executive." With no one in your family or social circle to help you navigate the tricky corporate waters you're now swimming in, you may lack some of the common experiences that a second or third-generation corporate woman has access to.

I also understand that if you are the first in your family to be a corporate player, everybody may be proud of you, but you have to be careful not to "brag on yourself" too much. Things happen that you can't say to anybody. You can't always tell your family when there's a success and definitely don't tell anyone when there's a failure. You are probably the one in the family -- including the extended family -- with the most education, status, and money, so people come to you for help and support. You become the anchor, trying to keep everyone afloat -- even if you aren't ready to be that anchor because you need help yourself. It's very frustrating.

I know the stories, because I had a similar one. You may be the first in your family to move from a working-class environment to a white-collar one. Your mother, an Irish immigrant, may have cleaned houses like the ones your colleagues grew up in.

You may be from Latin America -- the firstborn who had to help your mother and father by doing all the translating and maybe more. Or you're from rural Alabama, Maine, Alaska, or Arizona -- the one who made it through school, while your brothers and sisters didn't and they need your help. Or this is your first job and everybody's turning to you, including your grandparents in your native country -- whether it's India, Mexico, Ghana, China, or Peru. Or you used the ABC program to get to boarding school and then Harvard, while your brother barely made it through high school -- or, worse, he's in prison. Or you're at the lunch table listening to your colleagues talk about the great vacations to Europe or the Caribbean they had as kids. You didn't have squat as a kid, so you become invisible in that conversation. You don't want to talk about what really happened to you; because of your class and social location, you're just too different.

Many books unintentionally leave us out. They assume that everyone had a mama or daddy before them who knew their way around the halls of corporate America. That everyone breezed through school, popped into Harvard or Yale, and grabbed an MBA along the way. Then entered the corporation -- and oh my God, what's this? A ceiling . . . made of glass?

Whether you were raised with a silver spoon stuck firmly between your teeth or all you had was a used plastic fork or one splintered chopstick, I will not leave you out. This book is for you.

If you're just starting out or returning to the workplace after having a baby, raising a family, or taking care of parents, you'll see yourself here. If you're stuck and would like to move up -- or out -- you'll find advice, support, and encouragement. If you're bumping up against a glass ceiling or banging your head against a concrete one, you will see yourself in the stories of the many amazing women included throughout the pages.

I've spent years developing the ideas in this book and tracking down information that has helped me learn and move ahead in my own life. I also tapped the knowledge of many of my friends, colleagues, associates, former students, and people I admire, both as experts and because of their personal experiences and wisdom. My goal is to offer a book for every one of you who wants to find your way in the newly reshaped and reinvented corporate geography.

You'll notice that, at the end of this book, I've included a "Memorandum to the Executive Team." I added this section to make it clear that, though I offer plenty of strategies for working women, it is not only up to individual women to "fix themselves." Rather, corporations must engage in serious change efforts to both retain and advance their women. The playing field is not level, and it's way beyond time for companies to get their houses in order.

I would be remiss if I didn't address the current economic situation. When I started this book, land was plentiful and the skies were blue, or so we thought. As I finished it, there was a whole new economic landscape. Banks are failing, corporations are restructuring if not going out of business altogether, and many, many people at every level are losing their jobs. Some of you who were racing up the ladder may now be struggling to hang on or have fallen off.

In this climate, the advice on the pages that follow is not just important; it's critical. If your company is in the midst of restructuring and layoffs, I can't give you the blueprint that will help you dodge the pink slip. But if you've used the ideas offered in Career GPS, you will land on your feet. First and foremost, those who are spared the corporate ax are the high performers whose reviews provide a clear record of their accomplishments and whose responsibilities, assignments, and goals are in line with the bigger vision of the company.

In our modern corporations, you must also have the ability to transcend corporate borders and move between different areas of the company. Having skills and competencies that are both broad and deep and being able to juggle multiple responsibilities or do more than one job all increase your value. At best you have international experience; at the least you have a grasp of the global marketplace. You must be a team player and, even better, be able to lead a team. Your brand should be rock-solid and the buzz about you steady. You have to have strong relationships at all levels, both formal and informal. Ideally, you have a mentor and a sponsor, so when the hard decisions are made behind closed doors, there's someone who can vouch for you. And if, God forbid, you are laid off, you have a twenty-first-century resume ready, and you know how to use technology to aid your job search and work your network to help you find your next position. I go into these areas and more in depth, and offer you lots of role models to help you shore up your career and confidence for as long as the waters remain rough.

Even if you feel insecure and unsure about what the future holds for you, I ask you to stand tall. Now more than ever is the time to draw upon your unshakeable faith and the belief that this too shall pass. You will have the career and the life you have dreamed of and that you deserve. It's your time. Companies need women like you to provide the leadership that is required to chart a new course.

Allow me to guide you. Let this book be your road map, your compass, your career GPS. Now put on your walking shoes and let's go.

Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D

The above is an excerpt from the book Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape by Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D with Linda Villarosa. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2010 Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D with Linda Villarosa, authors of Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape