Sally Helgesen How Women Rise

Sally Helgesen: How Women Rise in Business

For anyone in the workplace, the question of how to move to the next level is complex and often personal. As leaders and managers seek higher responsibility and authority and impact, we often find that the very skills that got us to where we are now aren’t especially useful in moving forward.

For women in the workplace, this challenge often can be even more complicated. Few people have thought, written, or spoken more on the subject than Sally Helgesen, world renown women’s leadership expert and co-author with best-selling writer Marshall Goldsmith of a really important new book, How Women Rise, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.


For anyone in the workplace, the question of how to move to the next level is complex and often personal. As leaders and managers seek higher responsibility and authority and impact, we often find that the very skills that got us to where we are now aren’t especially useful in moving forward.

For women in the workplace, this challenge often can be even more complicated. Few people have thought, written, or spoken more on the subject than Sally Helgesen, world renown women’s leadership expert and co-author with best-selling writer Marshall Goldsmith of a really important new book, How Women Rise, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job. Sally notes that women’s distinctive strengths and behaviors provide them with many advantages. Yet the very habits that help them early in their careers can hold them back as they seek to rise. How could women identify and address the habits most likely to get in their way as they seek to move to a higher level?

Some background on Helgesen: She’s an author, speaker, and consultant with a clear mission to help women recognize, articulate, and act on their greater strengths. She’s written a number of books, including the best-selling, The Female Advantage, Women’s Ways of Leadership, held as the classic work on women’s leadership styles, and continuously in print since 1990. Sally delivers workshops and keynotes in corporations, partnership firms, universities, and associations globally. She’s consulted with the United Nations, and led seminars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Smith College. So how do women rise? That’s what we discussed.

Chris Riback: Sally, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Sally Helgesen: My pleasure Chris. Good to be here.

Chris Riback: The book title is, “How Women Rise, Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.” Let’s get right into it, because I confess I was struck by one component of the title, and then in reading some of the other things that you’ve written, I see it there too, so I really want to hear your point of view on this. The 12 habits holding you back, and you even call them self-sabotaging behaviors.

My initial reaction to it was, could someone feel like that’s blaming, I don’t want to say the victim, but that’s blaming the person. It’s your fault for why you haven’t risen. Or is that maybe part of the point? It’s meant that taking one’s own life and career into one’s own hands. You can’t always control others but you darn well can control your own actions. So tell me about that particular component.

Sally Helgesen: That’s exactly it. In this book Marshall Goldsmith, my co-author and I sought to focus on what women had within their control. We recognize and understand that there are structural and cultural impediments in organizations and in business that get in women’s ways. We recognize that and appreciate that.

There is, if there’s not a glass ceiling, there may be a glass wainscoting that still exists for women. However, what we wanted to do was focus on ways in which women could maybe not so much self-sabotage, but could undermine their own ability to get to the top through relying on behaviors that might have been helpful to them earlier in their careers, but that can begin to undermine them as they move higher.

That’s really what we were trying to look at. The template here was Marshall’s wonderful book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, in which he looked at behaviors that can get in the way of successful people. Most of his coachees, Marshall as you may know is ranker number one executive coach in the world. Most of his coachees, probably 75%, have been men.

I went to him at one point and I said, “This template is wonderful, and I love this book, but for women,” because I’ve been doing women’s leadership workshops around the world for the last 30 years, “but for women some of these behaviors don’t apply, and there are significant behaviors that I’ve seen undermine success for women on their way up that aren’t represented here. So why don’t we collaborate?” And look at that.

So for men and women both, behaviors that served you well earlier in your career can get in your way, but in this book we wanted to focus on those that can get in women’s ways in order for them to be able to have some tools and some ideas about how to create more satisfying, rewarding, and sustainable careers that give real scope to their talents.

Chris Riback: Based off what you just said, you have done this for a while. What’s your take on the moment that we’re in now? Whether it’s the MeToo movement, or just the general awareness. On some levels, I feel like you guys might have top ticked it here in terms of timing. A book on how women rise during the MeToo movement, in this moment in our culture where there’s at least some awareness. I guess there’s some action too. I don’t want to … There’s some action as well around gender inequality, opportunity, and that sort of thing. How would you characterize the moment we’re in right now?

Sally Helgesen: I think it’s a moment of heightened awareness, and I think it’s a moment where we sense a shift under out feet, both in terms of MeToo and looking at the prevalence of sexual harassment that does remain in the workplace, but particularly in terms of the pay equity issue. I think that there’s a lot of pressure around both of these right now, and the pressure is the result of women who have, feel that they’ve been and have been working very hard, and making a tremendous number of contributions to their organizations, and don’t feel often that they’re fully recognized, certainly know that they’re not being fully compensated, and have become impatient with that.

I have been watching this … An earlier book that I wrote, The Female Advantage, Women’s Ways of Leadership, which was published in 1990, and was the first book that looked at what women had to contribute to organizations, rather than how they needed to change and adapt. Ever since that book came out in 1990, I’ve been making my way as a women’s leadership expert. I’ve doing workshops for women all over the world, basically since 1990, to help them in different ways recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths.

This book, How Women Rise, is very much in that tradition. I have had a front row sit as a witness to watch the environment change. I will tell you that from the helicopter view I have had, it has been, yes, perhaps slower than an idealistic person would have hoped for, but it has been consistent. The world has changed significantly for women, organizations have.

There’s much greater acceptance and recognition of their strengths, and an understanding that those can be harnessed to make organizations successful. But that movement that I’ve watched for the last 30 years has been in some ways steady, but in other ways inconsistent. It moves forward, and jerks, and starts. I think this is one of those moments that there is a jerk and a start and increased awareness and recognition.

It’s very, very exciting to publish a book like, How Women Rise, in this environment, because one thing my many decades have taught me is that when it comes to publishing a book, or putting new ideas out there in the marketplace, timing, if not everything, is almost everything.

Chris Riback: It seems to me as well, in terms of connecting what you’ve written with the times that we’re in, because of the increased awareness, because of the expectation for, “There better be some action now.” I would assume that people, women in … are looking for actual tools. It’s like, “Okay. There’s this opportunity. There’s this awareness. There’s a moment where there’s some expectations for action. Now what? Now what I’m supposed to do? How do I take this?”

Sally Helgesen: That’s exactly right. I think that times of action, and I feel that we’re in a time when people are eager for action. Times of action are not characterized by a lot of angst and self-searching and feeling stuck. Times of action are saying, “Okay. What can I do? How can I move this forward?” I feel that, How Women Rise, is very, very positioned to do that. It does a great job I believe, and it’s based on decades of experience of articulating what the behaviors that get in women’s ways actually look like. It’s got lots of examples of that.

It’s got examples of how individual women who are stuck, or are sabotaging to some degree their own careers because of these behaviors, how they address them. And then it’s got a very strong template for action moving forward that is based upon the coaching practices that Marshall developed, and how we have both applied those when working with women. I think it’s a very actionable book, and that’s really the purpose of it. Again, the environment seems to suggest this is a time when this is what people want.

Chris Riback: It’s a PR and marketing person’s dream, and author’s dream. Let’s get into it. You identify 12 habits based on research. They all come to life of course through stories, and while some of the names of course have been changed, real stories of women in the workplace, and the habits that perhaps have gotten in their way. Let’s run through some of them, and also really, when we get done, I’d like to ask a little bit about this notion of habits as well, because changing a habit, you know surely better than I do, it’s a lot about changing behaviors and routines and approaches.

You’ve written about that, about approaching change from a purely psychological perspective, and how daunting that can be. We’ll just choose some of the habits that stuck out. The first one, reluctance to claim your achievements. That is so hard for many of us perhaps. Sorry for this, not so much for our president. He seems to be very happy to-

Sally Helgesen: He doesn’t have any trouble with that.

Chris Riback: No, he’s good on that. Should we all brag more?

Sally Helgesen: I don’t think we should all brag more. One of the messages in this book is every single one of these behaviors is also rooted in a strength. I don’t think bragging really serves anyone. But what I have witnessed consistently over the years and worked with women on, is giving, automatically giving credit away to others, to team members, to collaborators, to bosses, and really refusing to accept it.

We have a wonderful example in the book. It was a woman I worked with who was head of a nonprofit in Pittsburgh. She had partnered with the head of … A guy who was the head of a very successful, much bigger nonprofit in Pittsburgh, and putting on a big, big fundraising event. When the local newspaper interviewed her about it, she talked almost entirely about what he had done in order to make this a success. The next day they interviewed him, and he also talked almost entirely about what he had done to make the event a success.

When the piece came out in the paper, her board was very upset with her. “Here you spent the entire time giving credit away to him. You should have taken some of that.” I remember her saying to me, she said, “I thought I was being generous to him, and I would have expected him to also be talking about what I did.” But of course he was talking about what he did, because he was focused on pleasing his board.

This was a big learning curve for her. It was a big learning effort. The point wasn’t to brag. He didn’t brag. He just represented what his actual contribution had been. But for some reason, she felt that being a wonderful person entailed her talking just about, exclusively about what he had done. I’ve seen women play out that behavior often, to the point where it’s very difficult for them to say a simple thank you when someone compliments them for a job well done.

Chris Riback: You’ve also written about a woman named Ellen.

Sally Helgesen: Yes. That’s one of my favorite stories. Ellen was an engineer who I work with out in Silicon Valley at a major technology firm. She was the best example. She’s really what got me started thinking about one of the behaviors in that book, which is expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your achievements.

Ellen felt that she was … She was an engineer, but she felt that she was very good at connecting people in her organization, getting to know people, helping resources to flow. A lot of people were in touch with her and relied upon her. When she had her first performance review with her new boss, they went away on a retreat, and he said, her main takeaway from his review was, “She does excellent work, but she’s not well connected enough in the organization.”

She went away from that performance review feeling devastated. She felt like she was unseen by him, unappreciated by him, and she even started to go down the track of, “Maybe I don’t belong in this job. Maybe I don’t belong in this company.” It took her a couple weeks, and then she had a epiphany, or a recognition. She realized the reason that he had no idea she was a good connected, because she’d never told him.

He didn’t monitor her emails. He didn’t watch who came in and out of her office. So she began to devise a plan for letting him know. She sent him an email once a week that just said, “Here are some of the people I talked to this week,” and she listed the names. She said, “I felt very awkward doing that. I felt as if he was going to think I was talking about myself, or taking up his valuable time.” She said, “The next time I went in for a review with him he said to me, ‘This is information I need. Thank you for sending it, because it helps me know who our division is connecting with.’”

Her career took off from there. It was really a key intervention, was realizing that she was just expecting him to spontaneously notice and reward what she was doing, and that she needed to step up and articulate what her contribution was.

Chris Riback: Yeah. That really spoke to me. Many of us would think, “Why do we need to tell our boss, or somebody, what we’re doing? We’re doing it. That’s our job. My job is to do what I’m doing. Why do I need to … I don’t announce that I showed up at work every day, but why do I need to let people know that?” And yet, the reaction, and good for that boss to acknowledge or make clear, “Thank you. It’s really helpful. You are delivering to me information that I need.” And by the way, that’s part of one’s job, deliver information that colleagues, and bosses, and managers need.

Sally Helgesen: It is, but also part of positioning yourself to become more powerful and have more impact in your organization, it doesn’t just require doing great work. It requires visibility. You get visibility by connecting with people and talking about what you’re doing. If you leave the visibility part out of it, the visibility is a bridge between this expecting others to notice and reward, and our next behavior, which is overvaluing expertise.

If you just focus on the job, and not upon bringing visibility to that job, it’s not going to pay you probably the rewards that will come with a promotion away from that job. Because people will just say, “She’s great at doing her job,” but you won’t necessarily have the visibility, and you also won’t build the support that you need.

Her boss, Ellen’s boss, became a supporter of hers, because she proactively took the initiative to let him what she was doing. She proactively courted that kind of visibility with him. She turned him from a boss, into a boss and an ally, and that worked very well for her going forward. Bringing attention to your achievements, not assuming that others are responsible for that, is really a strong way of positioning and of gaining support for yourself as you work your way through the organization.

Chris Riback: One more on the habits, and then I want to move forward on what we can do. Putting your job before your career. What’s a job? What’s a career? Don’t we all have to do our current job well before we can move on to the next stage of our career?

Sally Helgesen: Of course we have to do our current job well. If we don’t do our current job well we’re definitely not going to be considered for that next stage. But there is always going to be more that people are going to be looking at, than if you’re doing a brilliant job of the job you have, is basically a way of showing that you’re perfectly well suited for the job you have. It’s not indicating about where you could go.

But one of the other things about putting your job before your career that I think can be, and have seen be problematic for women, is getting stuck in a kind of loyalty trap. Where you feel so loyal to your job, to your boss, to your team, that you hesitate to take the steps it would take to move on, because you almost feel as if you don’t want to abandon them, or you don’t want to suggest to them that you don’t really value working with them.

One of the many ways this can be problematic is it demonstrates that you’re very internally focused. As you move higher in an organization, remember the template here is always how behaviors that helped you may then get in your way as you move higher, being very loyal may have served extremely well. Nor are we recommending not being loyal. But when you’re very focused on, say supporting and nurturing your team, and you’re not looking ahead, then you’re often perceived as being to internally focused. Because in a more leadership position, you tend to, there are more requirements to be externally focused.

There are lot of ways that that can come back to bite you, and it’s good to balance them. What we’re recommending is not, don’t think about your job, think about your career. We’re recommending using your judgment and thinking about both as you go along, thinking, “How can I really do a superb job with this job? But also, how can I make this job serve me to what I may want to do next, or where I may want to end up?”

Chris Riback: And before we move forward on then the actions one can take, just finishing up on Ellen. Where is she now? How did her career track go?

Sally Helgesen: Her career track went very well. She left the organization where she was, which was one of the big legacy technology companies. She went with a really interesting startup that was doing some very, very early, what we now know as social media things. She took a chance on it. She took a risk for it. She got a lot of stock for it, which was an uncertain proposition. She became one of the early people in on that venture, and really made out very, very well financially, and placed herself well, and then ended up being an advisor for women who are seeking venture capital in Silicon Valley. It’s been very satisfying track for her.

Chris Riback: OK. Well, maybe you’re next co-authorship is with Ellen – “Ellen and me.”

Sally Helgesen: Yes, exactly.

Chris Riback: That’s very compelling. So, the way forward. I identify that “I’m stuck” – you mentioned early in the conversation, but that’s kind of a first stage that many people, many women, many of us feel. I then figure out which of these habits are holding me back. Personally for me I think it might all 12, but we can talk about that another time, doctor.

Sally Helgesen: Me, too.

Chris Riback: Now what? What do I do now that I’ve identified those habits?

Sally Helgesen: I think the first thing, and the most important thing, what we really stress in the final section of our book, is to start small. To not just start with one habit, but to start with one part of one habit. An example could be, one of the behaviors is offering too much information or too much background, being too diffuse in your communication. One of the things … You might decide, “You know what, I need to be more concise when I make presentations in meetings.”

So you start with one thing, rather than saying, “I’m all over the place. How do I deal with this?” Just identify one little bit of the behavior. If you are not that great at … If you’re overvaluing expertise, you could say to yourself, “I’m going to focus on, and every single week I’m going to try to bring someone new into my network here at my job,” or externally it could be. But I’m going to start practicing building support and visibility while I also focus on doing a good job with my job.

The first thing is to really, really start small. That’s how people change habits. That’s how they change behaviors. It’s not the brand new me Monday morning approach, but, “Let me see how I can attack this at a minor level and begin to practice a new behavior in a way that’s measurable.”

And then the second thing, and I think this is one of the things that’s the strongest message in this book, is to enlist help along the way. If you’re trying to be more concise in presenting at a meeting for example, then you can say to a couple people, who you trust and who you believe have your best interest at heart, “I’m trying to get more concise in my presentations. Could you watch me in this meeting and give me any feedback? Let me know how you think I’m doing.”

This has many positive effects. It’s a good way of bringing visibility to the fact that you’re changing. People are busy, and they don’t necessarily notice, “Wow, so-and-so’s getting much more crisp in her communications.” So you’re drawing people’s attention to that by asking them to watch. But you’re also going to gather a lot of information, and you’re going to end up with a lot of support.

That’s a really important part. Don’t try to do it alone. Don’t try to practice new behaviors, or build new habits, completely on your own. Get help. Whether it’s a coach, a peer coach, or just generally enlisting colleagues to help you in your efforts.

Chris Riback: Sally, just to close out, what kind of reaction do you get to your comments and your analysis and your guides, particularly I guess among women leaders as they move up the ranks? Is there a segment in one’s career where people seem to react most strongly to what you say? What are the reactions that you get?

Sally Helgesen: You mean to this book specifically, or to the general career?

Chris Riback: Well, it’s tough, the book just came out. So I guess generally, but I assume that elements of this book are things that you talk about with women generally as well.

Sally Helgesen: Absolutely, yes. That’s correct. The reaction I have gotten consistently, and this started almost the day that The Female Advantage was published, I began begin letters, because that’s how you heard from readers back then. The one reaction that has been most consistent from women has been, “You really helped me see that my style is a leadership style. I thought it was just how I did things.”

I feel that what I’ve been able to do in these 30 years, my consistent mission has been helping women recognize, articulate, and act on their greatest strengths. I feel that when I succeed in that women feel like they have a better language to describe why their contributions are essential going forward. That helps them better position themselves as leaders, and it makes them more confident about what they have to bring and contribute.

Chris Riback: Sally, thank you. Thank you for your time. Great luck with the book. It was a terrific read for me, and I know others will like it a great deal as well.

Sally Helgesen: Thank you so much Chris. It’s been enjoyable talking to you.