Taking the Stage
Jossey-Bass, 225 pages, $35.95
Many studies have shown that women are socialized to fit in, not stand out. But fitting in can leave you a follower, forever. To advance at work, you need to be noticed. You need to stand out.
Toronto executive coach Judith Humphreys says women must take “the stage, selling ourselves in every situation – delivering strong, clear, and compelling messages about ourselves and our ideas. This means showing willingness to ‘go for it’ and not backing down when the going gets tough.”
Although some men face the same issue, she sees the challenge far more routinely in women and addresses her book, Taking the Stage, to them. Taking the stage is a metaphor – not a literal stage, although public speaking can be valuable, but making sure more generally you are heard.
“Taking the stage involves speaking up, being forthright, expressing your viewpoint in meetings. It means not pulling back when challenged or when your inner voice seeks to undermine you. It means accepting praise for a job well done, rather than saying, ‘It was nothing,’ or ‘my team did it.’ It means stepping up to whatever opportunity presents itself and having the strength to say, ‘Here is what I believe.’ It also means putting yourself forward for leadership roles or more senior positions, even though you might not feel you are fully qualified,” she writes.
And it’s not a minor issue, to be sloughed off with an, “oh well, that’s not me.” Taking the stage, she insists, is the most important thing women can do for themselves if they want to advance. It means standing out as well as fitting in.
To do so, you may have to fight what she calls “your inner crow,” cawing incessantly as you consider behavioural changes. We’re all familiar with such negative inner dialogue, and she notes that even famous people who appear super-confident are haunted by such doubts. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway will sometimes wonder if a crew member is judging her, comparing her to better actresses he has worked with. World-famous diver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, who has gone deeper underwater than any other woman, has said about the inner crows: “They can get to you. They say stuff like, ‘Whoa, you’re really deep! You’ll never make it!’” And many women, Humphreys notes, have heard this inner voice: “You should be home with your kids.” She adds: “If men need to share more of their vulnerabilities, then women need to suppress their inner crow and give a lot less power to that nagging voice.”
The starting point for taking the stage is showing up. That can range from attending a network session to setting up a meeting with a mentor or sponsor, to putting yourself forward for a new job, to arranging more face time with your boss. “We observe again and again that women just don’t take the initiative to be present. In one high-tech firm we worked with, not a single woman showed up at a networking session with the CEO!” she observes.
High-flying tech executive Marissa Mayer, now CEO at Yahoo after a sterling career at Google, is shy and forces herself to attend informal gatherings. For the first 15 minutes, she aches to leave. But she sets a minimum time that she must stay, and finds after awhile she enjoys the event and conversation.
Prepare for these events. Sure, spontaneity is required, but there is nothing like planning for spontaneity. The elevator speech is an example: A terse explanation of what you do or why you’re there, scripted to invite further questions. Also plan who you want to meet at such sessions and how to speak about what they care about. One executive told her: “Networking has to be about the other person – a big mistake people make about networking is that they think it is about them.”
Generally you want to speak with substance in order to stand out from the crowd. That means talking about the broader organization and its accomplishments. “Women too often focus on their work; and although this seems to validate them, it can turn off their audiences. Present strong, clear, high-level messages, and people will listen,” Humphreys says.
The next element in taking the stage is promoting yourself. That may not come easy to you but with some attention it will seem second nature. Promoting yourself, again, is about substance and how you helped achieve the organization’s goals. “Promoting yourself does not mean narrowly focusing on your own personal brand – or boasting in the ‘ME, ME, ME’ sense. Self-aggrandizement is never a good thing. It’s important to avoid anything that smacks of a focus on you alone,” she writes.
An example: After a presentation, you could say “it went really well.” Better, however, would be: “My presentation went really well and I think we’ll get the go ahead for this project.”
At the same time, she advises women to learn to brag. Start in a safe place, like the home. But don’t assume you are going overboard in singing your praises because her experience from training workshops is that when women think they are being extreme in their bragging they have finally hit the right tone. Conditioning not to brag is that strong!
“This is not to say that these women don’t think they have made brilliant contributions or submitted fabulous reports. They just can’t seem to tell the world about it without excruciating discomfort. They’d prefer that others guess how great they are,” she says. Change that by bragging. And keep a record of your accomplishments, to use it when needed in future.
You also must learn to be courageous, because there are so many situations in which women have to break through barriers, challenge traditional behaviours, and redefine the way they are seen by others. Courage can be your secret weapon, she says. But she emphasizes it’s not just boldness she is promoting, since that can lead to recklessness. You need courage combined with intelligence and good judgment.
A key area for courage is in putting your hand up to speak. That is even more intimidating when a woman is in a room otherwise full of men. She will be afraid the men might interrupt, ignore, tease, or challenge her. “If you can find the courage to speak up at least once in every meeting you attend, you’ll be on your way. The more often you do it, the easier it will become,” she says.
You also need the courage to challenge other people’s views. Many women want to bring their views to the attention of others but not challenge others, particularly authority figures. But that must be done, with firmness and respect.
You need the courage to take on new roles, rather than remain where you are. If you want to be center stage, rather than in the wings, you must be willing to pick up challenging assignments and jobs.
A final element of courage is to be yourself. Amy Schulman, former Pfizer EVP and general counsel, says women tend to view interactions as a litmus test for whether they belong. They give too much power to signals like a smile or frown, rather than having the courage of their own convictions.
Humphreys advises: “Give some thought to the qualities you value in yourself – such as warmth, passion, empathy, clear thinking, and conviction. Make sure you express these qualities whenever you speak. Let them together form your ‘authentic self.’ Arm yourself with them whenever you feel judged, attacked or ignored.”
The book will be solid advice for many women, offering more details on these ideas, a chapter on standing your ground if someone challenges you or steals your ideas, thoughts for developing scripts to help you through challenging situations, and counsel on unlocking the power of your voice and understanding the power of presence. Humphreys also offers suggestions in each of these areas for leaders who want to help women working with them. It’s a complete, smart, and easy-to-read package.