The just-released McKinsey & Company/LeanIn.Org Women in the Workplace 2018 report indicates that progress on advancing women in the workplace remains stalled. Despite continued talk about diversity and gender balance, the researchers discovered that less than 5% progress has occurred in improving women’s leadership representation in corporate America since the study began in 2015. Contrast that poor track record to the sizeable gains made by women in this week’s U.S. elections, where a record number of female candidates made history by winning Congressional seats.
Why were so many women able to be elected in politics at a time when advancement of women into corporate leadership has stagnated? The answer is that politics offers a different playing field from the professional workplace. While political candidates appeal directly to voters, corporate power is placed in the hands of a few designated decision-makers—often men. This makes the corporate promotion process more black box than ballot booth. In an election, the “job description” responsibility of each office is clear. Candidates are coached, championed, and encouraged to persist even when the chips are down. Polls give candidates insight into the minds of their decision makers (the voters) and what’s important to them.
In contrast, it’s often unclear exactly what women need to do to advance in the workplace. Unless a high-potential woman identifies and enrolls a Sponsor to support her promotion, she is likely to be the sole advocate for her own advancement.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. If you borrow a page from the playbook of successful female political candidates—you have more control than you think, you just have to know how to use it.
Here are five Power Strategies from politics that you can apply in your workplace:
- Raise your hand. Research shows that women have traditionally had to be asked multiple times to run for office before deciding to do it, but this year, thousands decided on their own to run. In this mid-term election, around 20,000 women signed up to be trained as candidates, 256 won their primaries, and 118 won seats in Congress. In the past, many of these successful women may have questioned the value they could bring if they lacked prior experience, but these candidates didn’t hesitate to jump in. They pursued a next-level contribution and stepped beyond their comfort zone because they had a strong sense of purpose. The lesson for women in business? Proactively raise your hand for opportunities. Figure out who you want to help, and why. The stronger your “why” the more motivated you will be to take action to find the ‘how’.
- Focus on a clear outcome. Women candidates benefitted from having a single-minded focus: winning their campaign race. Corporate women may know they want something “more”, but the desired outcomes can seem murky. Women don’t receive as much constructive feedback as men do, putting women at a disadvantage to know exactly what they can do to be considered for a promotion. So the first step to create a pathway for advancement is to specify what your next level looks like. Then, just like a political candidate who envisions victory on election day, set an intention to reverse-engineer the outcome you want. Make an action plan that details what key decision makers need to know about your abilities and how you will create visibility to them.
- Act on behalf of others. Zig Ziglar has said: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” This tenet is at the heart of all effective political campaigns, and it can help guide you in the corporate world as well. A known bias in many organizations is that there’s a proven social cost for women who ask or negotiate for more: Women who ask can be perceived as “aggressive” or out for personal gain, which can make asking for yourself fraught with risk. This is why it may be easier for female political candidates than corporate ones, since acting on behalf of others is built into the role of elected officials. Women in workplaces can model this effective strategy by framing their “Ask” in terms of how their request will help their managers, teams, colleagues, department, and/or company. Instead of asking for a next-level opportunity because you want to grow your career, focus on explaining “what’s in it for them.” It eliminates bias and strengthens your request.
- Leverage support from women. Female donors were a game-changer in this election—they set new records for giving funds as well as involvement at the grassroots level. Women’s support of their female peers has also grown in the wake of the #MeToo Movement. You can leverage these recent trends of women supporting other women to get ahead in the workplace. Join a women’s leadership network to meet senior leaders, step into a business resource group leadership opportunity, and/or support other women by amplifying what they say in meetings. Be a woman who other women want to work for and work with. Create “karma” in your network so other women will support you back.
- Display an authentically powerful personal brand. Women face a tightrope bias that boxes them into figuring out how to strike a balance between being “not too aggressive” and “not too nice.” The recently elected women broke out of these limiting constrictions on the ways that women have been expected to show up. They were able to authentically tell their “story” in a way that allowed them to set the terms. This new brand of feminine power integrated women’s true abilities to “take charge” and “take care”. In contrast to the Maternal Wall in the workplace (which pressures women to play down parenthood out of fear of being seen as “not as committed” to face time in the office), some female candidates played up their “Mom” role as a key component of their personal brand, even introducing their children as part of their ads. Others found authentic ways to display their toughness to fight for their constituents (e.g., Kansas Congresswoman Sharice David’s ad of her history as a martial artist). With this in mind, display your strengths and incorporate the most authentically powerful aspects of your personality to help you reach your professional goals.
Get inspired by the successes of the record-breaking number of newly elected women, and leverage their winning strategies in your own career. By chipping away at the fallback image of leaders as white males, these political powerhouses are clearing obstacles on your path to corporate leadership. When you tether yourself to your boldest sense of purpose—clarifying to yourself and others who you want to help and why, understanding the contribution you truly want to make, and communicating that through a personal brand they can’t ignore—you can make a truly next-level impact on your organization and the world.