There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule that it’s OK to give a woman career advice and personal feedback, whereas it’s unheard of to do the same to men. Recently, research was published that women tend to get personal critiques in their performance reviews, and men tend to get constructive feedback.
Do you recognise this? I certainly do. Colleagues have given me advice such as, “What you need is gravitas”, “You would do well getting some life experience” and “Just observe the way men behave when they first meet, it would help you if you were more like that.”
Women I meet tell me that they get advised, “You should do more networking” or “You need to really work on your visibility” and are regularly referred to coaches and sponsors. What kind of advice do people give you? Do you get personal critiques?
To make matters worse, research into why women aren’t getting to the top seems to regularly uncover that women themselves are the problem and that they need to work on things like visibility and communication style rather than complain about a glass ceiling or a maze of challenges.
Now, it’s always good to look for ways to improve yourself. Personally I love following a training course almost as much as I like giving one.
But something isn’t right. Focusing on your shortcomings isn’t going to help you. In fact, it’s much, much more effective to turn it around and focus on something else. Trust me, you are good the way you are. You were born with some unique talents. So why not stop focusing on your shortcomings, but start on the other side! Start with focusing on your strengths, and build on those!
Why all this career advice for women?
If working on your strengths is so powerful. Why then is there all this career advice for women, based on research? Why do colleagues seem to focus on critiquing you? Surely they mean well.
I believe they do mean well. However, I believe that one of the main reasons you get all this free career advice is that colleagues see you functioning and they see something lacking. They see you are not doing what they are doing. One of the key reasons for this is that organisations are designed for men. In the early 19th century, when many modern organisations were first founded, men worked in organisations. Most organisational models used in those days were based on military structures. As a result organisations were designed for men.
In most organisations targets, challenges, clear structure, hierarchy and status are important. These tend to work well for men, but they usually work less well for women. Behaviour that typically suits men is rewarded and expected; behaviour such as: promoting your achievements, focused thinking, working on one issue at the time, setting priorities, and giving clear, directive instructions.
Your colleagues know this sort of behaviour works, they see you do less of it and feel they are helping you by advising you to work on that.
However, working on skills and behaviours that you may not have talent for, can take a lot of time and effort, and may not be very effective.
What to do instead?
Then what to do with all this career advice? Should you just ignore it or should you actually forget about improving yourself altogether? You can definitely ignore the advice. But it’s certainly good for your career to keep on working on your personal development.
When you do though, focus on what you are good at, and what makes you different and build on that. These are skills and behaviours that are uniquely you, and will be hard for others to copy. On top of that, it’s more fun to develop something you are already good at.
The sort of strengths women tend to have can lead to powerful business results, such as creating buy-in , building relationships or seeing a situation in its context.
Top tips for starting
To find out your unique style and approach, and contrast it with that of others in your team, start by observing what works for you that doesn’t work for them.
- Do I ask a different type of questions? Or perhaps just more or less?
- Do I hand out tasks differently?
- How do I take decisions, and how is that different from the way male colleagues do this?
- Which tasks do I approach differently, and how is my approach different?
- How do I build relationships, and how is that different?
This can give you clues to your particular strengths. Building on those will help you grow. They will help build your unique strengths. It’s more fun and you may gain a lot of respect in the process.