The road to the C-suite is littered with well-meaning, well-qualified workers who never quite get there. So what is the difference-maker?
Executive coach and consultant Dr. Mary Lippitt has worked with hundreds of leaders, from Fortune 500 executives to top Pentagon officials, and she’s conducted research on thousands of people to study how they make choices.
Bizwomen spoke with Lippitt about some of the top mistakes women make in the workplace — and what they could be doing differently to boost their profile and career prospects. Here’s what she said:
MISTAKE #1: Making yourself indispensable in your current role.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Train your future replacements.
“Make yourself absolutely indispensable in your current position and people will move around you to keep you there,” Lippitt said. She recalled a woman she once worked with who was in charge of the budget. She held tightly to the responsibility and was the only person who knew how to do it.
“It seemed like the right thing to do — to make yourself indispensable — but it actually made her irreplaceable. So the bosses kept her in that role until she retired.”
“It was the kiss of death,” Lippitt said. “If nobody on your staff knows how to do some of your work, you’ll never get promoted. Part of your job is planning for your replacement.”
MISTAKE #2: Climbing the corporate ladder in a silo.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Look for new ventures within the company.
“Women today need to think beyond the traditional career path,” Lippitt said. She calls it “stepping out to step up.”
Lippitt once gave a speech at Harvard University’s Women and Power Conference. After giving her presentation, Lippitt asked women in the crowd how they advanced their careers. Many of them boosted their profile by pitching an idea and carving a new career path within the company.
“One woman in tech came up with a new product line and became the product manager for it,” Lippitt said.
“A banker said she identified a new service, completed an analysis and then showed the results to her bosses, asking to lead the new operation if they wanted to move forward with it. They did, and that role was the banker’s ticket to the executive ranks.”
MISTAKE #3: Using tenure to advocate for yourself
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Focus on the value you’ve added recently.
“When it comes to angling for a raise or a promotion, many women make the mistake of assuming tenure will make all the difference,” Lippitt said. It’s the ‘I’ve been here [x] years and it’s my turn’ mentality.
“But while that argument worked in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it doesn’t resonate anymore. Today, it’s all about the value you’ve produced recently, especially in the last six months. Paint a picture of your impact lately.”
MISTAKE #4: Silently succumbing to group-think.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Ask thoughtful follow-up questions.
“In an increasingly specialized world, groups are more prone to accept the thoughts of an expert at face value,” Lippitt said — even if they need to be challenged.
She once worked with a company run by a charismatic CEO. He’d recently rolled out an initiative he called “Empower. Free. Serve.” The phrase appeared everywhere, from company name tags to banners hanging in the cafeteria, but the chief executive told Lippitt the initiative wasn’t working.
So Lippitt talked with the company vice presidents. The problem? No one knew what the phrase meant.
“Empowered to be freed of red tape to serve our customers?” one replied, when Lippitt inquired.
So during a staff meeting, when Lippitt was supposed to be presenting her findings, she asked the CEO to outline what “Empower. Free. Serve.” meant.
“We’re going to empower the people to shop seven days a week instead of six,” he replied. “We’re going to free them from having to come to stores. And we’re going to open new distribution centers to get there faster.”
Lippitt said there’s a simple way to speak up or challenge an idea without painting yourself as a contrarian: Ask for specifics in a collaborative, supportive way.
For example, “This sounds very promising. I want to understand a little bit more. Let’s take a look: Are there any potential risks associated with it?” or “I like that idea. Can we dig deeper?”
“You don’t have to have the answer to the problem to speak up,” Lippitt said. “It shows you’re a valuable team member. And when you’re helping an organization avoid a pitfall, you’re seen as a key player.”
“Real power,” Lippitt said, “is adding value to the company.”