Before I share my take on what renowned leadership coaches Sally Helgesen and Dr. Marshall Goldsmith said about women and careers at the recent SAP Ariba Live conference, I want to state one thing: Self-sabotage is not the reason why women aren’t in more leadership positions.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith (L), and Sally Helgesen shared advice from their bestselling book about women and leadership at the recent SAP Ariba Live conference.
Goldsmith (L), and Helgesen shared advice from their bestselling book about women and leadership at the recent SAP Ariba Live conference.

Also, full disclosure, I am a perfectionist. That said, the luncheon, which kicked off the Diversity & Leadership Forum, was enjoyably enlightening.

Clearly comfortable riffing off each other and their work together, the two speakers highlighted five examples from their best-selling book, “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.”  I gave them kudos for not labeling any behaviors as gender-based and for encouraging men to take responsibility for more inclusive workplaces as well.

“We don’t view these behaviors as women’s behaviors. They are human behaviors, but they are the behaviors most likely to hold women back,” said Helgesen.

Put Your Career Ahead of Your Job

Instead of spending so much time doing a great job in their current role, Goldsmith said women also need to invest in their future, such as learning new skills that will result in a promotion. And if you have one out of the six skill prerequisites, demonstrate the confidence to learn the rest on the job. Men do this all the time; women, not so much.

“Many women get assignments, do a great job, and in recognition… eventually becoming indispensable. [Then] they can’t get promoted,” said Goldsmith. “It’s important to do a good job. But don’t get so focused that you inhibit your ability to move up [that] your good work won’t speak for itself.”

Expertise Plus Relationships Matter

The most effective leaders walk into a new job and figure out who they need to know to be successful. Too often, women keep their heads down and become domain experts. In contrast, great leaders “build visibility and connections as they build their expertise,” said Helgesen. “[Some] women are disappointed when someone else is promoted who doesn’t have the expertise in that field, without recognizing that other person put in a lot of work building the right connections and visibility.”

Be Your Best Self-Promoter

Helgesen said her research showed women are best at high-quality work yet often struggle to be recognized. She told the story of a woman engineer in Silicon Valley who was floored when her manager praised her work with a gut-wrenching caveat ─ she wasn’t well known. Although the woman felt awkward, she began emailing her manager, explaining how she’d connected with new people every week.

“He thanked her to helping him understand who his unit was connected with,” said Helgesen. “Don’t expect others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions. When I’m coaching someone, I tell them to think about what they contribute and what they want to achieve, as information that can be valuable for other people to know.”

Let Go of Perfectionism

Helgesen said countless studies have found the average woman is much harder on judging herself than men in 360-degree feedback programs. Women can avoid the perfectionism trap by taking their own mistakes in stride. Goldsmith shared how he’d forgotten to pack long pants during a trip for a major presentation, and then stumbled walking on stage. The audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Helgesen said this was an epiphany for her.

“I realized that my commitment was to my material and not my audience,” said Helegsen. “I was demonstrating what a stressed out, perfectionist women looked like. I wanted to create something more relaxed and fluid, which required me to let go of perfectionism. I’m thinking of having buttons printed with the words ‘Oh well, I’m a human being. Oh well, I made a mistake.’”

Get Help

Both speakers got the audience to their feet with a listening exercise that revealed how people can learn from others and ask for help, a prerequisite for career growth.

“When you ask for ideas, treat them like a gift. Say thank you. If you want to use it, use it. If not, put it away,” said Goldsmith. “You don’t have to do everything people suggest. You just have to listen.”

Taking constructive action on what’s holding all of us back is sound career advice. Now if I could just accept making mistakes as part of life, everything would be perfect.

Follow me: @smgaler