Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg rocked the boat when she leaned in to mainstream media this spring with the launch of her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
Sandberg’s book kicked up a storm, particularly for the feminist community. Some claimed Sandberg’s vision of working her way up the corporate ladder ignored the realities of life for many working women. Others proclaimed Sandberg's book an extremely useful guide to gender issues in the workplace for white-collar professional women.
As a noob professional female, I found a lot of Sandberg’s advice to be more applicable to those with years of professional experience already under their belts. . My question wasn’t necessarily, How do I lean in? But rather, How do I even get to the point that I can lean in? Successful professional women are passionate, purposeful and driven; I am still figuring out how to drive.
So I sat down and contacted successful women who I aim to emulate. My question to them was simple: If you could tell yourself everything you needed to know 10 years before you leaned in to your career, what would you say?
Here are the most valuable gems in all their jewels of wisdom. I hope their words empower you to unlock your professional potential and jump-start your career.
1. Be Yourself
Abby Lynn Ross is a retired clinical psychologist, motivational speaker and adjunctt public speaking professor at the University of Miami and Florida International University. As a National Speakers Association member, she has worked with countless young women with social anxieties and problems executing successful communication in their careers.
Abby attests that if you know who you are and you're true to yourself, you will be more confident and assertive in your work environment.
“Know why you are the way you are and express your uniqueness in every way. You will establish credibility in your work and earn the respect of those around you," she says.
One way Abby suggests that women understand and embrace their individuality is to incorporate outside activities into their lives. The lessons that we learn outside of our jobs can help us grow professionally. For Abby, long-distance running became just such a learning activity. She started running just 10 minutes each day, eventually working her way up to running 37 marathons in four years! She says, “The discipline, the joy of accomplishment, the fun of the experience of training for a marathon will open you up to a deeper understanding of who you are.”
Abby's commitment to running each day not only helped her better understand herself, it helped her career as well. She explains, “The experience of crossing just one marathon finish line … gave (me) the wisdom in how to achieve success in (my) professional and personal life.” (You can read more about her story here.)
For budding professionals, Abby also suggests joining Toastmasters, a global network of 280,000 people which develops communication and leadership skills in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. She says, “Nothing I know of can increase self confidence as quickly and with as much fun as this organization.”
Above all, Abby emphasizes trusting yourself: "You know more than you think you know.”
2. Success Is Not Being Sheryl Sandberg
For Jacinda Townsend, a Duke law school graduate who began her fast-paced career as a lawyer in New York City, the concept of success has taken on a more holistic meaning throughout her career.
Now a mother of two, a professor at one of America’s top creative writing programs, and author of the novel Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which follows the lives of two girls growing up in Eastern Kentucky's Black community shortly after the Korean War, Jacinda defines success in a way that balances her passions as a writer, as an academic, and as a mother. She avoids defining herself in the same old traditional way.
"I often wonder why no one is asking ‘What's the magic formula for being a good mom while working?’ Instead, the question that's always asked is ‘How can you be effective at work despite being a mother?’ A mother who wants to homeschool her children might not define success in the workplace the same way Sandberg does," she says.
Leaning in can mean leaning into yourself and setting goals you hope to meet in your entire life, not just in your career. When you do, your definition of success might look startlingly different from Sheryl Sandberg's.
3. Create Your Own Opportunities
"Sometimes the best opportunities don't exist until you make them,"says Dr. Claudine Woo, a clinical trialist in California.
She would know. A scientist, a storyteller, and an entrepreneur, Claudine constantly finds success in each new venture she tackles. Her latest effort is the development of a career coaching program for young adults, designed specifically for aspiring young professionals transitioning out of academia after graduation.
When asked about how young professionals can develop successful careers, Claudine states that sometimes the best way to reach success is to create your own professional opportunities.
She remembers, "I had worked in clinical trials on the East Coast, and wanted to come back to the West Coast for personal reasons. It occurred to me that there must be a similar type of work setting. I set off on my search, and quickly found the name of the director of a group at UCSF. I requested an informational interview and attached my CV. I went in, and was hired.
"Later, I was told that the position was created on the spot. The director decided within 30 minutes of meeting me and introducing me to his colleagues that he wanted me to join his group."
Claudine also explains that you can create opportunities for your future self now. The hiring manager who interviewed Claudine at a large biotech firm in California was a woman she had met 15 years ago at her first post-graduate job. “Suddenly, the fate of my current position seemed to rely on how my 22-year-old self had been,” she says. Luckily for Claudine, her younger self had left a good impression, and she was hired.
Lesson learned: Be your best person now, as it may build your career in the future.
4. Gender Still Counts
Actress Kim Frick-Welker notes, "Your confidence may be viewed as aggression. Your determination may be viewed as an unwillingness to bend. Your ideas may not be heard the first, second, or third time. Your work may not be deemed as valuable and your appearance will always be a factor."
Frick-Welker is an award-winning actress whose 30 year career spans performing in over 200 community, collegiate, and professional shows. Her passion for creating a future generations has led her to help develop the confidence and poise of over 2,300 young child actors and actresses across America.
Frick-Welker has a sound understanding of the gendered dynamics of professional life after going up for the position of cultural arts production assistant for the Cookeville Center of Performing Arts in Tennessee, an area of the country where, regardless of the industry, leadership positions are still largely dominated by men. She obtained the position by stating in her interview that she would do “… everything in [her] power to change this community’s perception that this is a ‘Good Ole Boy’s Club’ not open to new members, especially women.” One week later, Frick-Welker was hired on. She has been acting production assistant for seven years.
Kim’s advice for facing gender challenges in the workplace?
“You must continue to do what you do best and let the work speak for itself. Eventually you will be heard, you will be seen, and you will be respected if you stay true to who you are and follow your passion.”
Despite the adversity women professionals face, Frick-Welker does not advocate backing down of softening your ability to do or say what you know is correct. She says, “Trust your instincts – women excel when they listen to their intuition.”
5. Lean Back
"Giving back through volunteering is something all women should do," says Christina Trampota, senior marketing and business development executive at CGM Squared and pro bono project consultant at Taproot Foundation.
Christina has worked with clientele ranging from startups to Fortune 100 companies, leading countless teams across consumer and enterprise services with over $300 million profit and loss (P&L) responsibility. Even with all this professional responsibility, Christina makes it a point to lean back and help develop the next group of professional young women.
As an active member of her Alumni group, the Texas Exes, Christina does everything from helping raise funds for scholarship tuition for incoming freshman to community outreach activities. (Christina also suggests volunteering through organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Junior Achievement.)
She explains, “These efforts, whatever the time, location or duration, have an amazing return for you as a professional. It is the pride you have to share your passion or talent in what you enjoy that helps you define your personal brand in the group, whether that is the classroom, a student organization or the local community.”
As women, we should actively work to build each other up within the professional world. When one generation of women leans back to help others, we help bring up the next group of female leaders. Leaning back instills a strong sense of social awareness that can help develop and create strong communities. On a personal level, leaning back through these various activities also provides great networking opportunities within the community, businesses, and various professional groups. Plus, it fuels learning and developing of philanthropic skills for yourself. Christina suggests tapping into your alumni group as one way to start your professional philanthropic endeavors.
"The return is a lasting connection in that area and beyond," she says.
6. Bonus: You Are Worth Everything You Think You Are
When I was 20, my mother said something to my then-boyfriend that really stuck with me. She said, "If you don't let her live up to what she's capable of doing in her life, she will always remember you asked her to stop living her dream for yours."
The comment didn't come out of nowhere, and it wasn't directed at my then-boyfriend.
My mother's comment was directed at me. My mother saw something in me that was missing. The little mischievous girl who had fearlessly climbed trees, outrun the little boys on the playground, and displayed 'strong leadership qualities' as she directed her older brother and father around the house had disappeared at some point between junior high and college. My mom saw that I missed confidence. I lacked pride in my accomplishments. I had little self-worth.
Even though on paper, young professional women are equalling the accomplishments or even out-performing men, we either believe or are told to believe that we are not worth as much as we think we are. Consequentially, we underestimate ourselves in out careers. We settle for what comes our way instead of going after what we want.
My mom knew a thing or two about self-worth, because unlike those of us who have a chance to lean in or lean out, my mother (like many women around the world) grew up being told that she had no worth outside her socially ascribed, heavily gendered duties.
As you enter your career, let my mom — a woman who entered college for the first time at 28 years of age, who went back to gain three more degrees (including her Masters in health education this past year, the same year I graduated with my Masters) — tell you the same thing she told me: Don't let anyone or anything — your culture, your society, yourself — stop you from going after what you know you are capable of accomplishing with your life. Know your worth, and never stop striving to achieve your dreams.