Since joining Northwestern Mutual nearly four years ago, I’ve often been asked to speak to women in business about leadership and career growth. And many of the questions I get seem to have a running theme: What can women do to get ahead in the workplace?
This is an important topic to me, although I recognize there won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer. Having mentors, sponsors and a commitment to diversity across your company at all levels are key. But on a personal level, there are some things I think women can do — which I've learned throughout my own journey — that can help us take control of our career paths.
Of course, this advice isn’t limited to women. At its core, it’s simply about deciding what you want to be, and then putting the steps in place to pursue your goals. That is often easier said than done; it requires courage, boldness and knowing how to advocate for yourself. Here are a few tips I have learned over the years that can help you be your own best advocate.
BRING YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF TO YOUR JOB
Being your complete, authentic self at work benefits everyone — yourself, your manager and your team — because it affects everything from how you communicate to how you manage work/life balance.
For instance, I’ve always had a passion for driving change. But that goes beyond setting a vision — it includes effectively rallying a team behind the bold goals by openly talking about why you see a need for change. At times, that also means having frank conversations with those who would rather stick to the status quo. These kinds of conversations are only possible when you’re truly being your authentic self. After all, if you can’t advocate for your own vision, how else can you expect others to?
On a personal level, I know it can be tempting to compartmentalize life and work as completely separate. But over time, I’ve become convinced that being open and authentic about both work and home is a key to setting a team culture. My team knows that being a working mom is just a part of who I am and that carving out time for my family is crucial. I’m there for my son’s tennis matches or school events, and when it’s time to prioritize spending time together. There shouldn’t be a fear that having multiple priorities means you aren’t committed to your job. After all, what you value will inform your ideas and decisions, whether you’re at work or at home. Your commitment will show through your hard work and performance.
DON’T LET CONVENTIONAL WISDOM DEFINE YOU
Part of being your authentic self means not catering to misconceptions or biases that could prevent you from being who you truly are. This is a topic we all need to talk more about across all companies and industries.
Recently, I was honored to take part in Catalyst’s #BiasCorrect campaign for International Women’s Day, which draws attention to how men and women are often described differently for exhibiting the same behavior. Ending bias requires us to talk openly about the personal biases we may hold, and how that can show up in the workplace. In my case, I chose to highlight the specific contrast between what it means to be “calculated” and “strategic” — recognizing that because of unconscious gender bias, women can be labeled differently from male colleagues for the same behavior. The campaign highlights many contrasts like this, and here’s my advice: Don’t let bias or mislabeling distract you from being the leader you want to be — and don’t be afraid to stand up and advocate for both yourself and others. And that’s true for both men and women.
REMEMBER THAT ADVOCATING FOR YOURSELF DOESN’T MEAN GOING IT ALONE
There’s no shortage of people who have supported my career over the years, from the managers who took a chance on me early on to the executives I work with today at Northwestern Mutual. We support each other, recognizing that long-term success happens through strong partnerships. That includes supporting shared business goals — and it also includes supporting each other to build the culture we want to have across the company. For example, my colleagues (both men and women) have enthusiastically joined in the conversation about how to overcome unconscious bias at work.
There are many ways to build your network — and be sure to include networking within your organization. Get involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives at your own company. If none exist, gather a group of like-minded peers who want to get the conversation started. Reach out to find mentors and sponsors who can offer advice and advocacy. And if you’re in a position to sponsor or mentor someone, take the opportunity to pay it forward. No one’s career develops in a vacuum. If we all took the time to share what we’ve learned from our own career journeys, imagine the impact it would have on generations of leaders to come.