The Unspoken Code: An Interview with Marja Norris

06/26/2017 10:30 am ET

Few companies have made as much news as of late than Uber. Many folks glossed over ride-hailing giant’s culture of discrimination and harassment for year—that is, until Susan Fowler’s post went viral. Since then, the company has been in freefall.

Of course, there’s a larger issue beyond Uber’s “bro culture” and its ethically challenged co-founder and now ex-CEO. Silicon Valley has long struggled with embracing diversity. Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with Marja Norris, CEO of the eponymous company dedicated to helping women achieve their career goals with style and confidence. We spoke about her new book, The Unspoken Code: A Businesswoman’s No-Nonsense Guide to Making It in the Corporate World. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing the book?

MN: My motivation for writing The Unspoken Code stemmed from three observations: First, I’ve watched businesswomen in my 30 years of being in ‘the trenches’ make it or break it, and I wanted to write about what I saw.

Second, in the business world, women go in with a different set of tools than men. These differences are very apparent in how we process communication. We’re also conditioned so differently in the ways we interact with others that it can become challenging within teams and in meetings. Think about a boy’s football coach yelling at them and how easily they blow it off. If a coach handled girl athletes in the same way, there would likely be tears. Now you’re on their field. I address this in the book.

Third, women have mixed messages about business wear, thanks to today’s media and entertainment worlds. Scientific studies tell us the importance of first impressions. Ignore the media and concentrate on setting yourself up for success in today’s business world. I’ve seen women lose their credibility in an instant and never get it back. Why take that terrible chance?

If the higher percentage of graduates from medical school, law and business school are women, why haven’t we moved the needle when it comes to comparable pay and C-Suite positions? Something is wrong and it has gone unspoken for too long. There was no other choice but to write what others think, but won’t say.

author photo
author photo

PS: In the book you analogize a woman’s life to holding a glass with six holes in it. Explain what you mean?

MN: A career woman’s life can be compared to a glass with six holes, and each hole represents an important aspect of our live—career, health, spouse, children, friends and hobbies. Fill the glass with water and our five fingers won’t cover all six holes. No matter what we do or how hard we try, at least one area of our lives will always be leaking. If I’m on top of a work project to advance my career, I’m likely shifting the hours from the time I allocate to working out or getting together with my friends to make that happen.

PS: What gifts do women possess that men generally don’t easily acquire?

MN: Men secretly covet our ability to form relationships. We can start a conversation with almost anyone, finding out all about their families and lives. And, in no time, we’ve formed a bond. We see things in finer detail, whereas men tend to concentrate on the big picture. We also have a softer side. It can work extremely well in inspiring people to want to engage with us. These are gifts women can capitalize on. I teach my clients to honor their femininity. 2 + 4 = 6. So does 3 + 3. Blending our skill sets with men make the results a 12. Our goals are all the same.

PS: What other tips do you have for women in the workforce?

MN: Don’t be timid when working with strong personalities, whether they’re men or women. Learn to work with them. Invite questions. Be approachable and work hard.

As soon as you can afford it, get as much help as you can gather and laugh at those periodic leaky holes from the glass. You certainly can have it all, as long as you’re willing to weave in and out of what’s important at that moment.

It takes a village and women’s networks are here to support you. The rest of the tips and exercises are in the book.

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