By: Perry Yeatman
Congratulations, you’ve graduated. Now what? I’ve been researching, writing and speaking for nearly two decades about what women can do to have the careers and lives they desire. I’ve written on individual topics ranging from landing overseas assignments to how being a mom makes you a better CEO. But it’s only been in the past six months, based on my interviews with about 40 C-suite women, that I’ve come to believe that building the career and life of your dreams really boils down to a relatively small number of things — 10, to be exact. Yes, based on my experience and the experiences of other female executives, if you’re starting out now and you do these 10 things, with a bit of luck, you too will be able to create the career and life of your dreams.
1. Launch well.
As a recent graduate, the single most important thing you can do right now is to go for the biggest, boldest job you can get. Growth is your goal – not bliss. Depending on your skills and interests, consulting can be a great learning environment. Big brands can add cache to your resume. And, start-ups give you hands-on experience and often responsibilities way beyond your years. No matter what you do later on, launching well will pay big dividends. Doubt it? At 40, when Kraft went looking for a head of global external communications, they chose me largely because I had worked my way around the world in my 20s – decades earlier. So believe me, it pays to “go big” early on. It won’t always be easy or fun but it will be worth it!
2. Prioritize. Know what you want most.
To get what you want, you have to first know what you want – and what you are willing to do to get it. Almost no one gets everything they want at the same time. My rule of thumb is that you can get a maximum of three things simultaneously. For example, if at this point, you are really focused on earning more money, you may have to take on assignments others can’t or won’t do. “Hardship pay” - something I greatly benefited from economically as an expat in my 20s - was called that for a reason. Conversely, if you want more time off, you may have to take a cut in pay. Either can be fine - it all depends on what you most want at that point.
[Related: How to Find a Job You Love]
3. Get help: find who you need to succeed (networks, mentors and sponsors, the right life partner, etc.).
Women are generally happy to lend a hand. I know because I’m literally surrounded by wonderful women (family, neighbors, fellow dance moms, etc.) who help me out all the time — walking my dogs if I’m stuck at work, bringing my daughter home from dance practice if my plane is delayed or buying an extra present for a birthday party because I just never made it to the store. And of course, they ask me for help in return. Truly for working moms, raising kids takes a village. But here’s the strange thing: women at work hate to ask for help. Maybe we think it makes us look weak or incapable or we don’t want to bother others. But, I’ve interviewed female CEOs who’ve said that “asking for help” is their super power. Think about that. They believe that asking for help is what makes them truly great. Clearly we can’t ask for help on every assignment, every day. But we need to put aside any negative associations we have with this and just get the help we need to succeed — both at home and at work. And, P.S. that includes picking a life partner who will support your aspirations, not just for today but over the long haul.
4. Forget balance. Integrate instead.
You may be young, but I suspect you’re already worried about work/life balance. Here’s what I say: forget balance. Between technology and globalization, we’ve pretty much lost the concept of a 9am-5pm work day. But, we’ve gained the freedom to be unchained from our desks. So, my advice is to seek work/life integration instead. Figure out how to bring the things that matter to you together in ways that work - for you, your employer and your loved ones. I’ve found that when I really understand what the company needs from me and what I really need for myself, I’m able to make that work. I’m not saying I get everything I want (go back to point 2) but like the Rolling Stones song — I get what I need.
5. Learn to advocate for yourself.
My sister is the nicest, kindest, most wonderful woman I know, but woe betide anyone who messes with one of her kids. She will eat them for breakfast. She is fearless fighting for others, but does she bring that same passion, intelligence and dedication to advocating for herself? Not so much. And she’s not alone. Women have no problem fighting for others, but we’re reluctant or awkward fighting for ourselves. And we need to get over this. The chances of getting what you want if you can’t effectively advocate and negotiate for yourself are very slim. Even the most conscientious boss can’t read your mind. You need to tell him/her what you really want and you need to prepare a compelling argument for why you should get it and how the company and your boss could benefit. Don’t base your argument on emotion or even hard work. Base it on your performance outcomes, market data and comparables.
6. Take smart risks.
The research for my first book back in 1997 made it clear women need to raise our hands more. Sheryl Sandberg brought that message home to millions a few years later. But, we still don’t do it nearly enough. Why? Mostly fear — fear of failure, fear of rejection, even fear of looking stupid. Yet, despite fear, every single C-suite woman I’ve interviewed says she’s faced failures and setbacks, so clearly recovery is possible. The question then is: how can you determine what’s a smart risk versus a dumb one? My advice: just ask yourself 2 key questions when you’re presented with your next big career opportunity. First, what’s the best that could happen? Second, what’s the worst that could happen? If the best is appealing and the worst is survivable, go for it. For more on this see my Fortune piece.
7. Give up on perfect.
The roots of this probably go so far back none of us could do enough therapy to erase them. But, we all need to do better at managing them. So let’s just set the record straight: no one is perfect. No man. No woman. No one. So don’t beat yourself up. Instead, focus on what you are brilliant at — we all excel at something — and build from your strengths. Then surround yourself with those who can help mitigate your weaknesses. As long as you’re willing to acknowledge you’re not perfect and are willing to get the help you need, you can be great and feel great at the same time. So, when the time comes, just throw your hat in the ring for that promotion. Don’t look at the two things in the job specs you can’t do or haven’t done, look at the eight things you’re great at.
8. Find inspiration/meaning.
In general, women tend to be motivated more by meaning than money, at least compared to their male counterparts. So, it really matters that we find purpose in our work. The problem is, we can’t all work for the American Cancer Society or the World Wildlife Fund. So, most of us will need to find purpose and passion in other ways. My recommendation is that if the mission of the overall organization isn’t inspiring you, look closer to home. Is there a goal you feel strongly about? Is there a person or a team you really want to help succeed? Is there a customer issue you can own and solve? Instead of just relying on the organization to provide meaning, maybe you can create that meaning for yourself.
9. Become an expert at transitioning.
Whether it’s your choice or thrust upon you, at least one of these things is going to happen during your working life: changes to your company (M&A, new CEO), ramping on or off due to caregiving (children or parents), geographic relocation, etc. Since it’s going to happen, you need to be prepared. Here is my playbook for surviving and thriving in a new role. In the first 100 days, get clear about why you were hired – eg, what do your new bosses want and need you to deliver most? What would be a considered a serious win and why? Then, assess the current situation. Listen and learn; ask a lot of questions, especially the “dumb” ones. From there you need to set the vision and strategy for the future and ensure you’ve got the right structure and team to deliver it. With this in place, focus on outcomes and deliver a tangible “victory” within the first 6 weeks and within the first six months, while building bridges and relationships with those you need to succeed. If you can learn in the next five years how to do this really well, you’ll be ready for whatever life throws your way down the road.
10. Craft a compelling narrative and desirable personal brand.
And finally, as you build your career, you need to be simultaneously building your personal brand and crafting a compelling narrative to go with it. For me, my reputation has always been as a dynamic personality, a strategic thinker and someone who “delivers.” I can both create a bold vision and lead a team to make it happen. But, I’ll admit that I was also known to ruffle a few feathers along the way. So, as I’ve matured, personally and professionally, I’ve worked hard to broaden my skills and reputation so that now I’m not just the person who makes things happen but also someone people want to have on their team. As you develop, you need to both know what your personal brand and story is and keep crafting it. You need to be able to connect the dots for potential employers – eg, explaining why you made certain moves, what you learned and how that makes you a better candidate for what you are seeking today, etc. If you moved to the slow lane or even the off-ramp, be sure you do and can articulate what you did during that time out that makes you a better employee today than when you left. It doesn’t have to be paid work. But you need to show a pattern of growth, learning and development so that your skills and experience are always seen as relevant and desirable.
If you do these 10 things consistently, starting now, I’m confident that you’ll end up having the career and life you desire. It won’t always be easy. It certainly won’t be stress free. There will be setbacks. There will be days you’ll want to throw in the towel. But there will also be days you’ll be literally jumping for joy and glowing with pride. And many more of the latter, I’d be willing to bet.
Perry Yeatman is the Founder and CEO of the online resource for women called “Your Career, Your Terms.” She is also an External Director at Mission Measurement, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners LLC and the award winning author of Get Ahead by Going Abroad.
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