Recently, I helped L'Oreal Paris USA kick off their 2014 Headliners Series. Addressing both women and men at L'Oreal's New Jersey offices, I spoke about how attitudes directly influence our ability to succeed and achieve excellence. And later at their New York flagship, I shared a panel with Marie Corcoran, Co-Chair of IPG's Women's Leadership Network (NY Chapter), and John Fayad, writer and speaker on gender and gender issues, and we discussed how gender differences and perceptions affect women in the workplace.
Because of the productive dialogue and excellent insights raised both by Marie and John, as well as those in the audience, I've been giving thought to challenges my clients discuss with me and the strategies they employ to succeed in the workplace. Here's what I know: No matter your rung on the corporate ladder, many people, especially women, engage in some sort of career self-sabotage, from small insidious mistakes to fireworks that can dominate water cooler conversation for weeks.
My list of the dirty dozen career "don'ts" that so many of us engage in follows. Read on and see if you have some of these unproductive habits and then consider incorporating the solution (my sweet spot tip) that follows. Believe me, you will be happier and create a stronger foundation for success.
As a general matter (I'm not saying all women do this, I'm speaking in "tendencies," as John Fayad likes to say), we:
1. Make perfection the standard. We want to be 100% certain of the answer before we speak or execute on an idea, so we overanalyze, wait for some inkling that someone else buys into our concept or don't act at all. Perfection is paralyzing -- it discourages risk-taking, experimentation and even active participation. My sweet spot tip: Strive for excellence. Excellence allows for all that perfection doesn't and yet, it remains a standard that yields extraordinary results.
2. Make statements? Inflections and the way we say things influence people's perceptions of us. Often, we undermine those perceptions with a sing-songy way of speaking. Remember Alyson Hannigan's character from American Pie? "And this one time? At band camp?" She had no credibility. People found her annoying and juvenile. My sweet spot tip: Observe your intonation and inflections. End your sentences with a period.
3. Apologize unnecessarily. We women seem to have this fear of imposing or asking for too much, so we apologize. "I'm sorry, but have you considered this (important) perspective?" Starting sentences with an apology takes us down a few notches and undermines our authority, as well as the importance of what we're saying. My sweet spot tip: Swallow the apology as you feel it forming in your mouth and make the statement or request from a place of strength.
4. Talk down to ourselves. Yes, there is an internal dialogue that goes through our heads constantly, and if we're not careful, we easily diminish our worth and convince ourselves that we're not as good/smart/pretty/capable/accomplished (you name it) as the next person. My sweet spot tip: Be conscious of the things your say and adopt an attitude of kindness toward yourself.
5. Sex it up. Fashion is fantastic, of course. But sometimes, we take it too far at work with plunging necklines, too short skirts, overly snug dresses and excessive makeup. I coach my clients to keep the focus on the value we bring through our work product, skills and diligence. When people (women and men!) notice flash first, it creates a hurdle to overcome before they can appreciate the value. My sweet spot tip: Embrace fashion, for sure, but err on the conservative side so that your talent and hard work can shine.
6. Sex it down. By the same token, don't squash your natural feminine qualities. We embrace masculine traits because we think that's how we'll fit in. Men and women both possess masculine and feminine energies. We are, all of us, at times: aggressive, analytical, competitive, logical and assertive (thought of as masculine energy), as well as nurturing, empathetic, flexible, passionate and creative (thought of as feminine energy). My sweet spot tip: Wield what I like to call "feminine mojo" and use it in combination with the masculine. With this integrated approach, you can be much more effective.
7. Wait to be rewarded. We think diligence and excellent work product will get us noticed, promoted and paid more. Alone, it may, but chances are unlikely. My sweet spot tip: Raise your hand, gracefully highlight your victories as well as your potential, and graciously, but directly, ask for what you want.
8. Focus only on what we say. Body language speaks volumes! In fact, most of the message that we convey to the world is made up of non-verbal cues: our body language and the manner in which we speak (studies show anywhere from 60% to 93%). And we make an impression even before one word escapes our tongues. My sweet spot tip: Generate energy and adopt posture that will make a positive impression on others -- shoulders back, heart open, head and eyes up strong. Gain the trust and confidence of others without saying a word.
9. Twirl our hair (and other things we used to do when we were little). My former CEO and now dear friend once told me that I would stroke my hair when presenting in the board room. He said, "I know you're smart, but when you do that, I think of you as a little girl. Imagine what people who don't know you think." Boom. Done. My friend was right -- and I've seen this in many board rooms -- it diminishes your authority and image. My sweet spot tip: Rest your hands on the table or your lap and then use them productively as you gesticulate to emphasize your important points (without apology!).
10. Look for and rely exclusively on female mentors. The world is co-ed, but often, we think, well, I'm a woman, I need a woman to guide me through this jungle. Well, that's true, for sure, but men and women bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the table. My sweet spot tip: Utilize every resource at your fingertips and seek out mentors not by gender but by inspiration. Who inspires you? Whose career would you like to emulate?
11. Network only upstream. In thinking about the next step, we look ahead and evaluate who can assist us in our trajectory forward. But we miss the support of our peers as well as our reports. My sweet spot tip: Network 360. Engender trust and a sense of a team with your colleagues, and importantly don't forget the little guy. Often, the opinions of those you might overlook have sway with the big people. And bonus, the world becomes a nicer place.
12. Don't look back enough. This is critical. Because of unfortunate ratio of men to women at the top, it can be challenging for a rising female star to envision herself in positions of power. Even more difficult, sometimes the women who have achieved don't feel compelled to help others since they fought hard on their own to get there. My sweet spot tip: Look back and see how you can encourage other women to succeed. Help other women navigate system, and karma will take care of you.
Bottom line, operate from strength. Avoid these saboteurs and incorporate these sweet spot tips into your habits and behavior!
Karen Elizaga is a top executive coach, founder of Forward Options, and author of Find Your Sweet Spot: A Guide to Personal and Professional Excellence.