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#WomenAdvance: How Female Leaders Can Take Charge of Their Own Careers

Business meeting.

The following is an excerpt from the book #WomenAdvance, which provides insights, tips, and tools to support women in their career growth and leadership goals.

When it comes to women in the workplace, there's much talk about the glass ceiling and other systemic obstacles. From double standards to being passed over for a promotion, women have exchanged stories about both subtle and blatant forms of gender bias in the workplace. Yet, there are other factors that can prevent female leaders from reaching their full professional potential, and they don't get nearly as much attention: internal obstacles. Though women may not be aware of it, they often limit their own achievements and power as thoroughly as any gender-based discrimination might. Because these barriers tend to be invisible, they can be even more insidious and damaging than external obstacles.

After all, when women are sidelined by a boss or treated unfairly in the workplace, they usually recognize that behavior and respond accordingly. Yet, most women view internal stumbling blocks as simply an aspect of their personalities. The truth is that the below three dynamics represent not private neuroses or personality traits, but negative conditioning—and they can be dismantled. Take a look at these three patterns and ask yourself if you recognize any of them. If so, realize these struggles aren't unusual or inevitable. They are found in powerful, professional women across every industry, and by changing a few behaviors, you can triumph over all of them.

Obstacle #1: Women suffer from self-doubt. Call it an aspect of the "imposter syndrome." Women at every level of the company ladder are often riddled with self-doubt, even when they have a history of impressive accomplishments behind them. Your typical self-doubter will ascribe her achievements to "working hard" or "lucky breaks," rather than her own gifts and abilities. The price of this skewed self-perception is high because she consistently underestimates her own abilities. The self-doubter doesn't ask for raises, apply for leadership positions, or launch her own business. Instead, she focuses on her perceived inadequacies, and sometimes to an extent that it cripples her career trajectory.

Solution: If this rings a bell with you, understand that there's no silver bullet that can dissolve self-doubt overnight. The only real cure is to steadily build confidence through incremental steps. The first one is consciously acknowledging that your self-doubt is merely a reflex and not an accurate barometer of your abilities.

The next step: pushing right past it. Examples include speaking up in meetings without hesitation and applying for promotions even if you don't meet every qualification of the position. You may also want to monitor your behavior for self-effacing comments and gestures. If you consistently defer to your colleagues' opinions or preface ideas with, "This probably won't work, but—," you're weakening your brand as a leader. Finally, remember that even high-achieving women struggle with self-doubt. Negative thoughts may still recur from time to time, but you can make a habit of ignoring them and acting with confidence.

Obstacle #2: Women are haunted by perfectionism. One of the great professional paradoxes is how swiftly perfectionism can sabotage careers. When we feel compelled to be flawless, we frequently obsess over minor mistakes, delay deliverables, and put far more pressure on ourselves than is necessary. And because success isn't always quantifiable, we tend to keep moving the goalposts, criticizing ourselves for not achieving higher results. For many women, their perfectionism takes the form of procrastination. When they're handed an important new project, their excitement convinces them this could be a pivotal moment in their careers—the move that "puts a ding in the universe," in the words of Steve Jobs. Gradually, the project becomes so emotionally immense to them, they grow paralyzed with fear of failure. Rather than plunging in, they focus on amassing the best research and information or decide to wait until they feel the perfect surge of inspiration. As they continue to delay the actual work, a sense of dread and then panic replaces motivation. The final outcome almost always disappoints them.

Other women focus so intently on being the best at everything, they take on too many responsibilities. I know a successful executive with an intense workload who was asked to provide cupcakes for her daughter's soccer game. The simplest solution was picking up a few dozen at the local bakery; instead, she decided that only elaborately decorated artisan cupcakes baked in her own kitchen would do. This proved to be a time-consuming project, between getting the right recipe, shopping for ingredients, and clearing her schedule to bake them at the perfect moment so they'd be fresh for the game. In short, it became another burden on her lengthy To Do list. But her desire to be an overachiever in every area of her life convinced her that only "perfect" homemade cupcakes would be acceptable.

Solution: Obviously, high standards can drive many great achievements. But when our perfectionism creates a feeling of chronic dissatisfaction, that perpetual sense of failure can derail our careers. An effective solution here is setting firm priorities, delegating strategically, and pre-defining success. Most business initiatives today involve too many factors and possibilities for a "perfect" outcome to even exist, which means we must often make a deliberate effort to recognize and celebrate achievement within a complex outcome. As for my friend with the cupcakes? Her workload canceled out any possibility of baking them herself, and she was forced to buy pre-packaged cupcakes from the store. The kids loved them. The moral here: Sometimes, "done" is better than "perfect."

Obstacle #3: Women are afraid to promote themselves. If most of your Internet activities involve your job, it can seem as if cyberspace is merely a marketplace of ambitious people with bullhorns, all of them loudly promoting their achievements. Yet while there's no shortage of professionals who enjoy a bit of bragging, many women leaders are hesitant to advocate for their own career interests. Sometimes, they believe their hard work will automatically draw the right recognition; other times, they're afraid of appearing arrogant or deluded if they express confidence in their abilities. Either way, these women tend to suffer in silence—and confusion—when someone less qualified or competent is promoted to the position they wanted.

Solution: If you aren't sure how to market yourself appropriately, your first move should be managing your reputation. Networking within the company is a positive first step, but it's also important to build an impressive digital presence. Curate your social media content strategically and contribute insights to LinkedIn dialogues. Writing articles for an industry blog, speaking at conferences, and volunteering with local business organizations can all elevate your visibility and create word-of-mouth about your expertise. Of course, there will be times you'll want to request additional budget, pursue a promotion, or lead an enticing project. On those occasions, you'll need to promote your value and credentials more directly. In such instances, it's wise to compile as many metrics of your achievements as possible, such as the number of new clients you've brought in or a measureable increase in ROI. That way, you won't need to praise yourself with vague adjectives, but can instead show proven numbers and facts about your performance.

Today's business landscape is far different from the one many of us graduated into years ago. Global and ever-evolving, it offers rich potential advantages in terms of professional growth. Yet, with that expanded playing field comes increased competition. Women can't afford to sabotage their careers with silence and self-doubt or waste valuable time trying to achieve an impossible standard of glory. Those who do will lose opportunities to someone else. But those who can overcome their inner challenges and proudly own their value will position themselves to claim the leadership spotlight.

About Melissa Lamson
Melissa Lamson, CEO of Lamson Consulting, is one of the world's foremost intercultural trainer and consultant. Her experience spans two decades and projects in more than forty countries, affording her invaluable expertise in helping organizations expand globally, improve time-to-market, and increase profits. She has offered hundreds of companies the tools and insights to be build successful leaders and effective teams in every corner of the world. Past clients include LinkedIn, Ikea, MTV, Porsche, and SAP.

Women Advance: Melissa Lamson

For more information about #WomenAdvance, an AHA Amplifier book, visit the ThinkAHA website.

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