Young Women & Interpersonal Cues: Missing Them Can Undermine Your Career

At my office recently, I was approached by someone in the hallway I had never met, a fellow tenant (let’s call him George) with a business complimentary to mine. In a few minutes, it became clear George wanted to sell me on something, an idea more than a product or service. He talked excitedly in a loud voice, as he got himself pumped up on a concept that was close to his heart – a local monthly networking group he leads that he wanted me to join. I mentioned that I knew someone from George’s office, a young woman who worked for him (let’s call her Julie), whom George called out to join us. Julie popped out into the hallway a minute later to say hello, as we continued our conversation.

Suddenly, the floor receptionist (let’s call her Clara) appeared. Clara beckoned Julie to come over and answer a question, oblivious to the fact that three people standing in the hallway deep in conversation could be a “meeting” that was just as momentous as a sit-down affair. It did not appear that Clara wanted to talk about anything important, just a routine matter, and I expected Julie to wave her off with a promise to catch up shortly.

And then a very odd thing happened. Something that I had almost forgotten young women can get wrong and how damaging it can be to their careers.

What happened is this: Julie left the conversation. Like the receptionist Clara, who had no skin in the game, Julie missed the cues. She did not grasp that this spontaneous 15-minute meeting in the hallway was important to George, that it’s the way he does business. George was very obviously giving me his elevator pitch, growing his base of support and relying on Julie to help him carry it to a close. And Julie missed the ball. Completely.

The fact was not lost on George, as he made very clear a moment later. “Julie, where are you going?” he asked, as Julie and Clara stood in the hallway, five feet from us, whispering back and forth in their own private conversation. I expected again for Julie to wave Clara off, reading the cues from George, or at least to try to do so, but again she did not.

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“Clara has a question for me,” Julie said flatly, turning her back on us and continuing the conversation. She did not excuse herself by mentioning anything about the relative importance of Clara’s question, that there was an emergency, that she would be “just 30 seconds” or anything to mitigate her allowing a seemingly unnecessary break in the flow of conversation. George continued to speak with me, although he was visibly annoyed by Julie’s absence, turning to glance at her out of the corner of his eye until she finally returned.

As the observer of this interchange, I wished I could communicate to Julie what I had witnessed from a third-party perspective. By bowing out, she had taken a backseat, undermining herself. Julie had made a decision, perhaps unconsciously, that she was not an important member of our makeshift meeting. She was not part of the sales conversation, she “happened” to be there, and could just as easily have been somewhere else without affecting the outcome. This is an error, in fact, because Julie was the link between George and me, as I had only just met George in the hallway and had known Julie for months. If I were to be persuaded to “buy” what George was offering, she certainly could have tipped the balance.

As a result of her stepping away at a critical point in the conversation, Julie gave away her power, allowing herself to deal with minor administrative tasks while a potentially profitable referral relationship was being made (or lost). Or, if there indeed was a pressing need to speak with Clara at that moment, Julie had not communicated that fact in a clear manner so that George (1) felt confident to rely on Julie’s judgment call to leave the meeting, and (2) had maintained focus on his train of thought and momentum, rather than being distracted from his intent. Julie’s actions subtly communicated the opposite: that she felt George did not need her. The key problem is that if George hears this message too many times at critical points in Julie’s career – he doesn’t need her – then, in fact, he won’t.

Have you witnessed a situation like the one I describe with Julie? As women, we want to be recognized as powerful, strong partners in the business world. There are unseen obstacles to our success, and we are denied opportunities based on our gender. And sometimes, we give the power away ourselves. We need to read, and give, helpful interpersonal cues. When we value our own worth and prioritize the more meaningful contributions we can make, we increase our engagement and opportunities in our careers. 

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse as “How Young Women Can Undermine Themselves in the Business World by Missing Interpersonal Cues.”

 

Five Key Questions to Ask When Creating a Personal Advisory Board

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In a prior post, I explored why you should have your own personal advisory board to facilitate your professional growth. Regardless of your seniority, industry or role, here are five key questions to ask yourself as you assemble your board.

1) What do you most need right now? We all have our blind spots and skill gaps that evolve over time. Can you find someone to meet each of your current, most pressing needs? For example, you may have all the emotional intelligence in the world but not know how to run numbers. Or vice versa. If there is a gap between where you are and where you want (or need) to be, the advisors who can fill that gap should be front and center.

2) Can you call them in a crunch? Make sure the people you elect to your inner circle can be reached when you actually need them. This doesn’t mean that they all will pick up the phone at 3 a.m. when you call, but it does mean that they will make time out of their day or week to help you address a concern. It also means that they will make time for you to check in regularly, which you’ll need to keep the relationships fresh and assure your advisors are current on your professional goals and milestones.

3) What role can each advisor play? In addition to the needs and gaps to be met (mentioned above), consider what role each advisor would have in your professional development.

In many organizations, for example, you need a “sponsor” to help promote your career. Without one, you can toil away without growing into greater levels of responsibility and renumeration. A similar rule applies if you are looking to raise capital for a business, and even top level management need support of their board, close colleagues or fellow partners. If possible, choose someone who knows you well enough to credibly sing your praises, has the motivation to help you and has the “political capital” to make a case for you to the right audience.

You will also want a mentor within your firm, as well as someone at your own level in whom you can confide. Save the most thorny issues for advisors that you know you can trust without a doubt (hopefully this would apply to all, but sometimes extra care is required), possibly a mentor or other advisor outside of your firm.

Build your advisory board with individuals that offer different ways of supporting you professionally, and re-evaluate from time to time as your career progresses.

4) How does the team fit together? Imagine all of your advisors were seated at a single table. Do they round each other out? Have you missed anything?

For example, do you have someone who can be your cheerleader when you need to be motivated, someone who can see you clearly enough to give you realistic, targeted advice and another who knows how to get out of sticky situations? Do you have someone who knows your industry as well as you do (or better) and another who can give you an outside perspective? Think top-down to whether your advisory board has the right range, or if you have too many similar talents or a missing voice. You should also strive for some variety in gender, age and affiliation, or at least a group of people who do not all approach problem-solving in the same way that you do.

5) Will you be motivated and committed to help them in return?  Every relationship is a two-way street. If you can’t offer something of real value to your advisor, it will be hard to count on that person’s commitment when you most need it. People are just too busy, with too many demands, to support someone who is a metaphorical dead end.

For a sponsor or mentor, this may mean that you support initiatives the person has spearheaded, mentor a younger colleague in the person’s group, act as a sounding board or simply deliver great work. For a colleague, it may mean that you support his or her professional or personal life in a way that’s helpful and meaningful to that individual. There are creative ways to show your support in return for someone who has helped you, especially if you truly focused on that person’s life and needs.

Make sure to choose advisors with whom you can authentically request and return support. The last thing someone wants is to think your interest is insincere or that it is an effort for you to show up on their behalf. Even a hired advisor (like an accountant or career coach) needs to be a good fit, with mutual trust and rapport, or there will not be enough goodwill generated in the relationship for you to draw out the support you are hoping to achieve.

Whenever possible, surround yourself with people whom you are more than happy to help succeed. If you choose well, the feeling will be mutual.