Sudha Menon, author of the Devi, Diva Or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman's Survival Guide, tells women how to get their due at work.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Most women don't realise it, but the messages that we send out verbally or non-verbally, have the power to make or break our career.
If you are an ambitious career woman, you don't want to let your words or your unconscious behaviour patterns put the brakes on your career.
So stop committing verbal and non-verbal career hara-kiri!
From my years of interacting with and writing about the journeys of some of India's most successful women (besides Devi, Diva Or She-Devil, Sudha Menon is the author of Legacy: Letters From Eminent Parents To Their Daughters; Gifted: Inspiring Stories Of Women With Disabilities and Leading Ladies: Women Who Inspire India), I have identified some career-busting omissions and commissions that can ruin our progress at work.
Here, then, are some dos and don'ts to ensure that your career remains on the fast track as you head towards your desired goal.
1. Ask for your due at work
You must have heard this many times, but I’ve chosen to put it upfront because it is important: Upset that a role that you thought you had earned for yourself has gone to someone else?
A big reason men in the workplace get bigger raises and better roles is that they ask for it, while women are naturally trained to wait for things to happen to them.
It's time to take a deep breath and confront the elephant in the room. You have nothing to lose but your fear!
Take a long, hard look at the quality of your work.
If you are satisfied with the results you are delivering, reach out to a trusted friend and ask her/him for an honest opinion.
If the consensus is that you have delivered, prepare a detailed presentation about why you think you deserved that promotion.
Then request a meeting with your immediate boss to discuss the matter.
Most large companies have quarterly performance reviews and these can be an important and useful resource for your career progression.
If the review points out to certain shortcomings or areas of weaknesses, get right down to the job of improving your performance on those areas.
If, however, your performance review has gotten you all around great feedback, by all means use it to approach your boss and let him/her know you feel you have been bypassed for a great role or a much deserved raise.
2. Negotiate for the pay you deserve
The same rules apply when it comes to negotiating a raise that you think you deserved or when you discover a male colleague is being paid more than you for the same job description.
Multinational corporations are extremely worried about allegations of pay disparity. Also, in a scenario where a talented resource pool is being actively sought out, large organisations are unlikely to practise pay disparity.
"It is important to compare an apple to an apple in such cases. But, if you are convinced that there is a disparity in the pay for the same job, it is necessary to raise the issue and seek an explanation.
"While doing so, make sure it is not a fight but have a mature discussion, without tears or aggression.
"Sometimes, the very fact that you raised the issue will itself protect you the next time. It helps to find a senior in the organisation who knows your work and will stand up for you," says Naina Lal Kidwai, former chairperson of the HSBC group in India.
3. Put your hand up for new roles
Many women in senior leadership positions often have this advice for women seeking to rapidly rise in their organisation: If your dream role -- the one that will put you on the top leadership's radar -- is opening up within the organisation, stand up and let it be known that you are interested.
Most men would do this if they are only 50 per cent qualified for the job, but we women will still hesitate even if we are 95 per cent qualified.
"Big mistake! You can always learn the remaining bit on the job," says Pankajam Sridevi, who heads ANZ at Bengaluru.
4. Must avoids: Over-analysis and guilt-trips
"Many women make it a work-or-home kind of situation, instead of looking at it as a work-and-home situation.
"We over-analyse and over-plan and end up preventing ourselves from making any progress.
"Our ambition is the first victim in such a scenario," Leena Nair, Unilever's global head of human resources, told me when I was writing Devi, Diva Or She-Devil.
There will always be kids/parents who fall ill or need you and you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
5. Don't just be a worker bee; have fun at work too.
A very important reason why women face disappointment in their career aspirations is their working style.
Most women continue to focus singlemindedly on the task, turning into worker bees and eating lunch at the worktable when the reality is that bosses are tracking the X factor in potential leaders -- an articulate team worker who can communicate ideas and inspire and motivate teams working with and below her/him and is able to get the job done.
Of course, talent, hard work and a past track record at delivering are important, but occasional cup of coffee with the gang can be invaluable.
"When it comes to leadership positions the same rules apply for men and women.
"Organisations look at the candidate's team skills and if you are by nature a lone player, your career is unlikely to go very far," says Kidwai, who is currently leading an initiative to ensure that Indian companies have more women on their boards.
"Leadership positions also go to candidates who have also established their leadership qualities outside the organisation through links with industry bodies in their area of expertise."
6. Look for mentors and advocates within the organisation
Smart women seek mentors within and outside the organisation who guide them with their career aspirations and give them crucial feedback on performance.
In 1996, when she was just four years into her career at Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever), Leena Nair first met Keki Dadiseth, who was already a legend within the organisation.
Dadiseth went on to become a mentor who guided her at every stage of her life, including her relocation to London to take up a new role a few years ago.
"It is crucial to build a network of mentors throughout your career span," Nair says.
7. The office grapevine is useful
Many a time, we women are caught unawares by news that a plum position or role has already been allotted to a male colleague.
The reason largely is that women neither pay attention to the office grapevine nor do we take the opportunity to network with office colleagues.
That quarterly office party is often a treasure trove of information about workplace developments and, when we decide to give it the miss, it is often at a great cost to our progress.
If you occasionally went out for a quick after-work-hangout with your colleagues, you would know who gets how much moolah to take home and how much lower you are drawing that that person, while doing twice the work.
8. The networking conundrum
Most women break into a sweat at the prospect of attending office networking dinners, but there is a strong case why we should be there.
"It is important to make an appearance at office parties. You don't have to be the last person standing on the floor drinking, but you can't always use your child or your family commitment as an excuse to not show up.
"By not networking, you are losing out on getting to know decisions makers at work on a personal level and also on knowing about important opportunities that might open up in the future," says Kidwai.
9. Join industry forums
A lot of the people we know who land enviable jobs and assignments get invited to speak at high profile conferences or bag envy-inducing fellowships get their hands on these because they are at the right place at the right time.
Make it a point to join at least a couple of industry associations and regularly attend their meetings because this is where you get to meet influential people and hear about interesting developments in companies or organisations that you admire and want to align yourself with.
A colleague of mine from my journalism days is today one of the most high profile editors in the business and his dizzying climb to the top came as much from his talent as from his penchant to strike up great equations with influential people he regularly meets at various industry events that he frequents.
10. Leave the baby talk for home
Decision makers and top guns in organisations look for candidates who can talk shop anytime, anywhere.
And no, they don't want to hear about your daughter's birthday party, your son's visit to the dentist or the monthly PTA.
By the way, which male colleague or boss have you recently heard talking about their progeny or the state of their teeth? Right there is a lesson we women need to learn!