Here is an extract from my book Play to Win: What women can learn from men in business.
This chapter of the book has a very important message for women in business: ditch the small, incremental moves! This is lesson number 4 of my 9 lesson guide for business women, and is followed by a cheat sheet to help you ditch the small, incremental moves called 5 strategies to help you make your leap.
If you would like to read more, you can pick up a copy of Play to Win: What women can learn from men in business here. Rina Broomberg, co-founder of cliffcentral.com, said of Play to Win, ‘In my four decades as a women in business – both in management and as a consultant – I’ve read tons of books and attended seminars galore but this says it all in a concise and easy read. It’s the kind of book women need to keep close and dip into regularly.’
Ditch the small, incremental moves
Women are inclined to climb the career ladder one small step at a time – and that’s not always the best strategy. Men are far less risk averse – they are more likely to aim high, take a bit of a leap, and fast-track their progress up the corporate ladder.
You just don’t get to where to you want to go if you take the incremental approach. I remember my own business mentor confronting me strongly when I presented my plan to build my business. I presented a structure with a number of part-time resources, to which he replied: “Are you serious about building a business, or do you just want to play?”
In most companies, the people who get ahead – those who really shine – tend to do so by making big, bold moves. It’s a bit like Survivor: they ‘outwit, outplay, outlast’ and leave their colleagues in the dust. Think of Khanyi Dhlomo, who went from beauty editor to editor of South Africa’s True Love magazine when she was just 22.Within a year of her appointment, True Love’s circulation doubled from 70 000 to 140 000 and the magazine became the most widely read women’s magazine in the country.
It starts with a vision or visualisation of where you want to be, and then that vision must be aligned with a strategy. All revolutions start with an idea in one person’s head, but without strategy and action, that’s where they are destined to stay.
So you need to have a basic sense of what you want, and where you want to go, and then visualise yourself there. As soon as men walk into the building, they see themselves as the CEO, and behave accordingly. That’s what Monica did when she started as a project manager at Strate. But you need that alignment between vision and strategy. And the thing is, it is risky. You might fall flat on your face, or make a mistake here and there. But that’s better than being stuck, fervently wishing you’d done something different.
Many women spend big chunks of their careers idling in neutral. They are comfortable where they are, even if they’re not happy or fulfilled, and know they could be doing better. They rationalise everything: they’re good at what they do, the money’s good, and so on. And then they spend a lot of time in counter-productive, negative thinking, focusing on what they don’t have, instead of visualising what they do want and chasing that. They play small, and they stay safe, and so they stagnate.
But that’s the problem with not taking risks in your career: if you keep doing the same thing, nothing changes. And then you feel trapped.
So, how do you break out of that risk-averse mind-set? You start pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in other areas first. You start by choosing something that makes you uncomfortable: zip-lining, bungee jumping, going to movies by yourself, wearing bright colours – you know what makes you cringe.
Go and do that and then analyse your reaction – what did you discover about yourself, how did you surprise yourself? What lessons did you learn?When you’ve done that, apply the same principle to your work life: what can you do for your career that makes you feel uncomfortable? Make a list and start with the least scary idea.
For example, think about people who do the job you want – could you reach out to them in some way? Ask them to mentor or sponsor you? Take them to lunch and pick their brains? Could you take your boss out for coffee and ask about promotion opportunities that might be coming up or ask for a raise?
Could you write an article – or a series of articles – about your area of expertise and put it out on LinkedIn or Facebook, and start to establish yourself as an expert in your field, and raise your profile?
And when a job comes up that you’d love to do, but you think it’s a few too many rungs above you, why not apply for it? Believe in your abilities. Believe you can make a difference.
If you’re not pushing the limits of your career comfort zone, you’re wasting opportunities. You have to take risks and make mistakes to learn and build your leadership skills. So it’s important to make bold moves: consider a role in a whole new area, propose a new idea, take an international assignment. But be courageous and adventurous.
And don’t wait – do it early. The earlier you take on a career-related challenge, the more you will build your appetite and tolerance for risk, and the more you will build your skills set.
Author Margie Warrell writes in Forbes magazine that many middle-aged people who talk to her say that if they could do their career over again, they would take more risks, settle less, and speak up more often. So it’s important to learn to take those risks earlier on in your career so you’re not left with the same regrets.
It can be a bit difficult to get there, because so many of us have an in-built ‘negativity bias’ – we over-estimate the downside, exaggerate the consequences and underplay opportunities.When we are assessing risk, we tend to focus more on potential losses than on potential gains: what might go wrong rather than what might go right. But in reality, the odds are not nearly as stacked against us as we imagine.We also tend to exaggerate the consequences of failure: we think catastrophically and focus on the worst-case scenarios.
And then, women in particular tend to underestimate their own abilities and walk around in a fog of self-doubt.We avoid proactively going after new opportunities and taking on new challenges because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves to conquer the obstacles they involve. But there are things we can do and ways of thinking that can mitigate all of this behaviour.
First, think about finding a sponsor – not a mentor. That means someone who will advocate for you, and it’s most likely to be a man. “Men are a catalyst to our transformation. The individuals who contributed to my success were mostly men,” says Jo-Ann. “There are many men who serve as cheerleaders of women.”
According to the Harvard Business Review study called The Sponsor Effect, women in the upper echelons of business management who have a sponsor are at least 22% more likely to take risks like asking for an assignment that will stretch them, or asking for a raise.
Nomsa Chabeli Mazibuko, Group Head of Marketing at Multichoice, has experienced this first hand: “At my first marketing position, my boss was a gentleman called Dr Ivan May. He was formidable, well-known, a hard man, but I learnt so much from him and I think it really shaped me in terms of my understanding. We can’t always learn from the book. It has to be practical and it has to be from human experiences.”
Nomsa says she has actively sought mentors and sponsors to help her along her career path: “I identified people that I felt had a lot to offer me in terms of their experiences. I’ve gone out to find them and they’ve always been willing to share. What’s interesting is that once you approach people, and it’s genuine, they are so willing to share.”
Diane Schneider believes a sponsor is an absolute essential. “You need a sponsor for sure, but it’s hard to find one if you play a passive game and complain all the time,” she notes. I talk about asking for what you want, not hinting, in the next chapter.
“Every major career move I’ve made was because of a sponsor selecting me for an opportunity,” says Diane. “And the three major step-ups I’ve made were all facilitated by women. My best bosses have been female.”
So how do you do that? How do you find someone who will take you under their wing and promote you when the right opportunities present themselves?Well, there are some simple things you can do to increase your chances of finding sponsorship. To begin with, make your value and your ambitions clear to those senior to you. Outperform in your current role, and ensure your leaders know what your goals and your achievements are.
Risk-taking is a vital step in preparing you for career advancement. And if you have sponsors with experience and expertise in your corner, you can take more calculated risks, and mitigate some of your anxiety about failure.
Risk is the cost of doing business in today’s world, so it’s vital to learn to embrace it rather than fear it. And then take bigger steps: stop focusing on tiny, incremental career moves.
“I think that is often what sets you apart from the rest,” says Aletta Alberts, Head of Content at Multichoice. “Not only as a person, but also in business. Are you just going to take the same things and do them over and over again? Or are you going to take the risk, take the bold step, and that’s going to be like a game changer for you?”
I’m an entrepreneur now, and I’ve realised that entrepreneurs, by definition, are risk takers. But with big risk, comes big reward. You can have an ordinary job and make small moves up the ladder if you wish. But to really get ahead, you have to stretch your mind.When I coach businesspeople, I ask them: “What would you love to do? Now let’s get you there.”
Our minds constrain us.What you believe, you achieve. You have to think big.