The boss loved Barbara's work and didn’t want to lose her, but could no longer tolerate the “noise” surrounding her. People were complaining about Barbara's aloofness, grandstanding, and failure as a team player. So, the boss asked Barbara if she would be willing to see an executive coach and she agreed to do so, albeit with some reluctance.
During my first meeting as Barbara's coach, I asked the usual questions about where she grew up, how many siblings she had, education, etc. Barbara was candid in talking about being raised the youngest of several children in a strict German family from the Midwest. I asked what the “rules for membership” were in her family, explaining that every family has implicit or explicit rules for what’s expected of children, and she rolled her eyes. Dad was a strict disciplinarian, Mom instilled in them the fear of God, and everyone was expected to work hard. There was little time for frivolity in this Teutonic household.
At that moment I knew exactly what was working against in her in the office. As a pioneer in the field of executive coaching I had come to realize that these rules for membership contribute to the development of our greatest strengths, but they also can hold us back if we don’t take care to develop complementary strengths as well. In Barbara’s case, she was acting in ways that would have made her parents happy but kept her stuck in a childhood paradigm. The “little girl” inside her was unconsciously trying to please everyone through hard work, dedication, and a brilliant performance. What she didn’t understand was that this paradigm worked inside her family, but it wasn’t going to help her career in the long-term.
There were four specific mistakes that Barbara needed to correct if she was to be successful in this organization, or any other:
Mistake #1: Working Hard
It’s a myth that hard work alone will get you ahead. Hard work is only the baseline for success. Everyone is expected to work hard and do their job well. So, what differentiates those who move up the ladder and those who stagnate? Barbara provides us with the perfect case in point. She felt the other people in her department were slackers who wasted their time gossiping and taking long lunches when there was important work to be done. She couldn’t see they were actually building relationships that would contribute to success down the road.
Mistake #2 : Doing the Work of Others
Precisely because she was willing to skip lunch, work overtime and come in early, Barbara’s plate was loaded with work that others could and should have done. This only served to (a) compound that old, internalized feeling of having to work harder than everyone else if she was to get ahead, and (b) give others the impression that she was grandstanding. Being a “nice girl,” she certainly wasn’t going to complain about or negotiate for a more reasonable workload. She simply shouldered the tasks and completely abandoned any semblance of a life outside of work.
Mistake #3: Avoiding Office Politics
“Let she who is without sin cast the first stone,” Barbara learned in girlhood. She equated office politics with gossip and avoided it at all costs. Big mistake. The business of politics is nothing more than the business of relationships. It’s how you get things done in the workplace. There’s an unspoken quid pro quo: you do something for me and I do something for you. Like many women, Barbara thought of politics as a dirty word. Avoiding politics leaves you on the outside looking in without information to share, favors to trade, or relationships in place when you need them. And when you need a relationship, it’s already too late to build it.
Mistake #4: Waiting to Be Noticed
Although it wasn’t something people complained about, it was something that Barbara brought up during her coaching program. She couldn’t figure out why, after all her dedication and hard work, she wasn’t getting the plum assignments and promotions that she saw going to her colleagues. It was because once again, she was acting like the little girl her parents taught her to be. She assumed her performance would be noticed and rewarded. Wrong again. It is often necessary to ask for what you want and what you think you deserve. Guys do it all the time. Women, on the other hand, hesitate for fear of looking too pushy or aggressive.
Coaching Tips for Barbara and Others Like Her
1. Once or twice a day get up from your desk and have a casual conversation with people on your floor. Make it personal by asking about them and their lives and sharing something about you and yours.
2. Get a life. Work expands to fill the time available. If you have no reason to leave the office you won’t. Develop a routine that is consistent with your company’s culture. If most people are working 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. then use this as a guideline.
3. Learn to negotiate. When you find you are being given significantly more work than your colleagues, negotiate deadlines or ask for help with the projects.
4. Talk about your career aspirations. Let people know what positions or assignments would be of interest to you and why you would be a good match for them. Of course this means you must first identify them in your own mind!
5. Stay tuned to the grapevine. It’s a valuable source of information.
About the Author
Lois P. Frankel, PhD, is president of Corporate Coaching International, a business coaching and consulting firm, and the author of the international bestsellers, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and Nice Girls Don't Get Rich, as well as See Jane Lead, a timely book about why women make natural leaders for our time. Learn more about Dr. Frankel here.