How Women Rise – Interview with Sally Helgesen

How Women Rise – Interview with Sally Helgesen

How Women Rise: Habits Holding Women Back From Career Success- An Interview with Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen’s mission has always been to help women recognize, articulate and act on their greatest strengths. She’s cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach. She has been ranked number 6 among the world’s top 30 leadership thinkers by Global Gurus, honored by the coaching consortium MEECO for her transformational influence on organizational cultures and chosen as the Thinkers 50/Marshall Goldsmith world’s top coach for women leaders.

Sally’s most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with #1 ranked executive coach and New York Times best-selling author, Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women. It became the top-seller in its field within a week of publication and rights have been sold in 15 languages. This interview was conducted via zoom- .

Adedoyin: Since you wrote your ground-breaking book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership , where you studied a number of America’s most successful female leaders by following them around and closely watching them. What’s changed in terms of leadership traits of the best leaders- male or female and based on your observation in the 1990s and now.


Sally: This is a wonderful question because what has changed is the acceptance of the leadership qualities that I documented in the Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership and the recognition which is pretty widespread in global organizations that these leadership characteristics are essential for organizational success. Let me give you an example. In 1990 when I published The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, the first book to look at what women might have to contribute as leaders rather than how they needed to change and adapt. Based on diary studies of outstanding women leaders, I was trying to find out how they did things. What I noticed, even though, the women were very divorced, they had certain leadership characteristics strongly in common. They were very effective at building strong relationships and creating organizations in which good relationships were characteristics among people at different levels. They preferred direct communication rather than communication up and down a chain of command. They were comfortable with as opposed to tolerant of diversity because they were outsiders. And they were comfortable bringing skills that they used in their private lives and homes into the workplace and vice versa. What is fascinating about this is that when I set out there in the 90s, one of the responses was these are leadership skills, these are soft skills, they are nice but they are not really essential at the leadership levels. The biggest change for me has been watching every one of those characteristics come to be recognized as what constitutes leadership excellence in global organizations. That’s been a huge change and I think that has really supported the emergence of a much greater appreciation of what women have to offer and an understanding that is needed at the leadership level. It doesn’t always translate into women being at the very top levels but it translates as much more influence and much more depth in terms of women at leadership levels in general.

Adedoyin: In your latest book- How Women Rise co-authored with #1 ranked executive coach in the world, Marshall Goldsmith you identified 12 habits that hold women back from their career success. Can you share with us 4-5 habits that you have seen been exhibited by women across these organizations where you have worked.


Marshall Goldsmith and I focused on 12 habits that are most likely to hold women back at the leadership level and maybe the habits that have served them well in their careers in general up until mid-level that they can be a problem at a more senior level. I would say the 4-5 that I see most commonly are:

  1. Expecting others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions without bringing their specific attention to make sure they recognize what you are contributing.

Women often hold themselves back from being clear about what they are contributing because they are afraid of being perceived as being arrogant, or all about me, etc. Men are much less hesitant about making sure that what they contribute is recognized.

  1. Overvaluing Expertise-

That means that women believe that if they just become the absolute best person at the job they are doing and develop their skills to the fullest that will result in you being promoted and moving on. A successful career is always built on three things- Expertise, Visibility, and Connections/Relationships. When you overvalue expertise, you tend to underinvest in building visibility and you often tend to wait to build relationships and make you feel really confident in the expertise you have.  This focus can really keep you stuck because it can begin to make you feel indispensable to your boss and to your team where you are because you’re so skilled at what you do. And it can also give you the idea that you’re not ready to move on to anything else until you have all the skills mastered. But the only job you can really be an expert in is the job you have. So, if you are overly invested in that you can stay stuck.

  1. Building rather than leveraging relationships.

Women are very skilled and very often eager to build relationships and especially overtime in their organizations or their sector. They develop strong relationships. However, women are often a bit reluctant to engage people they have a relationship with they can request something they need either in terms of achieving a tactical objective related to their job or strategic objective related to their career. Women can hesitate to ask people they have relationships with. When I ask women why they hesitate, they often say well, I don’t want people to think I am using them rather than seeing it as potentially a win-win for the other person as well.

  1. Reluctance/Failing to engage allies from the first day.

What I have seen is that many women go into a new position and their first question is what do I need to know? Whereas the most successful people generally go into a new position and their question is who do I need to know? Who do I need to engage to make sure this is a success? Engaging allies from the very first day on a new job and thinking in terms of who can I ask, who might support me here? Who will help me be as visible as I can be in my efforts? That’s a very strong approach which I don’t find a lot of women necessarily take. One thing that’s very well-known of course is the perfection trap and that’s the feeling that you have to do everything perfectly or it’s a complete failure and that’s very common with women and organizations encourage that. One thing Marshall and I found in the research we did were that organizations tend to reward and promote man based on their visibility, being perceived as a big picture thinker and also the connections that they have. Whereas organizations tend to promote and reward women based on precision and correctness. So, women get the message from their companies that being precise and correct is what’s going to get them where they want to go. But at the senior leadership level, companies are not looking for precision and correctness, they are looking for big picture thinking, boldness, ability to take measured-risk, and they are looking for people who are very good at what you could call outward-facing positions rather than focus internally. Other people provide the expertise, other people provide the precision and correctness and those are the characteristics for the leadership levels. What continues to surprise me is how often I still see some of these characteristics at very senior levels in organizations.


Adedoyin: The issue around gender gap is something we are all aware of. As we all know that organizations, institutions and even teams with gender-diverse leadership often tend to see significant business benefits. This is not the case when you look at it from the real world. A study was conducted by DDI and it was found out that women in the corporate world currently comprise less than one-third of all leadership roles, with the majority of those roles at the frontline. And when they do get the chance to lead, they often lead smaller teams. As an expert in women leadership, how true are these assertions.


Sally: I think these assertions are fairly true. I think that a lot of organizations are reluctant to give women stretch assignments. One of the ways that women also tend to foster this is by being a perfectionist and overvaluing their expertise which contends to make them risk-averse. In terms of stretch assignments, organizations tend to do that less. They tend to think well maybe this is going to be too much for her, maybe she doesn’t want to travel this much. They say all these without really finding out what that individual feels. Often, stretch assignments are given and it involves managing larger teams. I think that we have been doing this for about 35 years thinking about women in leadership roles and I have to say that having studied your perspective, I see remarkable progress and I don’t think one-third of leadership positions being held by women. I think if we look back to the 1990s, and compared to now, I think women have made significant progress and I don’t think it’s enough. Many organization s are hiring at 50% and women are not making it anything like those numbers. In my observations, I think women have made remarkable progress. I know how things were when I published the Female Advantage in 1990s. We are coming from a world and from a heritage where organizations made man and certainly at the leadership level that was assuming that everybody would be male.


Adedoyin: Can we link this lack of progress or gender-gap to some of the habits identified in your book- How Women Rise?

I think you will agree with me that Marshall and I didn’t write this book to say that women are at fault for this gender gap. What we recognized and understood was that the primary impediment women face as leaders in an organization tends to be either structural or cultural. For structure, it may involve how the organization is designed and laid out. When people get promoted, how they identify potential talents. It may also be subcultural within the organization. And that can be everything from continued prevalence of old-boys’ networks, it can also involve things like how people judge confidence and incompetence in doing leadership selection. As identified, over the last thirty years, there are many cultural and structural factors and expectations created with men in mind that continue to frustrate many women’s talents and ambitions.

There is also the third factor. Certain things that women do to hold themselves back without maximizing their potential. What we wanted to do in the book was not to focus on the cultural or structural issues but to focus on what women can control. This is because these are things that lie within women’s control. The only way we are going to address structure and culture is to have more women in senior leadership positions. The better job we can do of preparing women to assume those jobs and get out of their way to the extent that they may be holding themselves back from certain habits that will help shift the culture and structure of the organization. Certainly, I will never say the cause of the gender gap are these habits. I just wanted to focus on those habits because women can control them.


Adedoyin: What are your top piece of advice to women who are individual contributors especially those that are just starting their career and looking to take a leap to the top.


  1. Have a plan to be visible

Have a plan to make sure that people know who you are and what you are contributing. And sometimes by developing internal allies who can support that or allies out of your organizations who may also provide support. Ultimately, have a plan to be visible and promote your visibility. Recognize that this is essential to your career success.

  1. Get Comfortable Asking for Help

Women are often very reluctant to do that. They feel it will make them look as if they’re not up to the job. But the thing is that we all need help. It is a way of being visible. It is a way of deepening and leveraging relationships. Get comfortable asking people for help.


  1. Identify a couple of male allies

You need to enlist some male allies that you need their support. For example, I was doing a program just last night and I was talking to a woman who had been in the Secret Service here in the US that guards the POTUS. She’s been passed for promotions several times and felt really discouraged and disappointed. What she decided to do was to talk to three senior executives who are in the same Secret Service and positions of authority to help. To each of them, she said ‘I want to move higher in this organization, and is there anything you can advise that I should be doing, and is there any way you can help me move forward in my career’? She said, all the three of them agreed and she ended up with a huge promotion. This happened because she enlisted them as allies.

Another example was a woman I worked with who was a senior partner in a law firm. After five years that she came in she hadn’t been promoted. Whereas other people she came in with had made it to Partner in the law firm. According to her, she said started looking around for a different job because her present job wasn’t working. She got another job and just before leaving her present employer told her what can we do to keep you? What if we made you a partner? She responded that’s why she’s been working 80-hours a week so that she could make a partner in the organization. So, enlisting some allies and getting them on your side is very important. Women shouldn’t be afraid of doing that. Women are often in the habit of saying ‘I don’t want to take anybody’s time up’. That can be very problematic.

  1. Examine Your Skills

Examining the whole range of your skills, roll up everything up there, make a list of the skills is very important. Here’s what I think I am good at and then find ways to back that up. When I run programs all around the world I often hear women say that things change for them when they started keeping a list of the concrete accomplishments they had even if they were very small. They say it gives them a lot of confidence looking back at that and looking back at that also helps them describe where they can contribute right away. So, women should start keeping a record of that and it can really make a positive effect on their career.


Adedoyin: How can women in the C-Suite become effective mentoring champions for other women coming up?


Sally: I have seen so many things work. I think we under leverage women’s network in organizations. We still don’t understand the power that they can have. I have seen situations where senior women have been reluctant to get involved with women’s network because they want to make sure they are seeing as a leader and not just women. I don’t think this is a good track for women either for the leaders or the younger women in the organization. So, if you are on that leadership track, there are many advantages to positioning yourself as a strong supporter of women. One of the ways you can do that is to get involved with the women’s network even when the women are at incoming or mid-level. You need to contribute to their growth. Talk openly about your journey, be honest talking about your challenges and how you overcame those challenges, past accomplishments. Arrange opportunities for women who are either incoming or mid-level to also hear the experiences of other senior women. I have seen so much power in that. When I speak at conferences I hear women who are in the same organizations and sectors say when very senior women showing up for them talk about how they made it through and what they had to learn, what worked for them, what didn’t work, there’s always a huge effect on their career. Look for these opportunities to do that and get really visible in terms of contributing to whatever the internal network of the group is the organization has.

Also, one of the constraints on a lot of senior women is that they feel they have to be a role model in everything that they do and that every mistake they make is going to reflect on women in general. So they put pressure on themselves. I have never seen a man thinking am I a good role model for another man. Women need to let go of that compulsion to always seem like a great role model because that can distort the decisions that you make. You will be the best role model you can be if you are really authentic and if you are pursuing your career in the smartest and most strategic ways possible rather than thinking about how can I be a good role model.


Have you identified any of these habits and behaviours holding you back from achieving your career success as a woman? How are you dealing with them? Kindly share your experience in the comment section below


Adedoyin Adebayo conducted this interview. He is a Senior Consultant at Insel Consulting