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Book Excerpt:
Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office
by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.

Warner Books
ISBN: 0446531324
Hardcover $19.95 U.S./$29.95 CAN
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Chapter 1
Getting Started

Here's your first coaching tip: Don't begin reading this book until you've learned how to use it to your advantage. You'll only end up thinking everything applies to you in equal proportions when in fact you're probably doing better than you think. You know how we women can be-more critical of ourselves than necessary and reluctant to take credit where it's due. When I coach women, I often tell them that changing behavior is much easier if they can understand where it comes from and what purpose it serves. All behavior serves a purpose-take a few minutes now to understand what purpose yours serves.

From the outset I want you to know and, even more important, believe that the mistakes impeding you from reaching your career goals or potential don't happen because you're stupid or incompetent (although others might want to make you think so). You are simply acting in ways consistent with your socialization. Beyond girlhood, no one ever tells us that acting differently is an option-and so we don't. Whether it's because we are discouraged from doing so or because we are unaware of the alternatives, we often fail to develop a repertoire of woman-appropriate behaviors.

As an executive coach to both men and women in organizations of all sizes around the world, I've had the opportunity to gain insight into why some people move forward fluidly in their careers while others stagnate, never fully reaching their potential.

Although there are plenty of mistakes made by both men and women that hold them back, there are a unique set of mistakes made predominantly by women. Whether I'm working in Jakarta, Oslo, Prague, Frankfurt, Wellington, or Detroit, I'm amazed to watch women across cultures make the same mistakes at work. They may be more exaggerated in Hong Kong than in Houston, but they're variations on the same theme. And I know they're mistakes because once women address them and begin to act differently, their career paths take wonderful turns they never thought possible.

So why do women stay in the place of girlhood long after it's productive for them? One reason is because we've been taught that acting like a girl-even when we're grown up-isn't such a bad thing. Girls get taken care of in ways boys don't. Girls aren't expected to fend for or take care of themselves-others do that for them. Sugar and spice and everything nice-that's what little girls are made of. Who doesn't want to be everything nice?

The virtues of girls are extolled in songs. "I Enjoy Being a Girl." "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." "My Girl." "The Girl from Ipanema." Who wouldn't want to be a girl? People like girls. Men want to protect you. Cuddly or sweet, tall or tan, girls don't ask for much. They're nice to be around and they're nice to have around-sort of like pets.

Being a girl is certainly easier than being a woman. Girls don't have to take responsibility for their destiny. Their choices are limited by a narrowly defined scope of expectations. And here's another reason why we continue to exhibit the behaviors learned in childhood even when at some level we know they're holding us back: We can't see beyond the boundaries that have traditionally circumscribed the parameters of our influence. It's dangerous to go out of bounds. When you do, you get accused of trying to act like a man or being "bitchy." All in all, it's easier to behave in socially acceptable ways.

There's only one problem. When we live a life circumscribed by the expectations of others, we live a limited life. What does it really mean to live our lives as girls rather than women? It means we choose behaviors consistent with those that are expected of us rather than those that move us toward fulfillment and self-actualization. Rather than live consciously, we live reactively. Although we mature physically, we never really mature emotionally. And while this may allow us momentary relief from real-world dilemmas, it never allows us to be fully in control of our destiny.

As I said in the introduction, observing, coaching, and facilitating workshops for professional women have enabled me to learn firsthand how acting like a girl gets in the way of achieving your career potential. Missed opportunities for career-furthering assignments or promotions arise from being reluctant to showcase your capabilities, feeling hesitant to speak in meetings, and working so hard that you forget to build the relationships necessary for long-term success. These behaviors are only magnified in workshops at which men and women are the participants. My work in corporations allows me to facilitate both workshops for only women and leadership development programs for mixed groups within the same company. Even women whom I've seen act assertively in a group of other women become more passive, compliant, and reticent to speak in a mixed group.

The Case of Susan

Let me give you an example of a woman with whom I worked who wondered why she wasn't reaching her full potential. Susan was a procurement manager for a Fortune 100 oil company. She'd been with this firm for more than twelve years when she expressed frustration over not moving as far or as fast as male colleagues who'd commenced employment at the same time she did. Although Susan thought there might be gender bias at play, she never considered how she contributed to her own career plateauing. Before Susan and I met one-on-one in a coaching session, I had the opportunity to observe her in meetings with her peers.

At the first meeting I noticed this attractive woman with long blond hair, diminutive figure, and deep blue eyes. Being from Texas, she spoke with a delicate Southern accent and had an alluring way of cocking her head and smiling as she listened to others. She was a pleasure to have in the room, but she reminded me of a cheerleader-attractive, vivacious, warm, and supportive.

As others spoke, she nodded her head and smiled. When she did speak, she used equivocating phrases like "Perhaps we should consider . . ."; "Maybe it's because . . ."; and "What if we . . ." Because of these behaviors no one would ever accuse Susan of being offensive, but neither would they consider her executive material.

After several more meetings at which I observed her behavior vis--vis her peers, Susan and I met privately to explore her career aspirations. Based on her looks, demeanor, and what I had heard her say in meetings, I assumed she was perhaps thirty to thirty-five years old. I was floored when she told me she was forty-seven, with nearly twenty years' experience in the area of procurement. I had no clue she had that kind of history and experience-and if I didn't, no one else did either. Without realizing it, Susan was acting in ways consistent with her socialization. She had received so much positive reinforcement for these behaviors that she'd come to believe they were the only ways she could act and still be successful.

Susan bought into the stereotype of bein' a girl.

Truth be told, the behaviors she exhibited in meetings did contribute to her early career success. The problem was that they would not contribute to reaching future goals and aspirations. Her management, peers, and direct reports acknowledged she was a delight to work with, but they didn't seriously consider her for more senior positions or high-visibility projects. Susan acted like a girl and, accordingly, was treated like one. Although she knew she had to do some things differently if she were to have any chance of reaching her potential, she didn't have a clue what they would be.

I eventually came to learn Susan was the youngest of four children and the only girl in the family. She was the apple of Daddy's eye and protected by her brothers. She learned early on that being a girl was a good thing. She used it to her advantage. And as Susan grew up, she continued to rely on the stereotypically feminine behaviors that resulted in getting her needs met. She was the student teachers loved having in class, the classmate with whom everyone wanted to be friends, and the cheerleader everyone admired. Susan had no reference for alternative ways of acting that would bring her closer to her dream of being promoted to a vice president position.

We're All Girls at Heart

Although Susan is an extreme example of how being a girl can pay huge dividends, most of us have some Susan in us. We behave in ways consistent with the roles we were socialized to play, thereby never completely moving from girlhood to womanhood. As nurturers, supporters, or helpmates, we are more invested in seeing others get their needs met than we are in ensuring that ours are acknowledged. And there's another catch. When we do try to break out of those roles and act in more mature, self-actualizing ways, we are often met with subtle-and not-so-subtle-resistance designed to keep us in a girl role. Comments like "You're so cute when you're angry," "What's the matter? Are you on the rag?" or "Why can't you be satisfied with where you are?" are designed to keep us in the role of a girl.

When others question our femininity or the validity of our feelings, our typical response is to back off rather than make waves. We question the veracity of our experience. If it's fight or flight, we often flee. And every time we do, we take a step back into girlhood and question our self-worth. In this way we collude with others to remain girls rather than become women. And here is where we must begin to accept responsibility for not getting our needs met or never reaching our full potential. Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Stop consenting. Stop colluding. Quit bein' a girl!

Managing Your Anxiety

I can see by the looks on women's faces, and from their comments, that anxiety and confusion are part of the learning process. My 1989 audiotape, Women and Power: Understand Your Fear/Releasing Your Potential, and my book, Women, Anger & Depression: Strategies for Self-Empowerment (Health Communications, 1991) contain now dated examples, but the content related to the process remains on target. More than a decade later, when the suggestion is made to embrace their power, women reject the notion of being perceived as too masculine, aggressive, or uncooperative out of fear. It is so counter to our socialization that we dismiss it out of hand. The notion that we must be for others rather than for ourselves is implanted so strongly that we are reluctant to explore the alternative.

The irony is that women act powerfully all the time, but in ways different from men. Relying on our "girlish charm" can be just as influential, but less direct and less confrontational. In other words, we wield power less directly than men. We've learned to be less direct so we will not be perceived as taking too much power away from men. This is at the core of our difficulties with gaining increased influence skills and organizational visibility.

Each time a woman directly asserts herself, however, she is essentially saying to the men in her life (whether they are husbands, sons, bosses, or other male authority figures), "I want something from you. I want what is rightfully mine. I expect my needs to be met, too." With each assertion we frequently feel guilty. We equate taking control back with taking something away from someone else.

More than simply getting what we need, deserve, or want, we are forcing others to give back what we have been giving away for so long. The reactions we get are difficult to cope with. Others don't really want the situation to change-they already have everything they need, so why should they change?

Resistance to change is normal. It is to be expected. Like the alcoholic in recovery who finds others colluding to bring him or her back to a place of intoxication, the girl who moves toward womanhood will find herself faced with people who want to continue to infantilize her. This is what you must keep in mind if you want to achieve your goals.

What's a Girl to Do?

Here are some specific coaching tips-a prelude of what is to follow. Take them one at a time. Don't try to do them all at once- you'll only set yourself up for frustration. Choose one or two on which to work, then come back for more.

Give yourself permission to move from girlhood to womanhood. It may seem like a simple idea, but it's one that is often resisted for all the reasons mentioned above. Have a good, long talk with yourself. Tell yourself that you are not only allowed, but entitled to act in ways that move you toward goal attainment. Try the mantra I am entitled to have my needs met, too.

Visualize yourself as you want to be. If you can see it, you can have it. Picture yourself in the role to which you aspire. If it's in the corner office, see yourself at the desk with the accoutrements that go along with it. Consider the behaviors in which you will engage to warrant this position and the ways in which you will act. Bring them into your reality.

Talk back to the fearful voice inside your head. This may sound crazy at first, but you must counter the old messages and replace them with new ones. If your fearful girl's voice says, "But no one will like me if I change," let your woman's voice respond with, "That's an old message. Let's create a new, more empowered one."

Surround yourself with a Plexiglas shield. The Plexiglas shield is designed to allow you to see what is going on around you, but not be punctured by the negativity of others. I suggested this to a client, who later told me she thought it sounded a little crazy but decided to try it-only to find that it worked! In difficult situations she would picture herself encapsulated in a Plexiglas bubble that protected her from the disparaging remarks of others and allowed her to remain in a grounded, adult position.

Create the word on the street. A routine exercise we do in leadership classes is to ask participants to write a twenty-five-word vision statement of how they want to be described, then list the behaviors needed to get them there. You can do the same. Write down what you want others to be saying about you, then follow it up with specific actions to make it happen. In short, accept the responsibility of adulthood.

Recognize resistance and put a name to it. When you find others resisting your efforts to be more direct and empowered, con-ider first that their responses are designed to keep you in a less powerful place. Rather than acquiesce, question it. Say something like, "It seems you don't agree with what I'm saying. Let me give you the rationale for my position and then perhaps you can tell me what it is you take issue with."

Ask for feedback. If you're worried that you are in some way acting inappropriately, ask a trusted friend or colleague for feed-back. Avoid asking a yes-no question (such as, "Did you think I was out of line?"). Try asking an open-ended question that will give you insight into how you are perceived (such as, "Tell me what I did in that meeting that helped me or hindered me from achieving my goals").

Don't aim for perfection. Even I don't engage in all the behaviors described in this book. There are some that are just so counter to my personality, I don't even try; others that, no matter how hard I try, I don't do well. The important thing is to do a few really well and allow the rest to fall into place.

Now it's up to you. Go get' em!

Copyright 2004 by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.

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Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. was a pioneer in the field of business coaching and is still one of the few coaches in the country with a combination of ten years working in human resources at a Fortune 10 oil company and psychological expertise. To learn more about her, visit her web sites: and

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