Sally Helgesen is smiling into the camera against a beige background.
Image: Sally Helgesen

‘Women’s greatest strengths are what organisations of every kind need’

3 Jun 2020

Ahead of her appearance at a Network Ireland Cork webinar, women’s leadership coach Sally Helgesen shares her advice on climbing the career ladder.

Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker and leadership coach. Forbes described her as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership and her most recent book, How Women Rise, was published in 2018.

The Wall Street Journal called another of her books, The Web of Inclusion, one of the best books on leadership and credited it with bringing the language of inclusion into business.

This evening (3 June), Helgesen will speak at Network Ireland Cork’s live webinar titled Breaking The Habits That Hold Your Career Back. The event takes place at 8pm and costs €15 for non-members.

In advance of her guest appearance at the event, I got the chance to chat to Helgesen about women’s leadership and some of the behaviours that can hamper career progression.

‘Some habits serve women well early in their careers but then undermine them as they seek to move to the leadership level’

Why are you passionate about coaching women in their careers?

For 30 years, helping women to recognise, articulate and act on their greatest strengths has been my personal mission – in writing, speaking, leading seminars or coaching. I am passionate about this because women’s greatest and most identifiable strengths are precisely what organisations of every kind need, given the demographic, technological and economic changes of the last three decades.

These include bias for direct communication rather than communication up and down the chain of command, desire to lead from the centre rather than the top, comfort with as opposed to tolerance of diversity, and ability to integrate their lives at work and their lives at home. And these strengths will only become more essential in the future.

What are some of the behaviours that may get in the way of successful women?

In How Women Rise, we identify 12 behaviours that, in my experience, are most likely to hold women back from realising their full potential. Some of the most significant include: reluctance to claim your achievements, expecting others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions, overvaluing expertise, putting your job before your career, the perfection trap and minimising.

These, and all the other habits, often serve women well early in their careers but then undermine them as they seek to move to the leadership level.

How can women challenge and potentially overcome those behaviours?

First, identify the one specific behaviour you most want to address. Many women say to me, ‘Oh, I have six of these habits or I have nine’. Fine, but you want to start with one behaviour or one part of one behaviour. Work on it and then move onto the next one.

Secondly, and this is really the most important advice I can offer, don’t try to do it alone. Research shows that the people who are most successful at making long-term behavioural change engage others to help them. You can work with a coach or a peer coach as I have for the last nine years (bonus: a peer coach costs no money). Or you can informally enlist accountability partners to seek their feedback and feedforward. This is immensely valuable because it gets you in the habit of engaging support directly from colleagues.

Are these behaviours more prominent in certain industries?

I see them across the board and also in many, many cultures, as is evidenced by the fact that we’ve sold rights to the book in 19 languages. However, overvaluing expertise is especially common in professional services such as law and accounting and in science, technology and engineering.

What are some resources you would recommend to others?

I am a reader more than a listener. One book I always recommend is The Tao of Power in the translation by RL Wing. I read a page or two every morning to start my day. It is about what makes leaders great – and what makes them terrible. It has lessons for all of us, but especially women. I also love reading biographies of women leaders and learn so much from them.

Was there a person who inspired you at some point in your life or career?

Certainly, Frances Hesselbein has been a big influence and also played a role in shaping the extraordinary network of colleagues that has been essential to my success and my satisfaction. I did a diary study of Frances in my 1990 book, The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, and was struck by how intentional she was as a leader and how powerfully she enlisted allies. Frances has published a number of books but my favourite is her memoir, My Life in Leadership.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

I would tell myself to be highly intentional about what I want to contribute to the world and about who I need to engage in order to help me reach my goal.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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