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    “Great graduation present!”

    Inspired to extend a helping hand to ambitious women working in corporate America, a veteran executive offers honest, practical, slightly irreverent advice about navigating companies that are run and populated predominately by men.


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    Learn to see yourself as others do and become magnetic, magnanimous, and memorable! Savvy advice, specific examples, and tactical exercises to develop your presence—in months, not years.

  • About the Author

    Jennifer K. Crittenden earned an MBA in finance and worked for over twenty years in the US and abroad, rising from financial analyst to chief financial officer. She is the author of five books, including the award-winning Discreet Guide for Executive Women. She offers professional development programs through her company The Discreet Guide.

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SECTION: Guiding Lights

Because you will see discrimination and injustice, you need a positive set of beliefs to ground you during your career. Following are seven truths you can count on that will guide your behavior so that, even when your workplace seems unfair, you can think rationally about it. This allows you to persevere and do your best every day, knowing your professionalism and smarts will ultimately be rewarded.

Truth #1: Cream Rises to the Top

I was fortunate to work for a great boss when I first ventured into the business world. He was smart, fierce, challenging, and attentive. He was a tall Armenian with bushy eyebrows, and the other analysts and I called him Darth behind his back and would alert each other by breathing down the phone when he was on his way. I was half-terrified of him.

“No!” he would bristle when I showed him my financial spreadsheets. “That’s not what I thought. I don’t believe you!”

“Um, but I think I’m right?” I would quaver, and after I countered every challenge and offered enough examples explaining why I thought I was right, he would growl, “Okay.” Presented with enough evidence, he was willing to change his position. Or maybe he was just checking. You can’t ask for more than that in a boss, and all the analysts flourished under him.

In contrast, there was another manager in the office with whom we interacted but didn’t report to. He was quite a contrast: lacking in analytical skills or people smarts, he relied on humiliation and snarkyness to dominate his employees. He sometimes bragged he’d made every woman who reported to him cry at least once. One woman who worked with him, a professional, even-tempered, and good-humored person, told me in complete seriousness, that if she were ever given an opportunity to kill someone and get away with it, she would pick him. “I would do it with a hammer,” she said.

So my heart sank when my wonderful boss appeared in my doorway one day to tell me he was being transferred and we would now all report to Eyeballs (we had other names for him, but I’ll use a fairly mild one here). Somehow my manager knew that this was horrifying news to me because, confronted by my faltering “But…,” he replied, “Look, Jennifer, just remember, cream rises to the top.” In time, in almost all companies, that’s true, and it’s worthwhile to keep in mind when things happen that make no sense.

Eventually, he was right. Not to say we didn’t struggle. My colleagues hated working for Eyeballs. He got that particular nickname after a typo was found in a financial schedule, and instead of intelligently thinking about how the mistake had occurred, he decided to throw “more eyeballs” at the problem and insisted every analyst in the group proofread every schedule from then on. It was mind-numbing and ineffective; we never caught another error that way, and it took up days of our time.

Even worse was how mean he was. One of my teammates was a quiet, amiable man, but following another sarcastic and demeaning phone conversation with Eyeballs, he said to me, “I hate that guy!” and violently drove his pencil straight through an apple sitting on his desk. I got along with Eyeballs a little better than my colleagues, but he was a pain to deal with. He had an uncomfortable relationship with his wife and would sigh after he got off the phone with her, “Don’t ever get married, Jennifer.” But unlike my colleagues, I could see he wasn’t all bad. I sometimes thought his snide comments were funny, and you certainly couldn’t accuse him of being politically correct. Nevertheless, when it came time for the employee survey, everyone let him have it.

There were two questions on the survey regarding your manager: one dealing with his skills as a manager, and one relating to his overall competence. Every person in his department rated him a 0 out of 5 on both questions. Everyone. So, when they tell you a survey is anonymous, keep in mind it’s only anonymous as long as it isn’t unanimous.

I wasn’t very happy to receive a phone call from Eyeballs after the results of the survey had been shared with him. I’d been transferred out of his department by then, so he probably felt it was okay to call me. He was heartbroken. “Why?” he asked. I tried to be kind and offer some suggestions, but it wasn’t long before he wasn’t with the company any more. The rumor was he took a job as controller for a chicken farm, which brought joyful snickers from my colleagues.

Keep the big picture in mind and let things play out. It’s hard when you’re in the thick of it, but remember you’re going to have a long career, and you may look back on this and laugh. A year working for a terrible boss, or in a hopeless division, or following some foolish, laughable procedure may turn out to be more educational than you realize at the time. Another good manager said to me, “Jennifer, don’t sweat it. In two years, this won’t matter, and in five years, no one will even remember you worked here.” It’s a bit cavalier, but it did help me put in perspective some petty cash variance I was battling at the time.

This will help you be philosophical about any minor setbacks in your career. Say you didn’t get the promotion you wanted after twelve months, is that really a crisis? Are you willing to wait a little longer? If yes, then don’t over-react. If you’re enjoying your position and learning a lot, be patient. Maybe they just need to season you a bit more. Think carefully before you switch jobs just because you’re miffed. If you’re good, your company will recognize it soon enough. Cream rises to the top.

Truth #2: This Is a Business Relationship

Don’t be starry-eyed about money. You work; they pay you. So, don’t undersell your work. Ask for a salary that will make you excited to go work there. If someone else has offered you more, tell them. Say, “I really want to come work for you, but the salary isn’t what I hoped. Do you have any flexibility?” Maybe they can make something up to you in a sign-on bonus if they can’t move the starting salary. Don’t worry about offending anyone. Just be honest and open-minded. Negotiate with integrity. If they give you what you ask for, take the job. Don’t play games, and then ask for something more.

Don’t assume life’s fair and you’ll get what you deserve. Actually, you will get what you deserve for such foolish thinking, and that means less than you would if you looked up some competitive salary information. Do your homework and research what typical salaries are at your level. Once you’ve presented that information, and they’ve said that’s as high as they can go, either take it and drop the discussion, or go someplace else. At that point, assume you’re paid exactly what you’re worth to the company; don’t be fooled into thinking you’re worth more. If you can make more elsewhere, think about leaving. It’s a business relationship. It’s not personal.

I’ve been surprised to hear even human resource professionals assume a woman is satisfied with her salary if they haven’t heard otherwise. Several times I’ve had to question why no salary adjustment was being made for a woman at year-end when an increase was given to men in the same department. “She’s happy,” was the response. How do they know she’s happy? “Well, she hasn’t said anything.”

Salary negotiations are definitely not all roses. I remember asking a boss for a pay raise, which he not only refused but then brought up several times afterward in front of others to mock my apparently inflated opinion of my worth. It embarrassed me, but I had enough experience by then to recognize he was being a doofus, and I left that company eventually (for more money). In retrospect, I suspect he’d never had the experience of having a woman ask for more money and was probably shocked.

I counsel my employees not to get altruistic about their employment. Every time they give up a holiday, or work late on their daughter’s birthday, or some other sacrifice, without knowing it, they put a chip in the credit account they mentally keep in their heads related to the company. The company, however, is blithely unaware of this running total, and eventually, if the employee gives up too much family time or makes too many sacrifices, he or she snaps and quits, and everyone loses: the company and the employee. I encourage employees to keep a balanced account—sometimes the company does something nice for you; sometimes you do something nice for the company. Since your personal sacrifices are within your control, don’t let them get out of synch. Ultimately, it’s too expensive. You may think you’re indispensable and that the company couldn’t survive without you, but it probably doesn’t share your view, so don’t turn yourself into a martyr. It’s a harsh but important lesson for young employees to learn early in their career.

Truth #3: You Have to Ask for What You Want

In my talks with various female colleagues over the years, I was sometimes mystified by their reticence to make their desires known. They were perfectly willing to clearly explain to me why they should be promoted, or have a new responsibility, or be given a raise, but when I would say, “Well, what does your boss say?” they would turn coy and waffle about it. They wanted to assume that decisions were made based on merit and that they shouldn’t have to ask for what’s just fair. “Strange,” I’d say to myself, “Sure, it may not be a comfortable conversation but not to have it at all? That’s crazy.” In my observation, this is especially pronounced in younger women. Since they’ve been told there’s no gender discrimination anymore, they don’t realize they have to ask for what they deserve.

I’ve spent some time thinking about why I forced myself to ask for what I wanted. It wasn’t easy, but somehow I knew I had to, and I bet I know who’s to blame—my dad.

“What’s the harm in asking?” he would say. “They can just say no.”

I heard that over and over, so I did ask: to volunteer at the library when I was way too young to be a volunteer, for special projects in school, to go to public school in Switzerland when it was against the rules, to attend graduate level courses in my undergrad program, for independent study, for a grant from the Dean’s office to go to a conference, for a transfer to a new division, for an overseas opportunity… These were all requests where the answer was yes. I’m sure there were others where I was told no, but I just kept asking.

My dad gave me some early coaching about how to ask for jobs, money, and opportunities, and I got a lot of practice. He told me how to get my first job when I was fourteen.

“Go down the street and go into every store and ask them for a job. It doesn’t matter if they have an opening or not. Just go ask!” He described how you negotiate in good faith for what you think is fair pay. He drove home the point that showing initiative is a positive indication of what kind of worker you’ll be. As I thought through these lessons, I realized I’d put them into action at an early age, then practiced them for the next forty years. I wasn’t braver or smarter than other women; I just got more practice!

A former colleague who has gone into academia refers to working business people as “practitioners,” which I thought was pretty funny until it dawned on me that we are practitioners—we practice and practice every day, in order to get better at our jobs!

Asking for opportunities is difficult, but the sooner you start practicing, the sooner you’ll feel (more) comfortable doing it. Recognize that your managers may say no to your requests (in fact, they’re likely to say no), but at least they know what you want, and if an opportunity arises in the future, they may be able to accommodate your wishes. As a manager, I found it harder not knowing what my employees’ aspirations were and feeling as though I might be dragging a higher level of ambition out of them than they were comfortable with.

Life is more negotiable than you might think. When I discovered that a company I’d just joined had been underpaying its taxes for a number of years, we got in touch with the tax department and set up a phone call to explain what had happened. We assumed we’d have to pay back taxes, interest, and presumably a heavy fine. I’ll never forget the look on my accounting manager’s face when the person from the tax department said to us, “Well, how much can you pay?” It turned into a negotiation. We ended up paying a fraction of what we owed—the authorities were probably so startled someone would come forward and volunteer to pay delinquent taxes that they took pity on us. If taxes are negotiable, everything is negotiable!

Truth #4: But Be Creative and Patient about Negotiating

Sometimes men see negotiation as black and white, but there’s more than one way to reach an agreement. It’s not always a win-lose proposition, and women are often naturally skilled at reaching a positive outcome both parties are happy with. Once I participated in a negotiation seminar where the role-play was “rigged,” in that, unbeknownst to us, there was a possible win-win solution—if we could just discover it. My negotiation partner and I arrived at an easy solution because he only wanted the by-product of a material my company was producing, something that we were just throwing away. Our negotiation was over in two minutes. As we sat quietly and listened to the other teams getting hostile and raising their voices around us, he said, “You know, we wouldn’t have figured this out if you hadn’t asked me why I wanted that material.” There’s enormous value in stepping to “their” side when you’re negotiating. Listen, acknowledge, agree, try to see it from their point of view—it’s just common sense.

Attack the problem together. Don’t treat it like it’s life or death. Be cheerful and optimistic. Use humor, and don’t act like your family’s honor is on the line. Everyone needs to get out of this with their self-respect and integrity intact. Don’t make someone lose face to close the deal.

Be patient! If it takes 10 sessions, it takes 10 sessions. Just stay with it. The best negotiator I ever worked with was also one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. He talked slowly, he clarified, he reiterated, he wasn’t concerned with using clichés. He said, “I hear what you’re saying” so many times, I thought I would freak out and run out the door shrieking. But he got deals done.

Truth #5: Work Is Funny

Work is funny-weird, but it’s also funny-haha. Humor is an extremely useful tool in the workplace, particularly when working with men. Men often see the humor in things that happen at work, and you should laugh along with them. I sometimes see women being too serious at work and not very fun to be around because of their ultra-professionalism. Man: “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Woman: “THAT’S NOT FUNNY!” Don’t let that be you. Go ahead and chuckle. It will relax you and help keep work in perspective.

Learn to tell a few jokes, even if you’re not a big joke teller. There have been many occasions in my career when the guys have started telling jokes, and I was glad to have a couple in my pocket. Don’t just sit there like a humorless bump when jokes are going around. Don’t you want to defy the “Women can’t tell jokes” stereotype? I sure did. Plus there are so many great ones out there. I wouldn’t tell mean or insensitive jokes, or any that put women down, but I wouldn’t err on the side of being too politically correct either. Guys like it when you take some risks, so don’t be too “proper.” Here’s one to get you started:

A successful businessman met with his new son-in-law to tell him that he was making him a 50-50 partner in his company in order to welcome him to the family. “All you have to do is come to the factory every day and learn the operations,” he said. “Oh, no,” said the son-in-law, “I hate factories. I can’t stand the noise.” “Okay,” said the father-in-law, “you can work in the office and learn the corporate side.” “Oh, no,” said the son-in-law, “I can’t stand being stuck behind a desk all day.” “Wait,” said the father-in-law, “I’ve just made you half-owner of my company, but you don’t like factories or office work? What am I going to do with you?” “Easy,” said the young man, “Buy me out.”

I like to develop Top 10 lists when people leave my department and read them at the going-away party. “Top 10 Reasons Robert Is Leaving Us: Reason #10: His new company has an even more screwed-up budget process than ours, and he loves a challenge. Reason #9: He wants a longer commute to work. Reason #8: He snapped after the lunchroom ran out of Doritos last Friday…” You get the idea, I hope. The more specific and closer they are to the truth (particularly if there’s a sly nod to the real reasons), the more they serve to bond the group, remember the good times and bad, and help everyone let go.

You might be surprised at what you can get away with. I came back into my office one day to discover several members of my staff literally hiding behind my desk. It turns out they’d made and shown a videotape to the whole company, mocking the CEO’s vanity. I couldn’t believe it. The CEO was right on my heels, and he raised his eyebrows and shook his finger at them, but he laughed too, and no one got fired. Whew!

Sometimes I laugh when others would get angry. If something is ridiculous, I laugh because—well, it’s ridiculous. One time, a division controller came to tell me he’d made an error in the budget he’d submitted to me. He was so nervous that he almost couldn’t talk.

“How much?” I asked. “A million dollars,” he whispered. I laughed. “I can’t believe you’re laughing,” he said relaxing slightly. “Well, that’s just crazy,” I said, “First, I don’t believe it’s true—the numbers weren’t that far off. Second, if it’s true, we have to fix it, we can’t just accept that. We’ll figure it out.”

Laughing doesn’t mean you’re not a serious person, and it’s an excellent way to defuse a tense situation and build camaraderie.

Truth #6: Nobody Died

Everyone is guilty of losing perspective from time to time, but I sometimes see women fall into a trap of overreacting to events at work. Every little issue becomes a crisis because they’re so anxious to do a good job. Keep the big picture in mind and ask yourself, “Did anybody die?” No. Okay then, take a deep breath and focus on what needs to happen. Few events at work are truly a crisis, and if you expend energy wastefully, it will be hard for you to keep your stamina up. Guys want to see you’re tough enough to rise above small problems and can put them in perspective. Nobody likes working with someone for whom everything is a huge drama, and leaders need to show that they can absorb big blows and keep on trucking.

Truth #7: [And, finally, the big one] Don’t Be Emotional at Work

The biggest complaint about working with women is that they’re too emotional. If you have a reserved and stoic nature, count your blessings, but many of us are reactive, wear our heart on our sleeve, and respond to tough situations with tears. I don’t know how else to say this: You can’t cry at work. Ladies, you just can’t. And although I would love to say, “There’s no crying in business,” unfortunately, there’s lots of crying in business. Sometimes I felt as though every woman who walked into my office was planning a good cry. It’s really a shame to see that women are so unhappy at work that the moment you offer them a kind word, they break down. That’s a sad commentary on how uncomfortable they are. Nevertheless, you can’t cry at work and keep your dignity. Practice taking the emotion out of a situation by focusing on the message or the problem. It’s easier said than done—I know—but again, if you practice not crying, you’ll get better at it and become proud you don’t resort to this when you’re upset.

From the earliest days of your career, if you have a tendency to cry when you’re frustrated, angry, or hurt, you’ll have to practice other reactions. I’ve been known to slam things around. Not that I’m proud of that (or of the language I use when I’m doing it), but it doesn’t condemn me to the damning label of “emotional.” When you’re working with guys, some emotional reactions are acceptable, and some are not. It’s not right; it’s not logical; it’s just how it is. Repeat after me: You can’t cry at work.

Here’s the issue: For men, crying signifies a loss of control. For women, it’s just an indication of a powerful emotional response, which isn’t necessarily bad. For men, loss of control is inherently bad. It’s a weakness that’s unacceptable in a senior manager. For women, it’s a sign you’re human. The two genders come at this from different vantage points. I understand and respect both perspectives, but, Ladies, if you’re working in a man’s environment, you have to conform to his rules, and that means “No crying.” Honestly, I think once you get used to it, you’ll be glad your emotions aren’t as evident and you’ll appreciate the protection that shield offers you.

I don’t wish to imply that yelling is a good substitute. Clearly there’s lots of yelling in business because that’s mostly what guys do, but that’s pretty bad too, at least for a woman. People react very negatively to the image of an angry screaming woman. If your employees or co-workers can tell your emotions are ruling your head, there’s going to be hell to pay. Subordinates don’t want to see this. They fear your loss of self-control means either you shouldn’t be in charge of the company, or things are worse than they seem. And things always seem really bad to employees. It’s stunning what they think up to worry about. Speaking of which, don’t ever yell at your employees. It makes no sense—to holler at the people who make you successful. For shame. That’s abusive and low-down.

The one time when I would reluctantly say it’s okay to yell is when you’re being yelled at by a bully. You don’t want to lose your head and go out of control, but you may need to raise your voice to show him you’re not intimidated. We’ll get to how to deal with bullies later.


Copyright © 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden

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