Work | Becoming Visible

A while ago I read an article from the University of Queensland Business School that said …

Only three per cent of CEOs of top Australian companies are women, making it one of the lowest rates in the Western world. But surprising data uncovered by UQ Business School’s Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons about what it really takes for a woman to become a CEO offers clues as to what needs to be done to raise the numbers of women at the top. 

Women at the Top written 2016 – updated 2019

This is an interesting article and it got me thinking as to why is it that more men move into senior roles than women.  There are many reasons, and I think visibility is one of them. Read on and see how going first, asking questions, joining a working group, networking and creating recognition will make you more visible in your workplace. If you are time poor and want to skip ahead, you will find this after the pic of me CEOing with a cute dog on my lap.

I was surprised that the research said things like a traumatic childhood event and having a family in small business, were common traits found within the female CEOs they interviewed. It was different for male CEOs. The study discovered these men had professional fathers, stay-at-home mothers and were almost always captains of the football team. Could have guessed that last one. So let’s say you didn’t have a childhood trauma, your dad worked for the man and your mum stayed home, does this mean that you, as a woman, won’t reach the CEO chair? 

Full disclosure, I suffered kidney failure via Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome at age ten, but I do not believe this gave me any drive, direction or skill set towards being a CEO. It was traumatic, but mostly for my mum, because at ten you never think you are going to die, well I didn’t ever think that anyway. If anything from my childhood contributed to my here and now it was being born first, helping with three siblings and being the organiser of many a misadventure.

My own move from team member to CEO was unplanned and involved zero strategy. The thought came because I met a young and female local government CEO at a regional economic development conference and thought, hmmm interesting. Young was odd enough, as in her early 30s and a woman. It was like finding a unicorn. At that same time I worked for Brisbane City Council and Council got a new CEO, a woman, the rather talented Jude Munro. It got me thinking.

I literally thought that being a Council CEO must be a fun job and then I looked for CEO jobs. I applied and waited. The fifth CEO role I applied for, did indeed, pick me from the four of us interviewed. I was the only woman and the youngest at 32 years. Thanks Cook Shire, if I was a millennial I would hashtag forever grateful.

SIDE NOTE: I didn’t even get shortlisted for the first four. The lesson here = persist.

Me with a Councillors’ pup – as CEO I got to introduce a dog friendly workplace initiative – happy days!

As I have CEO-ed around the place over the last 20 years I have noted a few things that men who progress forward in their chosen careers are great at. These are, of course, gross generalisations, based on my experience, but I don’t apologise for that because, after all, our experiences are our own to make of what we like.

I have noticed men who progress up the food chain are more visible than their equally talented female colleagues. These men do two things the women do not. One, the guys network, and network often. Whether it’s the old boys’ school/uni network, the golf day corporate networks or the drinks on a Friday afternoon internal/local network, men who move up do this. These guys do it whether they like it or not, and it doesn’t even matter if they are good at it. Men just do it. 

Secondly, movement orientated men self promote like crazy. Not necessarily in a deliberate, showy manner, and not just about work stuff. Upwardly mobile men will tell anyone who will listen how they made a great sale/caught a big fish/ran a 10km fun run/solved the unsolvable problem. They are acknowledging their own triumphs. Out loud. To a crowd. Without hesitation and with genuine enthusiasm.

By way of networking and self promotion, these men get themselves noticed. It’s a combination of points one and two and sometimes a third, they are actually really good at their jobs, that get them noticed. On the other hand, I have seen so many women fail to get noticed, even when their technical and professional skillset is identical, or better, than the guy getting noticed.

Due to lack of visibility, I have seen women fail to attach themselves to an opportunity that then propels them forward. The opportunity has gone to a more visible male colleague. Why is that? It’s because women, on the whole, don’t network, don’t self-promote and then blend into the wallpaper of work life. Women are as worthy of consideration as men for these opportunities that are the precursors to higher level management roles. Women are left behind the further up the food chain you look. It’s not from lack of talent, it’s not lack of desire, in part, it’s lack of visibility in the first place.

So, of course, I have some thoughts on getting noticed in your work life. It wasn’t until I became a CEO and saw other good women missing out on opportunities that I looked back and assessed my actions along the way. With hindsight, I saw a few things that I think helped me have the confidence to apply for the CEO roles that I have so loved.

While I have focused on women, these ideas can be applied to anyone and yes I want good men to succeed too. So if you are a dude who wasn’t the captain of the football team and you get lost in the shadows of work life and you want to be more visible feel, then yes, free to adapt and adopt. Let the record reflect that I am an equal opportunity talent lover. I have nurtured, promoted and mentored talent wherever I have found it, talent is talent, and above all I love talent. It’s just in the scheme of things I have found that talented women, more than talented men, shrink into the background of workplace life.

GO FIRST

Photo by erdinç ersoy on Pexels.com

Think back to being a kid. There you are with your mates and no one will jump in because ‘it’s cold’ or ‘too high’ or whatever. Finally, one kid jumps in, the rest follow in quick succession. But it’s only the kid that went first that can claim the status of being first in. Everyone did the same thing, but there is only one kid who went first.

Translate that to adult life. So here you are at a meeting/workshop/ professional development activity and there are presentations to be given. The facilitator of the sessions says, in that overly bright tone, “So, who’d like to go first?” Stick your hand up and volunteer.

Being first is the best spot to be in. Some people will think thank goodness, because now they don’t have to go first. The facilitator will be relieved they didn’t have to nominate some poor sap. By going first, you get noticed by default, simply because you just went first. As a bonus, there is no comparison made to the person who went before you. There is no lingering focus on someone else because you are the first. Go first. Be first to take the plunge. You get brownie points for just going first. And by the way, the water was never that cold and it was never that high.

As CEO I would make an effort to pop by workshops when I knew presentations from participants were on. Given time constraints I would normally stay for the first one or maybe two presentations. If you didn’t go first, I may never have known that you presented. If you went first then I saw your presentation, I heard your name, saw you in action and you stood out from those who I did not see present. It is that simple. Go first.

SIDE NOTE: Offer to go first at interviews as well. When offered several times for an interview, take the first time slot as the same applies. You set the benchmark and then others are compared to you. You seem keen, ready to commit and did I say keen! You also see the interviewer when they have energy and are not worn down by the process. Good energy is a two-way thing, so get in early when everyone displays a better kind of energy. Especially do not take the slot immediately after a lunch break. No.

ASK QUESTIONS

question mark neon signage
Photo by Emily Morter

So you are attending a workplace meeting. The boss presents the topic of the day and then asks for questions. How often have we all sat there in silence? 

To get noticed, make sure you have one, a question that is. You can bet that from a room full of people the boss will remember the bright light who asked a question. Most likely you will have known what the meeting was about so can pre-prepare a question. Do it, most bosses will appreciate the opportunity to explain further.

Here’s a question you can ‘fill in the blanks’ and make your own. “I understand XYZ but I’m not sure how ABC fits into that?” or one of my personal faves “What’s the next step from here?”. 

Bosses love to speak more on their pet projects, elaborate on their vision and add depth to the subject matter, when they think someone is engaged and listening. You are that someone. Deliver your question with solid eye contact and a smile in your voice. The boss may well be remembering you as they leave the room. And tomorrow, when that unexpected opportunity comes up, your name may just be top of mind.

 JOIN A WORKING GROUP

If you happen to work for a mid to large organisation, then the odds are good that you will have workplace committees, working groups, reference groups or the like. These are great places to get noticed outside of your immediate team.  Volunteer to be on one, any one – don’t wait to be asked.

Don’t let lack of knowledge or experience in the subject matter put you off. Join a cross organisational working group. So named as the boss wants representation from right across the organisation. So lack of understanding is no barrier. Mostly, these groups are chaired by mid to senior level management. So get in, make a contribution and be noticed. 

Look out for gender equity groups, consultative committees, special project groups, events groups, change management groups and all kinds of reference groups. Especially look out for groups where most members are men. These are great groups to get involved with, as the only woman you will be an immediate expert on the female perspective.

SIDE NOTE: Participation in these groups looks great on a resume so remember to list them. The only qualifier here is union groups – think twice and consider carefully as you might spook a would be new employer if they are union shy. 

CREATE YOUR OWN RECOGNITION

woman holding sliced watermelon

Now men are really good at this. When men do something worthy, we all know about it. My beautiful stay-at-home husband does this. He says, “did you see I did the dishes this morning?” I say, “thanks honey”.

When forward moving men stay back and work late, they tell you the next day. “Oh, I was here till 8pm last night, working that one through”. Excellent, nice work with the self recognition.

Whereas, on the whole, women say nothing because we are just getting the job done, and if that’s what it took, we just did it. Women have to get better at blowing their own horns. 

When you work late, always find a reason to send the boss an email just before you leave. It may have nothing to do with the reason you worked late, but just make sure an email gets into the boss’s inbox saying 6.58pm. 

With written work product, get your name it, on the front cover. If you wrote something, say ‘written by’. If you compiled something, say ‘compiled by’. If you edited something, then say that too. Make sure you do all of this not down the bottom in 7 point font but up near the middle, just under the title of the document in at least 11 point font. 

I have seen a man go round the office high five-ing his workmates because something went well. I recommend a more deliberate approach. Send an email to your boss and cc the responsible team members. It can be something as simple as… “Just confirming that the team have signed off on the Gutherie deal with a 10% increase on last year’s order, I’ll provide details at the next sales meeting”. 

The boss will love to read that and probably think a few things like:

  • you are keeping them in the loop
  • you are doing a great job
  • you understand the business 
  • you are a doer, not just a gonna (gonna do it)
  • you are a good manager as you give the team credit
  • you are going to make them look good

NETWORKING  

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

So over the years, women have got a lot better at this, primarily because we use the social media tools now commonplace. But when it comes to face to face networking this might just be where women do the worst job ever. I get it totally, I mean who really wants to go to another function after the workday is supposedly done, to see more work people and talk about more work. Usually not me. 

Yet by not going, you once again contribute to your invisibility. So go.  But go with purpose and a deliberate plan of action in mind. Adapt the following to suit the function. This one sounds weird, but go early, arrive no later than 15 minutes after kick off time. At the start there are fewer people, arrive late and you get lost in the crowd. Plus, as you are an early bird you get to see who arrives and can make a beeline to target the individuals you really wanted to see. When a person enters a networking room they are immediately looking for a friendly face. Be the friendly face and rescue the new arrival from that awkward feeling of standing alone.

So because you arrive early you can also leave early. Unless there is a very interesting speaker I rarely stay more than 30 minutes. Why, well partly because my time is valuable and because by then I have had the three intentional conversations I wanted to have, have seen the four people I actually like and have made myself known to the organiser and thanked them. Then I leave as I do not want to drink bevies and eat carbo loaded foods with strangers on a Thursday night (Law and Order night) for 60 minutes. Worse yet, I do not want to accidentally get roped into dinner after with slightly inebriated people, when I have a proper dinner at home with my babes to look forward to.

If you are there to ‘represent the business’ and your boss is too, make sure you get noticed by the boss. Go up and say hi, ask is there anyone in particular to target and then get on with it. Do not cling to the boss all night. Nope. Do not ask the boss to go out afterwards. Nope.

A big part of making the time work for you is having your targets in mind before you go. Stick with a maximum of three people you want to connect with. I tend to email or text them a day or two before to say hello and say ‘see you there’.  Then you are both expecting the contact and it’s less like cold calling and more like a planned catch up.

When it comes to meeting strangers I have used networking events to meet managers I admire from other organisations. Especially ones I might want to work for or I might want to pinch to work for me. It’s a great opportunity to eyeball them and see if there is any connection.

When this is my reason for attending I do a room assessment on arrival, walking purposefully around the space, seeing who I can spot. Having located the target, I swoop in, stand to the right of an elbow and wait 60 to 90 seconds. Usually, these are ‘in demand people’ and are already engaged in a conversation. After waiting for 90 seconds, I then make eye contact, excuse the intrusion and make the introduction, stating “I am just on my way out but wanted to say hello and say how much I admired the XYZ you did / the article you wrote / that project your team delivered. I would be keen to catch up and discuss that further when you have the time.” If you still do business cards have yours ready to exchange. If you are electronic ask for a mobile number and stick it straight in your phone. You will quickly sense if there is room for a conversation there and then, or if it is a follow up action. Make sure you do follow up with an email the next day, with a starting line of “Hello, we met at the ‘abc’ function last night”. The sooner you do, the more likely you will be to secure the meeting and increase your visibility.

When showing up at a networking function, at all costs, fight the urge to go join the usual mob who you know well. That won’t achieve much in the way of improved visibility.  If you are at a total loss, pick the single person in the corner and introduce yourself. This person will be grateful to have the company and often turns out to be someone a bit special. I carry a near empty glass so I can make a reasonable excuse to go get a drink, should the person turn out to be difficult to converse with.

If networking still freaks you out take a useful colleague and do the double act. Safety in numbers.

Dunedin – a great local government area – worked here twice – be the orange dingy – be visible!

There are lots of other things you can do to raise your profile in the workplace. Mostly they involve getting out of your comfort zone. Give these few a try, add your own take on things and make a difference to your working day. Most of all get noticed talented people, goodness knows we need you!

Got any thoughts on this then message me or leave a comment. Would love to know what works for you so we can provide more ideas to share. Cheers Le

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