A woman’s guide to using ambition to power success
A recent White House report billed as the most comprehensive report on the state of American women in 50 years revealed that women earn 25 percent less pay than their male counterparts, despite making strides in education. That came as no surprise to the panelists of the Commission on Women in the Profession program “Women and Power: Getting Ambitious About Ambition,” during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Atlanta.
Keynote presenter Dr. Anna Fels—a noted psychiatrist who highlighted her extensive research on women and power—and other panelists posited that a portion of the equality gap is attributed to the fact that “ambition” is a taboo topic for many women.
The speakers, all prominent women lawyers, used the example of their own high-powered careers to highlight the importance of ambition in achieving career success.
All agreed that developing a personal plan is the first step for anyone seeking advancement. Whether you call it ambition or goal-setting, “you need to picture for yourself what it is that you’re hoping to achieve, and then what steps you need to take on a monthly, yearly, every-five-years basis to get there,” said Hilarie Bass, global operating shareholder of Greenberg Traurig LLP and, until recently, the national chair of its 500-member litigation department.
“I don’t think you get to powerful positions without being ambitious. No one is just going to say, ‘Oh yes, become the head of this department because we like you,’” noted Bass. “If you’re going to achieve power, it’s going to be because you have set out a game plan for yourself.”
Bass and Fels were joined by Cathy Hampton, Atlanta city attorney, and Leslie M. Turner, general counsel for The Coca-Cola Company.
Hampton advised attendees to build personal advisory boards. “It’s important to surround yourself with folks [outside your organization] who have different backgrounds, who are as different from you as possible. That way, your strategic plan may grow and broaden in ways that it wouldn’t if everyone is thinking the same way,” she said.
In the same vein, Fels advised attendees to identify and establish sources of recognition. “Successful women create an archipelago of supporters throughout their lives.”
Additional strategies for success that were shared both by program participants as well as by panelists include:
“I don’t think you get to powerful positions without being ambitious,” said Bass. “If you’re going to achieve power, it’s going to be because you have set out a game plan for yourself.”
Ask for what you want
Bass urged women to speak up if they’re not happy with their compensation. “Even if you don’t get an extra dime out of the process, [your employer] needs to know that you value yourself. You need the opportunity to articulate how you’re providing value to the firm, and you can’t be afraid to fail because even if you don’t get anything out of it, you’re going to feel good about yourself and you will have created a new environment for you and your boss.”
Related advice came from a program participant: “If you want origination credit, look for opportunities to work with someone who is successful at it. You have to ask.”
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Find a champion
Finding a mentor is important, panelists agreed. However, they urged attendees to find mentors who do more than just listen and advise. Seek sponsors who can serve as champions—those with access to power brokers who will go to “bat” for you.
Listen to free audio from “Women and Power: Getting Ambitious About Ambition.”
Develop a sales pitch
Panelists urged women to develop a standard sales pitch that articulates who they are and what they want. “Stand in front of the mirror and create that one-minute elevator speech, and practice so that it’s natural,” said a program participant.
Realize the importance of interpersonal interactions
While building interpersonal relationships may seem unrelated to developing a successful career, panelists disagreed. Women lawyers were advised to take someone to lunch once a week to learn about his or her career path.
One participant suggested joining in community activities, such as doing pro bono work, to connect with other like-minded people.
Look for ways to be indispensible at your firm
Becoming invaluable can provide women with the leverage they need to get what they want. Look around your work environment and identify projects you could champion and take the lead on, advised panelists.
Never let them see you sweat
Perceptions are really important, said panelists. “Be the duck: look calm on top while paddling like hell under the surface. That will inspire confidence; you’ll look like you have it all together even when deep down you may not.”