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Thought Leadership| Women in Leadership

Women in Leadership: Intimidated By the Idea of Asking for a Raise or Promotion? Here’s Our Guide.

September 5, 2019

Feeling stuck in your job? Do you want to move up, but feel like something is holding you back – whether it’s your bosses who are not giving you a fair shot, or you don’t want to be seen as too aggressive?

At The ExCo Group, we work with senior leaders, many of them women, to help them navigate the headwinds they face at work, including some of the challenges around asking for promotions and raises. My colleague Kathy Murphy and I recently sat down with a group of our colleagues to discuss the patterns they have seen in their own careers, and in their work with clients. Many successful strategies emerged from that discussion, and were echoed by interviews I’ve done over the years with hundreds of female CEOs. Here are the top five:

1) If you don’t ask, you don’t get. People can get trapped in some false assumptions about managing their careers. The most common ones include, “If I just focus on doing my job well, I’ll get what I deserve and I’ll be promoted,” and, “I don’t want to push too hard for a raise because then people will start seeing me as a problem.” Because these conversations have the potential to be contentious, anyone who is conflict-averse may find reasons to avoid them in the first place.

But avoiding them is a bad idea. You may be holding yourself back, and a lot of the rationalizations for steering clear of these conversations are misguided.

The first step is to make sure that people know about your goals and ambitions. If you’re silent, people will naturally create their own narratives about you – say, that you don’t want to move or do much business travel. Remember, your boss isn’t a mind-reader. Don’t give people the opportunity to say about you, “I doubt she’d take the role.”

Make your career goals clear in your meetings with your boss. It doesn’t have to be a saber-rattling conversation. You’ll want to make clear that you’re focused on delivering in your current role. Avoid the obvious turn-offs of seeming too impatient or unrealistic about what you’re ready for. Your primary job is to help your boss succeed. And if you’re doing that well, your boss is going to expect you to be thinking about what’s next.

The right tone is key, using language like this with your boss and with HR: “Generally, this is the direction I’d like to take. If there were an opportunity that came up to do this, this is what I’d like to be considered for. I want to be doing assignments and things that prepare me for that.”

It’s a lesson that Jenny Ming, the former CEO of Charlotte Russe and president of Old Navy, learned early on in her career when she was a merchandise manager.

“I was doing very well as a buyer, but someone got a promotion over me,” Ming told me in our interview. “I was really surprised because I was never asked if I was interested in the job. When I approached my manager about it, he said, ‘I didn’t know you were so ambitious.’”

“I had three young children at the time, and he said, ‘You have kids.’ I said, ‘You can’t assume that just because I have kids that I don’t want to move up in my career.’ He was actually very apologetic. What I learned is that you can’t assume that people know what you’re thinking or what you want in your career. You have to speak up.”

2) If not you, who? People can hold themselves back because they don’t think they have all the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to move up to a bigger job. They suffer from the imposter syndrome – “When are they going to find out that I’m not as good as they think?” – and so they decide that it’s safer to stay in their current job rather than take on a stretch role.

Far more people suffer from this syndrome than you might think. And although generalizations are always dangerous, a lot of research suggests that women feel it more acutely than men. They may think they need close to 100 percent of the experience and qualifications before applying for a job, whereas men will go for a big job, even if they aren’t quite qualified for it, and assume they’ll figure it out once they’re in the role.

The way that can show up in the workplace is that men may act like they’re already “in the club,” metaphorically, while women may feel like they are perpetually on probation. The dynamic can create powerful headwinds – like dismissive and vague comments like “she’s not ready” – that hold people back. But again, those headwinds can exist in people’s heads, too.

One way to break this misguided logic is to stop thinking about the job in the abstract. It’s easy to imagine some ideal candidate for the job and start feeling like you don’t measure up. Instead, make a list of your colleagues who might be in the running. Are they fully qualified? Let’s put an even sharper point on it: Would you rather work for them, or would you rather have them work you?

Adopt the mantra for yourself: “I have what it takes. I can learn.” Find the sweet spot of confidence without arrogance. You may not know how to do the job, but be confident that you’ll figure it out. It’s another reason why it’s so important to build your network of mentors and advisers. You need credible cheerleaders – people who have seen others in that role and can say to you, “You’d be a natural at this.”

Ultimately, it’s about finding the sweet spot of stretching yourself while also doing everything you can to prepare for a career jump.

3) Build your case for what you want. It’s not just a matter of going into a meeting and asking for what you want. Instead, imagine that an agent or headhunter was representing you. How would they make the case for you getting the job or the raise you deserve? And remember, it’s not just your boss you have to convince; your goal is to give them the facts so that they can go make a case for you to their boss and to HR.

Root the conversation in facts. What have you accomplished? How has your work helped drive the business? Can you point to concrete ways in which you’ve added value? Do some research to find out what people earn in similar positions at other companies (if you’re a senior executive, you can ask a headhunter).

It’s a point that my colleague Kathy Murphy, a former CEO with Corning Gilbert, makes often with the executives she advises.

“I try to orient people around thinking about their purpose. If the company is paying me $1 today, did I give them $2 of value?” she said. “Or better yet, $3 or $5? Because at the end of the day, you are there to add value. You want to be noticed for the contribution you make and that will lead to the kind of career advancement you want.”

This is ultimately the key to negotiating – take the focus off what you want, and point instead to external scoreboards and measurements that show what you deserve, based on what you’ve done. Or point out how the company needs to raise its game in a particular function, and then make the case for what you’d do and why you’re the best qualified to help. You’ll get their attention if you’re willing to take on a tough area that others have avoided.

4) Don’t be afraid to rock the boat. There’s a mental loop that people can get caught in that can keep them from pushing for more money, whether negotiating for a raise or for a pay package that comes with the new job. “I don’t want to rock the boat,” they say to themselves. “I want to make sure things start on a positive note. I’m grateful for the opportunity.” As a result, they settle too quickly.

But here’s the thing. For more senior roles, the person on the other side of the table is expecting you to push, and they’ve probably built in some negotiating room that they can use when you do start pushing. Rather than thinking less of you if you push, they may in fact respect you more.

Ask yourself, what is the worst-case scenario if you do push? Are you worried they’ll rescind the offer? Remain calm and persistent, and make your case. The moments in your career when you have real leverage are few and far between, so make the most of them.

If you settle, will you start regretting the decision over the next two years? Those nagging feelings can affect your performance at the margins, so you do everything you can to push for an agreement that is somewhere between “this is what I want” and “this is what I can live with.” You don’t want to be saying to yourself, “I should have asked for more. They didn’t give me what I was worth.”

It’s part of developing the muscle of standing up for yourself during challenging moments in your career.

“A lot of women allow things to happen because they worry that if they take a stand, it’s going to derail them,” said Dara Richardson-Heron, the former CEO of YWCA USA who is now the chief engagement officer and scientific executive of the All of Us Research Program at The National Institutes of Health.

“But if you don’t take a stand, it is going to derail you personally, because you’re not going to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘This is who I am.’ I think it impacts your authenticity.”

5) Learn the art of horn-tooting. Here’s another area where people can create unhelpful narratives about themselves. They may take pride in saying, “I don’t like to brag. And it feels too political to take credit for my ideas. I let my work speak for itself.” The impulses are admirable but ultimately unhelpful. There are ways to let people know your contributions without saying, “Look what I did!”

For example, make the most of your one-to-one meetings with your boss. You can say, “Here are the things that happened this year that I feel pretty good about.” Or add some topspin to an accomplishment by saying, “I learned from getting this project done.” Be sure to set your formal objectives with your boss for the year ahead, and then follow up with documentation showing what you accomplished during your regular performance reviews and business updates.

You can also give credit to your direct reports while also making your role clear in the work: “My team really delivered on this key project that I initiated back in January.” Find ways to weave your contributions into conversations with your boss and other key executives in ways that make you comfortable. Don’t assume they’ll find out by accident.

As a leader, especially as a woman leader, you have to be comfortable owning your successes,” said Sharon Napier, CEO of the Partners + Napier advertising agency. “I think humility is a really good trait, but I also think that owning who you are and owning it big are important. Women should have their elevator speech. We should be able to say in a couple of sentences who we are, what we’ve done, and then move on.”

As with all things in life, it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it that matters. Find the best way to advocate for yourself in ways that make you comfortable. Don’t count on others to do it for you.