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How Women Can Glide Over the Hurdles to Advancement in the Workplace | 3 Takeaways from My Conversation with Sally Helgesen

July 23, 2020 Maria Howard

The impact of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has been far-reaching, and women in the workplace have been disproportionately affected. They are losing jobs at higher rates, being hired back at lower rates, and shouldering most of the additional housework, childcare, home-schooling, and eldercare duties.

As women navigate this crisis, advancement becomes even harder to achieve. Not only because of the external disruptions, but because the path to leadership is different for women. We face unique obstacles—we call them hurdles—to advancement.

How can women continue to prioritize their advancement, considering the myriad challenges and stressors we are experiencing during this crisis?

I recently sat down with internationally best-selling author and renowned women’s leadership expert Sally Helgesen for an installment of Linkage’s Critical Leadership Conversations series.

Our conversation was jam-packed with insights, stories, and anecdotes—if you didn’t get a chance to tune in live, you can access a recording of this webinar now.

Hundreds of leaders joined us for this important conversation, and I was inspired by the insightful questions posed to us by our listeners.

Here are three critical takeaways from my conversation with Sally:

1. Women leaders can efficiently prove our own value, without overworking ourselves and burning out.

For women leaders, the ability to lift out of the daily grind, while also effectively showing our value as leaders and contributors, can feel like an impossible task.

In fact, our desire to prove our own value can lead to “over-rowing the boat,” which is when we do too much ourselves without inspiring, relying on and delegating to others. We can focus on the details and production of the work rather than setting the structure and strategy to achieving the work across the team. And, we often let the work speak for itself, rather than championing our outcomes.

During our conversation, Sally reiterated that women often do not share their accomplishments or talents, worried that sharing good news will seem boastful. Harvard Business Review finds a large gender gap in self-promotion, with men rating their performance 33% higher than equally performing women.

How can we self-promote effectively?

Here’s how: Sally advises that women treat their contributions or achievements as information and data that other people should know. This is a business approach and can neutralize how personal it feels. Be accurate in the assessment of your contributions and be intentional about sharing your achievements, rather than expecting people to spontaneously notice or value them.

2. COVID-19 made so many things more difficult—but it may have made networking a little easier.

For all leaders, the relationships we build and maintain are integral to our success. And women leaders tend to be great at building relationships.

But it’s not just about building relationships—it’s about what you do with them and how you leverage them. I asked Sally, “How can women leaders continue to make professional networking a priority during a truly chaotic time, where we are juggling busier schedules than ever?”

Her answer was illuminating: She pointed out that COVID-19 has changed so much of how we communicate, often for the better. We have more chat and video tools available to us than ever before. We’ve identified that casual, quick communications are often more beneficial than long, formal meetings.

Sally also points to the fact that many people are changing the boundaries between home and work life—our humanness is on full display! Use this shift to your advantage. Having access to others through technology and equal footing in the confluence of work and life from home makes it easier than ever to ask for a quick conversation or advice.

But, before we start networking, we must define the goal and “the ask” of the conversation. How can we concisely represent our purpose and how can that person help? This will help direct us to the people who can make an impact. Finally, make the offer to be of support or service to their network.

3. We all have an Inner Critic—and one way to silence that voice is by resisting the instinct to be a perfectionist.

The Inner Critic is that voice in our heads that can express judgment and frustration—toward ourselves and toward others. It can hold us hostage to a standard of perfection which isn’t reasonable or necessary.

With all the work and home disruptions we face, how do we get unstuck to quiet that negative voice and give ourselves some grace?

Sally shared that women leaders can heal the “perfectionistic impulses” we may have. There is a reason the impulse is there; it helped us earlier in our careers when our contributions were measured on precision and correctness. At senior levels, this can derail a career, when our focus must be on big-picture thinking, connections and visibility.

Sally recommends that we think in terms of the 80-90-100 model. Here’s how that looks: In any given task, if you are a perfectionist, what will you gain? Is 90% good enough? 80%? Most tasks do not require 100%.

Here’s a tip I love: Sally shared that she keeps a banner next to her computer at home that says: “Oh well.” She uses it to remind herself that she’s only human and that she will make mistakes. We would all benefit from giving ourselves the same break.

Linkage’s research on women’s advancement and the Inner Critic has found that we can counteract this harmful voice inside our heads by returning to our “Compassionate Center.” Here’s how: PAUSE, then be compassionate and get curious. Reactivity results in repair work. When we can pause to be compassionate to ourselves and others, and ask a question to seek understanding, we can own our response and move forward.

Sharing the value we bring to our organizations, leveraging others to support our success, and quieting our Inner Critic to own our presence in the world are three things that can empower us through a difficult and chaotic environment. As women leaders, we owe it to ourselves to focus on our growth and advancement.


Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute™ (WIL), available face-to-face in Dallas, Texas, or 100% virtually, is a four-day immersive learning experience, designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace. This isn’t your typical women’s conference—we’re proud to offer an innovative learning experience designed to accelerate the advancement and maximize the potential of women leaders. Learn more and join us this November 9–12, 2020.

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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