5 Tips To Take Charge Of Your Career (Startup Success For Women)

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Know what you want and start doing it with an infectious leadership style.

By Mariette Johnson Wharton (Co-Founder & VP Marketing, Vidtel)

Recently The Atlantic featured an article addressing in part the nearly impossible feat for working mothers to have it all (or at least have it all at the same time). The major limiting factor is not a lack of imagination or ambition but often control over one’s own schedule.

Running your own company affords the flexibility that can make that possible, but not everyone is in that position. If you are not an entrepreneur, seek an organization that lets you exert control over your schedule. Assuming you’ve landed in a place that will allow a flexible schedule, let’s get down to advancing your career.

I’ll focus on the startup world, where owing to the fast pace and wide opportunities, you can have a better chance of making your mark. What follows are concrete steps you can pursue to increase your value to your organization as a powerful internal and external resource.

#1 – Ask for promotions and salary increases.

Economist Linda Babcock, co-author of Women Don’t Ask, discovered that male MBAs negotiate salaries and bonuses that are 6% and 19% higher respectively compared to female MBA peers (adjusted for field, functional position, and geography). Once women were armed with data on the range of salaries and bonuses men negotiated, though, future female MBAs in the study succeeded in vanishing the pay discrepancies.

Clearly, women need to ask for promotions and salary increases to be at parity. It’s been documented that women are more apt to face backlash from self-promoting activities, according to a 2009 Rutgers University study reported in Forbes, so a tactful approach is needed that avoids boasting and appeals to an employer’s desire to help you.

#2 – Start doing the job you want.

Tech startup life is a fast-moving train with new entrants and new opportunities unfolding, sometimes on a daily basis. Usually there are some pretty interesting curves in the track that maybe no one saw coming and these will present opportunities. Seize them. If you really want to get ahead, invent your own new responsibilities. It’s unlikely that someone will assign them to you. Don’t get hung up on what it says or doesn’t say on your business card.

Consider your organization’s high-level objectives and look to do what no one else is doing. Young companies often have unspoken, unclear boundaries. Willingness and the ability to take on new objectives in uncharted territories will raise your value. The caveat? Stay focused on core goals.

Resist the temptation to be sidetracked by oblique projects. Outsiders may have conflicting agendas and may inadvertently attempt to siphon your time and energy, even consultants you’ve hired. Startups are typically lean and even the well-funded ones are well-served to think like a lean companies to avoid squandering resources. You will have to continuously take stock of priorities and stick to them. People will develop respect for your unwavering focus and ability to get a mountain accomplished with a molehill of resources.

Once your strategically relevant new responsibilities bear fruit, you will have proven you are an irreplaceable asset. Now it’s time to ask for a promotion or raise – see #1.

#3 – Work on developing a strong leadership style.

This is a tricky subject. It’s harder for female assertiveness to be perceived in a positive light, as a study at my alma mater Columbia Business School revealed. Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Frank Flynn compared two groups’ reactions to the profile of an assertive, successful venture capitalist, one labeled Howard and the other Heidi, based on the real Heidi Roizen. Despite the nearly identical profiles, Heidi was deemed self-promoting, less likeable and less worthy to be hired than the male counterpart.

Women who aggressively pursue goals can be viewed in a negative light but ultimately being goal-oriented and getting results earns respect. In later studies, Flynn found that familiarity with results dissolved some of the negative sentiments.

Some brilliant people are short on social skills and can be unaware of these shortcomings. Over 25 years of scholarly research has convinced author Daniel Goleman that emotional intelligence is more responsible for success than is IQ. In the business world, where people and performance are top assets, having social and emotional skill in handling people might account for more than half of your success. You might be talented at spreadsheets or writing competitive analysis but you also must lead with infectious energy and enthusiasm and get people to want to follow you.

A Harvard Business Review article on recruiting points to the value of “emotional intelligence-based competencies — flexibility, adaptability, empathy, organizational awareness and relationship management — that differentiate stars from average performers in new roles” and “show a candidate’s curiosity, insight, inspiration and determination, which in turn indicate a search for learning and challenge.” It can be worth an investment in an executive coach if you feel you are coming up short in this area. If you are not sure and have the guts for it, issue a survey to co-workers and your hired resources. Find out where your weaknesses are and stomp them out.

#4 – Become a subject matter expert.

Separate yourself by mastering a subject area. Carve out a niche for yourself by becoming an expert in a high-growth area for your company. Know your subject matter more deeply than anyone else around. Be the go-to person for all things related to that subject and your value rises exponentially. You can be a resource externally, as well.

Write contributed articles or guest blog posts in your subject and become a thought leader in your industry. Your raised profile doesn’t hurt future job prospects, either.

#5 – Build strong relationships in your industry.

On a related note, industry insiders and influencers can be powerful validators of your value if you become a known quantity. Get known and get introduced to new partners, customers, and technologies that will be valuable for your company’s positioning and growth.

It’s easy now to publish your industry observations and opinions in a blog format or in other forms of social media. Use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and other media to increase your visibility as a thought leader in your space. At first, you can start out commenting on others’ opinions in blog posts and then develop your own observations as you gain expertise. Your credibility will go up along with your value to your company. If your external validation is high, it can help you be recognized internally.

Build your allies so you can nimbly get around the inevitable detractors – see #3.

Networking is an obvious answer to increasing visibility and opportunities and there are many organizations for women. Join Silicon Valley-based organizations for women in tech such as Astia, Women 2.0, Women in Technology International and attend events such as Women 2.0 PITCH, BlogHer Entrepreneurs Conference and Stanford Entrepreneurship Network.

Introduce yourself to influencers at industry conferences, ask questions and be prepared with a nugget of subject matter or industry wisdom you can share. This is a virtuous cycle: collect this wisdom by developing your subject matter expertise and by asking questions from industry leaders.

In summary, the bottom line is this: know what you want and start doing it with an infectious leadership style, developing the brand of you and your distinct capabilities along the way. Armed with a strong network of allies, you can leapfrog ahead of those waiting to be asked to do the next big thing.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Mariette Johnson Wharton is a co-founder and Vice President of Marketing at Vidtel. Mariette helped Vidtel win eight industry awards and launched Vidtel’s Channel Partner Program, leading to dozens of video conferencing vendors and VARs partnership agreements. Mariette has over 15 years of high-tech marketing, Internet commerce strategy, and management consulting experience. Mariette holds an MBA from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter at @mariettewharton.