Common mistakes that women, and men, make at work – and how to avoid them.

Much of my time recently has been spent developing programmes for women leaders so it’s not surprising that my first draft of this newsletter focused on how women sabotage their careers.

I was also drawing on my own experience.   When I left my HR job in the civil service over 12 years ago, my boss, Paul, gave a speech listing all the occasions during the past 4 years when I had not been given credit for my achievements.  Although I had improved along the way, too often I had focused on doing a good job at the expense of building relationships with key people and  navigating the politics.  Now older and wiser, I am passionate about helping others avoid the same traps.

But  it is not just we women who limit ourselves.  There are many talented individuals, women and men, who are failing to capitalise on their strengths and opportunities.  One of my jobs as a coach is to help my clients recognise how they are limiting themselves and then to support them as they develop new behaviours .  In this Newsletter I share five of the most effective ways to sabotage your career and what you can do to avoid these mistakes.  Of course you may have found even more effective ways to sabotage your career.  I know some of you are REALLLY good at that.  So pause for a moment and ask yourself:

How exactly am I limiting myself and my career right now?

1. Do a good job

Surely if you work really hard and do a good job you will be recognised and your career will flourish.  Perhaps - but generally people are not promoted just because they are highly competent.  Senior management often prefer to appoint someone they can trust to build relationships with clients and other key stakeholders.  If you are invisible to them how can you reassure them that you are the best person for the job?  Focusing on the task in hand may deliver results in your current role, but if you don’t make space to build the skills and relationships needed for the next step, your career may stall.

So what can you do?

Take a more strategic approach to your career.  What skills and behaviours will demonstrate you are a strong contender for the next step?  And what about your longer-term career destination?  What sort of track record do you need?  You may not be ready for these jobs just yet, but you can start building the necessary skills, behaviours and experiences.
Raise your visibility.  Allow yourself to “waste” some time every day.  Identify key decision makers, inside or outside your organisation, and find ways to raise your profile.  Aim to spend say, 20 minutes each day, building relationships or profile-building.  Now, what do you need to STOP doing in order to make this space?

2. Stay out of the politics

Many women, and some men, think they can avoid office politics.  In reality politics are omnipresent – you can no more avoid them than you can avoid the weather.  In every organisation, big or small, public or private sector, politics will play their part.  If you try to opt out you will be seen as naive, you will open yourself up to manipulation by others and you will lack influence.

So what can you do?

Raise your political awareness. Find out the ‘rules of the game’ – the informal way things work and how others play ‘ the game’ to their advantage.  Then use your intuition – if you sense someone lacks integrity, be on your guard around them.  But do check out the evidence and be prepared to change your mind!
Stay true to your values. Remember - understanding the politics and using them to your advantage doesn’t mean you have to gossip, manipulate or play silly games.  Be clear about your values and where to draw the line.

3. Avoid distractions

You’re doing a great job but still not getting promoted so you work even harder, putting in more hours, and staying later in the office.  You sign up for networking events and conferences but pull out at the last minute because of work pressures.  You are appreciated by co-workers but somehow seem to miss out on the ‘sexy’ projects or the promotions.  So what characterises those people who do progress quickly?  Well they are often prolific networkers.  Many people shy away from networking viewing it as shallow and manipulative.  Then, when they are passed over for promotion or find it tough to secure a new job, they are told to get out and network.  Yet, the time for this is not when you need that relationship.  You need to build your network when times are good.  Networking is a state of mind, a way of being, not something you do out of desperation.

So what can you do?
Challenge your own thinking about networking. If you have negative thoughts and beliefs about networking, you will struggle to be successful at it.
Network in a way that suits you. if you prefer one to one meetings, then network  that way – it doesn’t have to mean attending lots of events and ‘working the room’.

4. Do what you’ve always done

Are you one of those people who holds back when you see a job that attracts you because you feel you can’t match 100% of the job description or person specification?  Then, when a less well qualified or competent person gets the job, do you kick yourself for not having had a go?  Sometimes it pays to take a few risks and, if you are really excited by an opportunity, to go for it.  After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen?

So what can you do?

Be prepared to fail from time to time. If you have never failed at anything, you have probably spent your life playing safe and are not tapping into your true potential.
Get to know yourself.  Explore your unique strengths and personality and develop your own authentic style, one appropriate for your role and organisation but not driven by it.  Get to know what works, where you might get stuck, where you can tweak your style and how you can extend your repertoire of skills, experiences and behaviours.  Then, take a deep breath and start by taking one small step outside your comfort zone.

5.  Be self-reliant

In running successful leadership programmes over the past decade I have chaired many discussions with successful leaders – CEOs and Directors of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, top civil servants, Directors of leading charities.  The majority, when asked what helped them on their route to the top, mention a senior mentor early in their career OR the professional support of a career or executive coach OR the honest feedback from a trusted colleague or a spouse.   Many cited two or three of different types of support.  So what about you?  Who is supporting you?  If you do not develop the humility to ask for support and the resilience to withstand being challenged, you may be holding yourself back, both personally and professionally.

So what can you do?

Get a mentor.   If there is no formal mentoring scheme, why not seek out your own mentor?  Who do you admire?  Who do you trust?  Who understands the politics?  When you have identified your potential ‘target’ …just ask them to be your mentor.  Most people are flattered to be asked.  Again what’s the worst thing that can happen?
Consider who else could support you right now.  Who in your workplace or personal network can offer that crucial combination of support and challenge?  Do you spend enough time with these people?  And could you be a mentor yourself?  Becoming a mentor is a great way to develop your own skills and of course to help others along their own career paths.

Finally, if you have never had any coaching why not give it a try?  A professional coach, trained to ask challenging and insightful questions and with a toolkit of practical techniques to draw on, will help you deal with any self-imposed barriers and accelerate your progress.  For a free informal chat about coaching with Pathway mail me at [email protected] or complete the enquiry form on my website.