“YOU can’t be afraid to ask,” my Uncle Art used to say when recounting tales of his successful 40-odd-year career selling mattresses up and down the Eastern Seaboard. My uncle was talking about making the sale, but corporate types need to ask for what they need, too. This is especially true for women, who, in spite of an increase in diversity training, mentoring and sponsorship programs, still lag far behind men in reaching senior management and C-suite positions. In fact, in 2010, only 14.4 percent of the executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies were held by women.
Whether from fear of being perceived as too aggressive or too selfish, women tend not to be comfortable asking for what they want. And when they do ask, it can be in ineffective ways.
Often, women’s speech is peppered with tentative and indirect phrases that scream a lack of confidence, such as, “I’m not really sure, but you could try it this way,” or, “Now, I’m not an expert, but …” or, “I think this is a good idea — do you?”
Many women have also adopted an upward vocal inflection at the end of sentences, a regrettable characteristic popularized by the Valley Girl. It turns a strong declarative statement into a question, conveying weakness, uncertainty and a request for approval.
In addition, and perhaps most important, professional women sometimes forget to build their case around the things that matter most to their employer — principally, the impact on the bottom line. That was true for one high-producing client of mine, who needed a more flexible schedule that would allow her to work from home one day a week.
While she knew she could make the change work seamlessly for her clients and her direct reports, she was still very reluctant to ask. She worried that her boss would demote her to part time and cut her salary.
After addressing her fears of the possible consequences, we went to work on perfecting her “ask.” We prepared a brief, clear account of why she needed to make this change and described how she could do her job without harming clients, colleagues or the bottom line.
The dreaded conversation with the boss lasted exactly 10 minutes. It was cut short the moment he told her: “I have no doubt we can make this work. In fact, if you should need to work another day at home, just let me know, and we’ll see how we can manage it.”
It just goes to show you: you’ve got to ask.
Another client, a managing director of an international investment bank, says women need to be bold and straightforward when stating what they need to achieve their goals.
“My 25-year career path has included several job changes,” she said. “And with each new job, there was always a male colleague who was responsible for introducing me around the firm. In every case, my cordial host would introduce me almost exclusively to women. I know they thought they were helping me, but, in fact, it was the introductions to the men I couldn’t manage on my own.”
She was quick to add that the “women only” introductions had nothing to do with trying to undermine her success. The men had simply assumed that she’d be more comfortable with other women.
But how will a business see a return on investment if women cultivate relationships only with other women? The answer is: It won’t.
From her previous experiences, my client had learned to ask for the help she needed. A few years back, when male colleagues welcomed her into the company with an offhanded yet well-meaning “Let me know if I can do anything for you,” my client knew exactly how to respond:
Introduce me to the top 10 people in the firm. Include me when you and the guys go out for dinner. Arrange a breakfast with the firm’s top traders, and let me introduce myself and my team. Count me in when the firm signs up for any corporate sponsorships. Invite me to your quarterly top-client events.
In addition to these requests, my client had the courage — some might call it the chutzpah — to schedule an appointment with the chief executive and tell him what kind of support she was seeking. When colleagues asked why she had gone to see the C.E.O., she told them: “The firm’s paying me a lot of money to do a great job. What C.E.O. wouldn’t want to help me do that?”
THE act of putting your stake in the ground — stating exactly what you want — is scary for most women. We worry that if we’re too direct, we’ll alienate the very audience we’re trying to win over.
Unfortunately, in the corporate world there is a narrower band of acceptable communication for women than for men. Even so, we can find ways to ask for what we need. Unfair as it may seem, women do have to be more attuned to the listener and more careful in determining the best way to say what needs to be said. But look on the bright side: for a gender with a propensity for zeroing in on the feelings of others, we’ve got a head start.
Peggy Klaus consults with executives and organizations on leadership and communication. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org