How Women Rise

Helgeson, Sally & Goldsmith, Marshall.  (2018).  How Women Rise. New York:  Hachette Books.

As before, words in italics are directly from the book.

As a white male, I know, based on research and my experience, that I have advantages.  Gender bias is just one.  In my career, as a teacher and administrator, I have always sought gender balance to model more gender equity and more importantly, to strengthen the leadership team.  I have followed Sally Helgeson, (1990) The Female Advantage and her many articles on women leadership.  She has been promoting females in workplace and leadership positions for many years. I have said often, “if the rational white male leader was the answer, we would have figured out solutions to our problems already.”

The fact that Marshall Goldsmith and Sally collaborated on this book has helped me understand more directly some of the barriers women face.  It also has given me some suggestions on how I can be better at leading teams.  I am grateful for the learning in this book.

Here are some of the takeaways for me from this new resource. As a male I know I don’t understand everything in this book, but I am willing to learn.  I hope to be willing to change my behavior to be a better person and leader as a result.

Marshall’s ‘aha’ came while coaching the legendary leader Frances Hesselbein, who had coincidentally been extensively profiled in Sally’s best seller, The Female Advantage. No matter how effective they’ve been or how much recognition they’ve received, women often tend to focus on all the ways they believe they fall short.

Sally’s’ aha’ was more personal and painful, providing insight into a behavior that had helped her earlier in her career but was now getting in her way. Sally’s usual practice before big events was to spend huge amounts of time rehearsing her program and memorizing her talking points so she could deliver her program smoothly and avoid any mistakes.

There is a story in the book about how Sally and Marshall learned from each other by co-presenting.  I was fortunate to learn from having Marney Wamsley as my principal when I was an assistant principal.  She coached me, confronted me, and I knew she wanted the best for me.  She taught me humanity while being a disciplinarian for many years.  I also learned from Jane Stevenson, who was an assistant principal while I was the principal in two schools.  She also coached me and confronted me.  I was fortunate to listen (most of the time).

You get to define what success means to you. You get to define what it means to rise. The point is, your definition of rising is always going to be personal, individual to you. But one of the biggest impediments to rising is also personal and individual: being blind to the behaviors and habits that keep you stuck. Unfortunately, we fall in love with our successes, thinking we did it ourselves. Bullfeathers. No one does anything important alone.

Let’s lay it on the line. The Impenetrable old-boys’ networks, sexist bosses, men who seem incapable of listening to women or who claim credit for their ideas in meetings, career tracks that assume families do not exist, performance review criteria subtly designed to favor men, the unconscious biases that shape hiring and promotion: these impediments are real and unfortunately continue to play a role in stymieing women’s advancement.

Here is a great learning point. Instead of viewing money and position as the sole or even chief markers of success, women also tend to place a high value on the quality of their lives at work and the impact of their contributions.

A survey also indicated that men tended to place greater value on attaining a high position and earning a high salary, whereas women placed a higher value on the actual experience of work. Men not only tended to view position and salary as more important than women do, but they were also more likely to judge themselves (and others) based on these measures.

By not having the same goals as men, unfortunately, this is sometimes seen as less aggressive or less competitive.  If we shift the focus to impact and contribution, I know we would be better off. We get stuck in our old ways of thinking and doing. Here are some of the ways women feel stuck.

  • You feel something is preventing you from moving forward or from leading the life you’re supposed to be living.
  • You feel unable to break through circumstances that are conspiring to hold you down.
  • You feel as if your contributions are not recognized or appreciated.
  • You feel the people around you have no idea what you’re capable of achieving

To get unstuck, we have to identify what is not working, create other ways of behaving that might get you farther, and continue to reflect on the results you are getting. Marshall and Sally came up with three alternate stages of resistance to describe how women often respond to unwelcome feedback.  I believe this may guide us to a better place.

  1. a woman will react to the suggestion that she needs to change by feeling discouraged and undervalued. This can be quite painful and result in a degree of paralysis.
  2. a woman will begin to consider why whoever offered the assessment might have made it. Were there valid grounds? What were the circumstances? Did the critique have to do with her being a woman:
  3. a woman will start to examine how her actions that led to the critique. What might she have done or neglected to do? What might she do differently? Instead of focusing on the messenger, she looks at her own actions.

Stereotyping also leads to reducing a woman’s efficacy and confidence.  Sometimes leading to ‘learned helplessness,’ nothing seems to work so we give up. Being a woman and a person of color can increase the barriers to advancement. Stereotypes can become particularly complicated when racial or ethnic differences get added to the mix. If you’re African American, you may have good grounds for believing that your boss evaluates you using different criteria than he would use for white people. Similarly, if you’re Latina, you may feel that stereotypes play a role when you get feedback about being “too emotional.” If you’re Asian, you may be suspicious when you’re told you don’t speak up enough. In either case, you may feel quite sure that these behaviors do not characterize you at all. And you may suspect that the feedback is based on unconscious bias.

I would say if you are a male and white and, think you have all this figured out, you suffer from self-delusion.  Like learning, it is never done.  Keep working on being better.

Even high achieving women often have to fight to maintain their confidence. Even at the highest levels, overconfidence is rarely a major female failing.

            Belief 1: Ambition is a bad thing – High-profile women who seek to rise are routinely criticized as being “too ambitious.” Men are often described as ambitious, of course, but rarely with the qualifier too. Ambition might more usefully be defined as the desire to maximize your talents in the service of work you find worthwhile and rewarding.

            Belief 2: Being a good person means not disappointing others – Many women we work with are deeply invested in being wonderful people. Her inability to separate her own interests from the expectations of others had become for her a form of resistance.

            Belief 3: Women should always be role models for other women Marissa Mayer was still CEO of Yahoo! When you’re at her level, there’s no such thing as a personal decision because other women are looking to you for guidance.”

The Twelve Habits That Keep Women from Reaching Their Goals. Too many times we will hear a woman give an opinion, and not register on it.  Then, a male says the same thing and we think it is masterful. Or even more harsh, we don’t even respond to the woman and go on with the conversation. And, we give credit to the male to colleagues.

When I hear ‘but,’ I assume what they just said the don’t believe or they wouldn’t say BUT.  I used to have a sign in my office NO BUTS. Starting with no, but, or however – You may habitually use negative qualifiers to start your sentences during meetings or performance reviews. Starting with a negative qualifier always amounts to a direct contradiction of what someone else is saying. Negative qualifiers operate as verbal tics, habits of speech you may not even be aware of.

If you make a mistake, I use the AAA principle.  Acknowledge your mistake.  Apologize.  Take Action to change it.  An unadorned “I’m sorry” is always more effective. Women tend to take on too much responsibility and do not self-promote themselves.  It is up to all of us to anchor positive thoughts and actions, and give credit for the contribution.

Peter Drucker famously noted, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend nearly enough time teaching them what to stop. So, stop the intentional or unintentional negative behavior that keeps people, especially women down.  Commit to doing better.  You will have a better performer on the job, you will be better leaders, and the organization will benefit more.

The rest of the book goes through each Habit, 1-12, describing the habit in more details and providing possible solutions.  I think it can be a primer on what to do when you are in one of these habits which can build competence and confidence. There are important lessons in this book. Buy it and read it

I highly, did I say highly, recommend this book by Sally Helgeson and Marshall Goldsmith.  I thought I was open and good at gender issues.  I, Bill Sommers, have a much longer way to go to be the best leader, coach, and person I want to be.

Ask for help and ‘Thank People.’  Marshall asked himself what he most regretted in his life. The answer came clearly: he regretted not thanking all the people who had helped him or otherwise gone out of their way to be good to him.


Habit 1, Reluctance to Claim Your Achievements, is rooted in genuine modesty and a generous willingness to acknowledge the achievements of others.

Habit 2, Expecting Others to Spontaneously Notice and Reward Your Contributions, is rooted in a reluctance to showboat or behave like a self-promoting jerk—along with the perception that, because you notice what others contribute, other people win (or should) too.

Habit 3, Overvaluing Expertise, is rooted in a healthy respect for all the skills your job requires and the willingness to work hard to master them.

Habit 4, Building Rather Than Leveraging Relationships, is rooted in the conviction that you should value others for who they are rather than how they can be of use to you.

Habit 5, Failing to Enlist Allies from Day One, is rooted in the belief that you should not call on others for help until you’ve done your homework and know the parameters of your job.

Habit 6, Putting Your Job Before Your Career, is rooted in the desire to demonstrate loyalty and commitment, as well as the sensible belief that you should take life one step at a time instead of getting all wrapped up in the future.

Habit 7, The Perfection Trap, is rooted in the desire not to disappoint others (including and perhaps especially your family of origin), along with a commitment to making the world a better place.

Habit 8, The Disease to Please, is rooted in an unselfish passion for making other people happy.

Habit 9, Minimizing, is rooted in an awareness of other people’s needs and the wish to show them that you value their presence and insights.

Habit 10, Too Much, is rooted in the quest to be authentic and connect with others based on shared experience.

Habit 11, Ruminating, is rooted in the capacity for thinking deeply about what matters most to you instead of skimming along the surface of your life.

Habit 12, Letting Your Radar Distract You, is rooted in the ability to understand what others are feeling and a broad-scale noticing capacity that makes you intuitive and empathic.

 We hope that our ideas will ultimately help you rise in your chosen field or organization, so you can make even more of a positive difference in the world.