Margaret Gardiner Shares the Unwritten Rules of the Game

November 09, 2016

The Simmons MBA program is designed to educate women to be powerful leaders in their chosen endeavors. Reporter Margaret Gardiner has been talking with powerful women leaders in a variety of fields. Here she distills for us the lessons she's learned from her conversations.

Tic-Tack-Toe GameThere are unwritten rules that give an edge to those who use a matrix of behaviors in addition to delivering on task to achieve success. Differences in socialization between genders and in behaviors related to self-advocacy may unknowingly and detrimentally be creating roadblocks to women achieving their goals. Identifying and taking advantage of these supplementary behaviors can go a long way to overcoming these roadblocks when being considered for promotions, negotiating pay increases, or working to achieve other career goals.

What more is required beyond succeeding on task? The answer can be found by examining the subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors and norms that successful people exhibit that give them an edge when it comes to corporate achievement. These norms are like the defensive maneuvers of basketball’s LeBron James, or the tactics used by soccer star Abby Wambach in a tight match. You won’t find their moves in any playbook. Yet those who are in the game know that these skills play a role in a winning strategy. When talking to successful women leaders, it be- comes clear that excelling at what they do is merely one aspect of the skills and behaviors in their arsenal. Another determining factor is what they do with their successes. There are a cluster of behaviors to be aware of that can help leverage your successes when applying for promotions or reaching for other career goals:

  • Self-Advocate: Communicate your goals and accomplishments with those who have the ability to influence your career so that they are aware of what you want and clearly recognize your capabilities.
  • Elicit Sponsorship: Find a mentor who will guide you and advocate for you, and who can give you opportunities to achieve successes that will help you reach your goals.
  • Bypass “No”: Understand that hearing “no” is not personal. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your creativity and problem-solve. Think about how to approach the matter at hand differently, be it by having an alternative plan or by opening yourself up to other options. You can turn a “no” into a “yes.”
  • Network: Create a network of contacts in all areas of your organization. Having the support of both your peers and those in positions above your own—within and outside of your department—are crucial to being seen in a positive light. 
  • Aim High: Ask for the high-profile job or project, and apply for positions slightly beyond your skill level.

While the women interviewed highlighted the importance of teamwork, they also emphasized that it should not be at the sacrifice of stepping up and self-advocating. Women may feel awkward in calling attention to their own individual successes when working as part of a team, and can be less likely to make certain that their skills and accomplishments are known than men. This trait may be compounded by the fact that self- advocating behavior that is viewed as acceptable in men may be labeled as negative in women. The team leader who communicates the wins helps promote awareness of the effectiveness of not only the team or a particular individual, but also her leadership. When these wins are recognized, and contributions are known and acknowledged, they are more likely to be rewarded. 

Careful strategizing needs to include the targeted application of self-advocacy behaviors, eliciting sponsorship, networking, bypassing “no,” and reaching beyond your skills. The usage of these “unwritten rules” will be vital in helping you get ahead. By becoming aware of gender branding and how socialization of both men and women in the workplace can create unintentional barriers to success, and by recognizing the self-advocacy behaviors that can promote success, we can break through the roadblocks and create solutions.  Reaching your goals is within your power. By applying strategic thinking to how you are going to achieve the outcome you desire, and by using all the means at your disposal, including the clusters of behaviors that get your work noticed, you will improve your chances of reaching your goals and getting ahead. 

Click here to read the full article in the Spring 2016 Issue of Management Magazine.