great example is Ashley, one of the featured speakers at a Denver gathering Sally attended of Colorado’s top women leaders. At the age of thirty, Ashley had recently been promoted to head her company’s huge business-to-business services group. When asked what was most responsible for her meteoric rise, she surprised her audience by saying, “It was learning to let go of being an expert.”
Ashley explained: “My biggest career lesson has been learning that, while expertise is expected in almost any job, it doesn’t do much to help you get ahead. It took me a while to see this. When I joined the company, there were very few women, and I worried about being up to the job. I certainly lacked the confidence of the guys around me. They got a lot of confirmation and seemed comfortable with all the politics. I felt I had to watch my step and earn my way, so I focused on learning every detail, becoming expert in every task, proving my value, and avoiding criticism. Which is fine, but it’s a poor way to position yourself for something bigger.
Ashley followed up with an e-mail to her boss that laid out all the reasons she was right for the new position. “Basically, they were talking points he could use to sell me to the B2B team. He told me having it all written out really helped him.”
It also helped Ashley because composing the e-mail required her to think deep and hard about her strengths. This changed her picture of what she had to contribute. She says, “I’d always taken for granted that being diligent and super-conscientious was what made me successful in the jobs I’d held. But looking beneath the surface, I saw that my skill at managing relationships was actually my biggest asset. That’s what really qualified me for the next job. This was a big aha for me. It gave me confidence and a way to tell my new boss I was ready for even bigger things. More important, it helped me see that I was ready.
She says, “I didn’t think about moving higher. I was grateful to have a good job and enjoyed being methodical and competent while building my skills as an engineer. I probably would have been content to stay where I was, but my husband died suddenly, leaving me with three young children to support. I knew I would need full-time childcare and have to provide for my kids in a very expensive part of the world. That meant I needed to move up.”
Ana began applying for high-potential positions and soon got fast-tracked into a job developing new systems for the legal profession. She says, “It was a totally different environment. Instead of engineers working at their benches, we were constantly connecting with our clients so we could figure out what they needed. I knew nothing about law firms so I started setting up a lot of meetings where I could talk to lawyers about how they used technology.”
Ana’s job in those meetings was to ask questions, listen, and learn. At first, this made her uncomfortable. “I felt I should be conveying information or somehow showing I knew enough to be there. When I’d done presentations in my old job, there was always a huge amount of prep. But now the point was getting the lawyers to talk, not showing them what I knew. Letting go of that felt a bit scary. In the back of my mind, I could hear my former professor smirking that I was out of my depth.