January 2022 | 

Women Leaders: Engineer Your Career in Today’s Workplace

Women Leaders: Four Ways to Engineer Your Career in Today’s Workplace

Compelling new research reveals that during a crisis, women leaders perform better. But the recent study, and others like it, have yet to translate into a more equitable workplace. The challenges facing women remain greater than those faced by their male colleagues, and they have worsened during the pandemic. But commiserating about those challenges isn’t the goal of Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success. Instead, the program provides actionable, tactical guidance on how to move careers forward and ascend to higher levels of leadership.

It’s an approach that began with academic director Nancy Rothbard, who oversaw the design of the program. The Wharton deputy dean and professor of management says while women enter the workforce in equal numbers to men, they often get stuck on their way to the C-suite.  “We want to help women rise through the ‘sticky’ layers between middle and upper management in their organizations,” she explains.

“We use an evidence-based approach to dig deep into the critical skills women need to succeed, including negotiation and emotional intelligence, and address the issues that have become more problematic for women because of COVID. Women have to be even more intentional today, engineering their careers to a degree they didn’t have to in the past,” she says.

Rothbard is as forthcoming with specific, tactical advice as she is parsing the bigger picture of the current climate. In particular, she cites four areas where that engineering is needed today:

1. Relationships

Getting to the top has always required connection to those who are already there. Whether it’s to acquire a sponsor or mentor, a stretch assignment, or greater visibility, relationships are key. Rothbard says now, though, “given the changes in the workplace that the pandemic initiated, paying attention to, managing, and growing relationships is more critical than ever. Mentorships and sponsorships have always been important for women. But now given hybrid and remote work, we need to feed and care for those relationships to a greater degree and develop them intentionally.”

Rothbard says there has always been a “challenge around authenticity and finding common ground,” but today, without the luxury of watercooler moments, it’s even harder. “You have to think about and plan how to engineer opportunities.” For those who have a choice about when and how much to work from home, Rothbard says it’s important to set personal guidelines, but also to create overlap with senior leadership. “Try to foster face-to-face interactions by being present when others are. Stop-and-chat is a wonderful way to get things done,” she says. “Schedule a coffee or lunch. Do a walking meeting, outside if possible. Create opportunities both to talk about work and to have a more informal dialogue where you can find common ground.” As a bonus, Rothbard notes that these face-to-face interactions can feel less exhausting than being at home all day on Zoom. “But be aware of what works best for you,” she cautions. “It definitely varies from person to person.”

As you engineer those interactions, keep in mind that “the things sponsors and mentors are looking for haven’t changed, including trustworthiness, self-direction, and reliability,” Rothbard says. Now, though, you have to figure out how best to demonstrate them. “In a remote and hybrid workplace, be even more intentional about creating opportunities. Some examples could include making sure you show up on time to Zoom meetings. Schedule five minutes in between meetings if possible so you can be fully present for each one. Make sure if you say you can deliver something, you have thought it through and made sure it possible. These are signals that people pay attention to even more when the casual interactions aren’t there.”

2. Communication

Developing and nurturing relationships depends on our ability to demonstrate our competence, as Rothbard described, and that requires communication. “Building exemplary communications in a hybrid and remote setting requires a lot of clarification of expectations and goals,” she says. “People are busy making assumptions about what you want, even more so than they were when you shared the same office space. And those assumptions are probably not correct. Instead, you have to do a lot more ‘telling.’ Be very specific, such as, ‘My goal is to be committed to achieving the next level of this project. I’m ready to pivot when necessary to get it done well and on time.’”

The Women’s Executive Leadership program uses a communications-style assessment to help participants understand their existing strengths and weaknesses. It provides a base level of understanding to improve on. “No matter what your style,” says Rothbard, “one thing to keep in mind today is the importance of using a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication. It can’t be all email and text, or all phone and Zoom. This is critical advice for anyone, but it’s especially important for women.”

3. Managing Others

“What we are living through entails crisis-management skills on a regular basis,” says Rothbard. “We now have a conversation in the program with Wharton School Dean Erika James [who took the helm in May of 2020] about it. Frequent, dramatic pivots are now often required to respond to changes. It involves a different type of mindset, which is something Erika talks with us about. It’s exhausting. Pivoting quickly requires top-down approaches, but research is clear that people prefer women leaders with consensus-building, participative leadership styles.”

Specifically, Rothbard says women managers need to take the perspective of others. “We often misdiagnose the real issues. One way to avoid that is through perspective-taking to meet people where they are. Ask questions, listen carefully, and put yourself in their shoes to understand why they are doing what they’re doing.”

4. Executive Presence

“Executive presence is an issue for women, and is something we have always worked on in the program,” says Rothbard. But today, the conversation is different. Eye contact, for example, is a hallmark of that presence, and it’s very difficult to do on Zoom. “Intentionally working on your presence as a leader in a remote workplace is much more challenging. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your presence. You might not be able to maintain eye contact throughout an online meeting, but you can think about and engineer your setting.”

Rothbard says attending a meeting from your kitchen or home office can make people feel more connected to you, but you should still curate it. “A busy scene is distracting, and the tolerance for other people walking around and talking in the background may have worn thin.” She also suggests that if you are going to use a virtual background to consider using a company-branded one: “It’s a signal of commitment to the organization and, unlike other backgrounds, doesn’t make people assume you’re hiding something. Pay attention to your surroundings and control them to the extent you are able.”