When I first started in the plumbing industry in 2009, I was nervous about moving into a male-dominated industry. I was still young in my professional career, and while I showed respectable growth in my former roles at a start-up company, moving from Administrative Assistant, to Sales Assistant to Sales Executive in less than two years, I was skeptical about what my career path would be in a larger, more established company – especially one run almost exclusively by men. At the time, having a mentor never even occurred to me. No one in my family worked in the corporate world, so I didn’t have many places to turn for advice. But I decided to make the jump, believing I’d figure it out along the way. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to learn how to start moving up. The lessons I learned are ones that I still practice today as General Manager for a new, super-cool division of Watts Water Technologies.
Build Your Personal Brand
Personal branding is a way to establish and consistently reinforce who you are and what you stand for. You want to be known as the Starbucks of your team (consistent and dependable) or the Amazon of your division (delivers results quickly and accurately). Building your brand isn’t just about delivering on your commitments. It’s about standing out. How do you become the Apple amongst the PCs? I not only apply this lesson to myself, but as a sales manager, I coach anyone on my team who wants to advance in their career to stop focusing on just making their numbers, and to start taking action when no one else will. This is how you make a name for yourself. Hitting your goals gets you on the list. Building a brand gets you on the VIP list!
Promoters Lead to Promotions
When we were younger, we were taught that hard work pays off and to never give up on our dreams. For those of us who had parents that believed in the laws of attraction, we were told to visualize what we wanted, and it would materialize. These clichés are great if you’re looking for something to inspire you during a time of frustration. However, in the corporate world, there’s a crucial step that’s missing – you must promote your brand. But let’s be honest, no one likes a self-promoter. I call them ‘me monsters.’ People who love nothing more than talking about themselves and how great they are. When you listen to those people talk, do you hear anything other than “me, me, me”? Instead of taking that route, find people in your company and your industry to do that for you.
This has proven to be one of the most helpful lessons of my career. And the concept shouldn’t surprise anyone. Think about how much more impactful the message is coming from someone else in your company, rather than from you. It’s the same mentality consumers use today when looking at the Reviews section of a website to help them decide if they want to purchase a product. Sure, the company selling the product says it’s awesome, but why wouldn’t they? What we really want to know is what others are saying about it who have nothing to gain. Choose your promoters wisely. Find people who are well respected in the company and whose opinions matter. The beauty of this system is those promoters are looking for people to brag about because they believe that improving talent in the organization will significantly improve the culture and accelerate the company’s success. If you can’t find a promoter within your company, try starting with a customer or counterpart outside your company who has the ear of someone inside your company.
Ask Questions With Confidence
Why do women feel the need to start a sentence with “This may be a stupid question but…”? Do you ever hear a man preface a question that way? We were taught in school that there are no stupid questions. And while it isn’t 100% accurate, there’s power behind this statement. Perhaps we should have been told “The only thing worse than asking a potentially dumb question is not asking the question at all.” Because that’s another challenge for women in corporate America. If they aren’t asking the question with a protective preface, they may not be asking it at all. The fear of embarrassment overpowers the desire for knowledge or clarity. Congratulations, lady. By not asking the question you saved yourself from a room full of giggles or glares, but also from receiving the information you needed to do your job properly.
I find humor is disarming and helps me through some of these situations. I ask the question. And if it turns out it was dumb, I reply with “Don’t worry, that’s not the last dumb question I’ll ask today. I’ve got tons of them”. Then I smile and move on. Is that the right strategy for everyone? Probably not. But I find humor eases my own discomfort and allows me to re-focus on what’s important.
The last thing I’ll say about asking questions is that if you don’t understand the answer you’re given, keep asking until you are clear. It doesn’t have to be in a meeting in front of a room full of people. If it won’t hinder your understanding of the rest of the meeting, take it offline. But make sure you ask again. I can’t tell you how many times I asked someone to further clarify a point, and I soon realized the reason I didn’t understand it the first time is because the person I asked didn’t understand it either. They were answering it vaguely just to move the conversation forward. If that person can’t answer your question in a way you truly understand, go find someone else you trust who can help. Just don’t stop asking!
This is by far the toughest lesson (pun intended) I’ve learned working in a male-dominated industry. In addition to always being professional and carrying ourselves with confidence, it’s crucial for women to have a thick skin to succeed. Here’s the hard truth – people will judge you before they know you. They will assume that you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you know less than your male counterpart. And they will treat you as such. The most frustrating part is that you won’t be able to change everyone’s mind. But you will change SOME people’s minds, so don’t give up.
I can’t tell you how many customers or co-workers have said to my face that when they first met me they assumed I was dumb and how I totally proved them wrong. I never let the fact that this person initially judged me demotivate me from my goals. Instead I celebrate the fact that I changed their mind and that they now see me for who I truly am. In fact, some of those people have actually become my closest co-workers and confidants, and one even asked me to mentor them. People judge books by their covers. That’s a problem that you need to help them overcome. Stay focused on building your brand, identifying those people who will promote your skills on your behalf, and keep asking questions and learning. The majority of those that made uninformed assumptions will realize their error. And for those that don’t? Well, not everyone likes Starbucks and yet they seem to be doing just fine!