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Shake it Off, Ladies: 12 Ways for Women to Build Resilient Careers

19/04/2016 11:49

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I watched Suffragette recently and was struck by how much those early feminists had to endure in order to win the vote. It took conviction, perseverance, courage -- in a word, resilience. The suffragettes had it. Malala has it. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson has it. So does any woman who has bounced back from failure, or withstood hardship or religious persecution.

It's a vital quality for girls and women to learn, even in comparatively progressive countries such as the UK. Resilient women are adaptable and expansive. They can hear other viewpoints without feeling obliterated by them. They take ownership of their career choices while accepting that there are some things out of their control. They don't take themselves too seriously, and when they get knocked over, they dust themselves off and get back up again.

These are great leadership qualities for anyone, but they are particularly useful for women. We're often told that women lack self-esteem and pursue perfectionism to their own detriment. Resilience can neutralize that self-doubt.

Resilient people don't dwell on what they don't have -- they are outward-looking and focus on their goal. They have a shake-it-off attitude. Practise that mindset and you can keep yourself from falling into the so-called gender confidence gap, which is so often cited as a way we hobble our own progress.

The more women learn to bounce back - from sexism, rejection, internet trolls - the less power we give to destructive naysayers.

Then there is the importance of resilience for working mothers. Women who want to start families will at the very least take a maternity break, and may find themselves chopping and changing roles or having to reinvent themselves in a new career.

Even without motherhood, women need a little extra grit, if only to withstand unconscious bias. They are still less likely to receive VC funding and more likely to be paid less than male peers. They are still accused of sabotaging fellow women at work and taking things too personally.

Learning to bounce back
You don't have to be born with resilience -- it can be (arguably, it must be) learned. And since resilience is forged in adversity, it gives hardship a silver lining. The pursuit of resilience gives you licence to "fail better".

You can practise it at any stage of your career. At a recent Women in Leadership breakfast, director Francesca Ecsery gave us some great (and laugh-out-loud) insight based on her own experiences. Here are some takeaways:

  1. Look at yourself as a business. Try to see yourself as an outsider might. This removes the personal element that can make you falter. Resilient people tend to be good at facing up to reality, warts and all. Get feedback on your social media profiles and CV. Do they match up with what you see as your offer?
  2. Become an expert. Create content - cheat sheets, reports, top five points from a useful conference - that you can share at work and with your networks. By gathering different perspectives and staying on top of current thinking, you help to future-proof your career. Plus, you're 'giving it forward' - and showing your leadership stripes in the process. If you're not sharing, you're out of sight and out of mind.
  3. Test your strategy, and pivot if necessary. Keep it relevant and resilient. The market will tell you what skills and personal qualities you need to have. Ecsery's big selling point was digital experience, but she needed to bring it to the fore on her CV.
  4. Stay present. Don't get stuck in the past, or become so fixated on past achievements or university education that you miss opportunities here and now.
  5. Ask for help. People aren't telepathic, so speak up and seek out sponsors.
  6. Get 'badges'. Ecsery was "super proud" of her business experience, but it was Harvard and McKinsey that people latched onto. "If that's what opens doors, they why not?" If you don't have badges, get some. Take a course or work for a good cause. Proof of abilities plus recognisable brands will attract interest.
  7. Choose a job that you love. It's easier to work hard if you love what you do. Don't following the money. It can lead to bitterness. "Skewing your self-worth to money can be problematic," says Ecsery.
  8. Find your balance. Create some space for yourself. Do yoga, walk the dog, put aside some time for reflection. You need something to offset all the obligations and deadlines. This helps you to keep your distance -- and take more risks.
  9. Learn how to read people. Who is worth spending time with? There may be people who want to keep you in a box. Avoid them. Take ownership of your career. Learn about other parts of the business, look for opportunities to stretch.
  10. Practise financial resilience. Ecsery suggests putting money aside in what she calls an "F Y pot". How much do you need to survive for a year? It's far easier to take risks with a safety net.
  11. Expect some rejection. Use it to re-analyse and redirect if necessary. Sir James Dyson famously spent years tweaking his bagless vacuum cleaner before becoming successful.
  12. Tribe up: build a supportive network, your own little advisory board. You need useful people - not in a mercenary way, but people who make you laugh, people without an agenda. "Pass the elevator to each other", says Ecsery, add value to groups of which you're a part.

(Photo: Al Aumuller, WikiMedia Commons and Library of Congress. No copyright restriction known)

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