In Conversation with Sally Helgesen on How Women Rise


In an exclusive conversation with SightsIn Plus, Sally Helgesen, Author, Speaker and the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership.

Sally’s most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with coaching legend Marshall Goldsmith, became the top-selling title in its field within a week of publication. It explores the specific habits most likely to get in women’s way as they seek advancement. And it offers powerful practices to help women realize their full potential.

We discuss and share some excerpts from Sally Helgesen’s latest book, How Women Rise, and explore Twelve Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Job, Promotion or Career.

Q- Tell us about your latest book, How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith?

We see that women often face specific and different roadblocks from men as they advance in the workplace. In fact, the very habits that helped women early in their careers can hinder them as they move up. In this book, I and Marshall Goldsmith examine how women can change habits that hold them back; the focus is not about new habits and behaviors to add into your life. You no doubt have enough “to-do” tasks on your daily or weekly list. Instead, we teach you about the “must stop” habits that have become engrained in your work life — the behaviors that no longer serve you (even if, once upon a time, they did).

Q- I am wondering how, if experience shapes behavior, you are supposed to let go of habits and responses that have become engrained over many years in the workplace. Isn’t there truth in the familiar adage that “you can’t teach old dog new tricks?”

The good news is that we now know that the old dog adage doesn’t apply to humans. It doesn’t even apply to dogs! Until recently, brain researchers believed that only children’s neural systems had the capacity to change by growing the new circuits that new skills require. But functional MRIs, which allow neuroscientists to view the brain in operation, instead confirm that the brain retains the capacity to build fresh neural pathways at every stage of healthy adulthood.

As a result, you can rewire your brain to support new habits and thought patterns at any time during your life. The only catch is that you must be willing to repeat new behaviors until your brain gets comfortable with them. Behaviors and thoughts build new pathways only when repeated over time. With practice, they become established and begin to operate by default. Even people who have suffered profound traumas can heal by repeating habits and thoughts that counteract established responses.

The principle of neuroplasticity means that you have the ability to change how you respond to situations–– past experience may shape your behavior but they need not determine it. It lies within your power to become more precise, more intentional, more present, more assertive, more autonomous, more at ease exercising authority, more confident setting boundaries and a better advocate for yourself.  All these riches lie within your capacity and scope. But the process can’t start until you identify that habits that hold you back. And start practicing new habits that better serve you.

Q- What are these twelve habits holding women back from their next job, promotion and career growth? And how can women limit these behaviors?

With that positive news in mind, we present the twelve behaviors that we most often observe keeping women stuck.

  • Reluctance to Claim Your Achievements
  • Expecting Others to Spontaneously Notice and Reward Your Hard Work
  • Overvaluing Expertise
  • Building Rather than Leveraging Relationships
  • Failing to Enlist Allies from Day One
  • Putting Your Job Before Your Career
  • The Disease to Please
  • The Perfection Trap
  • Minimizing
  • Too Much
  • Ruminating
  • Letting Your Radar Distract You

Limiting behaviors are also strengths; As Marshall points out in his book, What Got You Here, the higher you go in your organization, the more likely your problems are to be behavioral. You don’t lack skills. You are clearly smart. You’re good at coping and at thinking strategically. You’ve got experience, and the gravitas that comes with it. You’ve probably built a lot of useful connections over the years. You’re clear about your values and ethics. You’re accustomed to following through. You’re probably an excellent communicator. You are highly disciplined, and you are motivated.

Success usually indicates that you’ve got the basics of your job down. Which is why behavioral issues become so important. If you still perceive barriers that keep you from getting where you want to go, behavioral impediments are likely to play a role. Of course, as a woman you may still encounter cultural and structural barriers in your organization. There’s no point in denying that these still exist. But as noted earlier, culture and structure don’t lie within your control, whereas your behaviors and habits do. So they are the best place to start improving the quality of your life at work and your prospects for reaching your full potential.

One caveat: As you drill down on the habits described above, you may get nudges of recognition and find yourself thinking, “Wow, does this ever sound like me!” This is a good thing, since being open to information about limiting behaviors is the essential first step on the path toward making healthy and long-lasting change.

But try to avoid being too hard on yourself or identifying too many items you need to get to work on. If you do, you may start feeling overwhelmed.

Q- Who makes a effective leader, Men or Women?

Marshall’s decades of experience conducting 360-degree feedback has consistently shown that women in organizations are perceived to be more effective leaders than men. Many people find this surprising—not that women are more effective leaders, but that it’s the widely held perception about specific women inside an organization. This doesn’t mean that every woman is seen as more effective. It means that the average woman is statistically viewed as a better leader than the average man. It’s a reassuring and empowering message for women to understand.

But Marshall’s feedback analysis also makes clear that women are much harder on themselves than men. They tend to worry more about their perceived faults and feel greater pressure to make improvements. This can be useful because it makes you willing to change. But getting caught up in self-reproach, or beating yourself up for being a flawed human being, is always counter-productive. You can’t lead, and you can’t make helpful improvements in your behavior, if you’re constantly beating yourself up.

Q- What is your message for women who want to be great at their job?

One of the most common suggestions both I and Marshall make when coaching women is, “Please do not be too hard on yourself.” We urge you to keep this in mind. We also urge you to recognize what got you here–– where you are today.

The flip side of every limiting behavior is always strength. Strengths such as empathy, humility, diligence, and reliability underlie many of the behaviors described in this book.  So as you read through them and think about what you want to get work on, please take time to recognize and celebrate what got you here.

Thank you Sally!


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