In her recently released book, 'The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Learn But Won't Learn in Business School', author Selena Rezvani provides the road map for women to become successful in their careers. Rezvani shares the wisdom she garnered through in-depth interviews with 30 successful businesswomen -- including tips on networking, negotiating, office politics, and work/life balance. While the book is written with a slant toward women in their 20s and early 30s, the lessons shared are important for women to put into practice at every stage of their career.
AOL Jobs recently talked to Rezvani to learn about her research on women and their careers and to uncover more about Rezvani's own personal career journey.
Q. Your introduction suggests that you wrote this book because Gen X and Gen Y women receive little guidance on the informal and unwritten rules that can shape a career. What are your top tips for helping these women navigate their career course?
A. Don't keep your aspirations to yourself. Get clear about where you want to go and then be vocal about sharing those goals with others. Being an island won't help you advance.
Identify leaders whom you admire and figure out why. What do they do that makes them different? Why does it resonate with you? Ask for a lunch meeting or coffee date to learn how they've honed their skills. This is probably the easiest career advancement strategy and yet people consistently overlook and underestimate it.
Strengthen your "asking" muscle. Be gutsy about asking for what you want -- whether that's an international assignment, a promotion, or addition resources. Fortune favors the brave, and nowhere is that more true than in business. In your career and in life, you stand to lose much more by not asking.
Q. In your book, you discuss the importance of networking and relationships. Why do you think networking may be more important than pure job skills? Can you give us an example of how networking helped you advance your career?
A. In my research, networks emerged as the single best resource for women who want to advance. A well-cultivated network can give you critical business intelligence you may not otherwise learn -- for example how someone traversed an organizational obstacle or discovered a new best practice that can be replicated. Even more important, a network can help you become known by those other than just your boss. In today's environment, this is a must. If you decide to change directions career wise, or if you lose your job, it's this group you will go to bat for you and help you recover. Networks are career insurance!
In my own career, my MBA network has been invaluable. The best networks are ones where you can demonstrate your character and your competence, not just explain them to people. In business school, I was growing and learning alongside a cohort of 20 others. Members of this network ultimately helped me connect with top women leaders whom I could interview for my book, referred me to my first paid engagement as an entrepreneur -- even helped me negotiate my contract for my book deal. This network has been an amazing forum, and I see it as my job to continue cultivating these relationships, always keeping them mutual and beneficial.
Q. Your book includes a lot of compelling research about how women historically don't negotiate their salaries and what they can do to become better negotiators. What are your top negotiation tips and how have you applied this advice to your own career?
A. First, understand where you have leverage before you negotiate. Ask yourself, "What are the most important things I'm relied on to do and to what extent?" This could be your technical skills, your tenure, your pulse on the industry or your book of business. Make a case, whenever you can with numbers or results, projects you've spearheaded, or concrete improvements you've made. Keep an ongoing log of your successes so you have a ready inventory to bring to negotiation conversations. Once you've built a case, practice regulating your emotions by doing some role-playing with someone you trust.
One of the ways that I knew this research held water was because I used it myself. At the time I was interviewing women for the book, I was working full-time as a management consultant. And in this job, I had long felt that I was underpaid. After one particular book interview, I was so inspired the the advice I heard, that I made an appointment that afternoon with my boss. I compiled a case, got my emotions in check, and proceeded to ask my boss for a 25 percent raise. To my shock and delight, I got the raise, had new-found self-respect, and was more certain than ever that there were a lot more women out there that needed the same advice.
Q. You compare work/life balance to a see-saw. Can women have it all and if not, what is the most realistic expectation that women can have regarding work/life balance? What steps have you taken to create balance in your life?
A. As we already know, women's lives don't tend to fit nicely into the extreme work model that we have in place today where a top performer is someone that's available 24/7. The women I interviewed talked about how work/life balance is no piece of cake. Many of them acknowledged that while they are workers and moms, they don't feel they can give 100 percent to both areas at the same time.
My best advice about lifestyle and attaining balance is to make sure your lifestyle aligns with your values. Your values are your compass. If you are a family person first and foremost, let that drive your career decisions. If you have a life goal to work abroad, plan that into your career. People get into trouble most with work/life integration when they don't know what they want or when they're unaware that they're off-kilter with their most deeply held values.
In my work, sacrifices are part of life. If I travel extensively to speak, my marriage and my relationships with friends and family may take a backseat for that period. If I have a slower speaking or consulting schedule in a given month, I have the reverse effect and can refuel those relationships. The most important thing I've learned about balance is that if you want a lot from your career, you must have a partner or spouse that "gets" that, has their own life, and supports your ambitions.
Q. You suggest considering a job abroad to gain international experience and earn additional responsibility. Can you give us an example of someone who did this and how it was a benefit to their career?
A. A terrific example is Vicki Ho. An American working at GE, she fought hard for a top assignment abroad. As a result, she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to become head of equipment services for GE China. For Vicki, this opportunity represented a springboard to managing bigger P&Ls and a proving ground that launched her into roles with greater responsibility.
In our interview, Vicki offered this sound advice: "You will always be competing against other risk takers, so you need to take risks too. If you get a wild job offer, take it or someone else will. Some women define their boundaries too much, but you need to be agile. The company is not there to make you successful -- that's your job."
Q. You manage to discuss office politics in your book in a way that doesn't sound ugly or deceitful. What are your top tips for navigating office politics while remaining authentic?
A. First, you can't be naive about the extent to which politics govern the workplace. The women I interviewed found ways to proactively learn the culture and political climate of their organizations, learning how people like to be communicated with, and how and when people launched initiatives that were successful. They solicited information from several parties as they accumulated information, never relying on just one.
I'd also advise a woman starting out to have a sense of humor about some politics. Competing egos easily lead to deadlocks and communication breakdowns; being the one to inject some well-timed levity can go a long way.
Finally, become known for your directness and candor. Creating a brand as someone who is forthright helps mitigate doubts about your "real" agenda.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your background and personal career journey? What was the best decision you made and what was your biggest mistake or what would you do differently if you had the opportunity to go back?
A. I studied social work at New York University where I received bachelor's and master's degrees and have an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. Due in part to that unusual combination of studies, I found myself interested in empowering women through the lens of their work lives. I also had a personal interest in this area. For the majority of my life, I didn't feel powerful. That general sentiment made me particularly interested in women who had self agency, used it positively, as as a result, got respect. For 'The Next Generation of Women Leaders,' I interviewed 30 top women, ultimately found my own leadership voice, and was inspired to make a career out of helping other women to do the same.
When I consider my best and worst decisions, they both boil down to risk. The worst decisions I made were ones where I talked myself out of risk. For example, early in my career, I didn't apply for a high-powered job or overseas assignment because I gave into my own doubts. On the other hand, there were moments where I felt unsure but made a move anyway and those have been golden opportunities. In terms of getting my MBA, I was certain I would not live up to my hopes as a business student, but forged ahead anyway. That opportunity changed my life, led to a book, a business, incredible relationships, and a career I love.
Q. What are your predictions for the future of work? Do you see more flexibility, competition for talent, outsourcing, etc. on the horizon? How can women stay ahead of the curve?
A. Women are an awesome economic force in the United States; as the most educated, major work-force demographic -- not to mention the biggest consumer group -- they have and will continue to change the face of business. What will that mean going forward? Those companies that continue to see women employees and consumers as a segment or minority, rather than the future of work, won't be able to compete.
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