In my work helping women build successful, fulfilling careers, I started to see something quite troubling. Women who had been high achievers in school-good students who earned good grades-were finding that the very skills that served them well in school were holding them back in their careers. "Good student skills" looked very similar to "good girl" behavior patterns, and being stuck in "good girl" mode was preventing women from leading, innovating, and having knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park careers.
Success at work demands different competencies than success at school, and many women aren't aware that they need to shift their approach. Here are five "good student skills" that fail us in our careers, and the new, corresponding skills you need to thrive in your career. Are you stuck in any of these areas?
Prepare, prepare, prepare: Improvise. In school, students are told again and again to study hard –- to prepare for the test, read the assignment before the teacher asks about it in class, start early writing that research paper. Many students graduate believing, understandably, that preparation is the foundation for success. This can lead us to get stuck in a kind of "preparation comfort zone" where we only feel secure when we've had a lot of time to prepare for any major assignment at work. In our careers, we are called upon to improvise and think on our feet. We have to make decisions when we feel inadequately prepared, when we feel like the information and time needed just wasn't available. Practice taking action even when you feel imperfectly prepared, and get as good at improvisation as you are at preparation.
Just do good work: Do good work and make it visible. In school, if you did great work, you usually got a good grade. At work, many women continue to take this approach: I'll just do great work, and it will get noticed. I'll get the gold stars on my review, the promotion, the bonus. But in our careers, doing great work isn't enough. We've got to do good work and make sure people know about it. This can be an uncomfortable stretch for women, because we don't want to come off as arrogant or as taking credit away from others. Get comfortable owning your accomplishments and talking about them -- gracefully -- with bosses and colleagues.
Adapt to the authority figures: Influence the authority figures. In school, every new class brought with it a new authority figure who had unique rules, requirements and preferences. It's all too easy for students to conclude that the No. 1 skill they need is the skill of figuring out what the teacher wants and providing it. With that background, we enter into our careers looking to figure out and provide what each new boss wants. However, to become a valued contributor, we can't just give the authority figures what they want. We have to enhance their effectiveness by contributing our own unique ideas. This means we need to learn how to challenge and effectively influence authority. How can you influence your boss' views if you think there is a major opportunity she's just not seeing? How can you influence the management at your company to manage their people in a more productive way? It's time to add influencing authority to your skill set.
Look outside yourself for the answer: Draw on what's within you. School taught you how to absorb external information (from a book or a teacher's lesson) and then regurgitate that information back out. Yet as you move to more and more senior levels in your career, you'll need to turn your focus inward and see what you can bring forth from within -- whether it's your personal strengths like your problem-solving or communication genius, or specific business ideas that could make a difference at your organization. It's time to retrain your brain: The value you bring doesn't just come from the information you've mastered. It comes from who you are.
Follow a linear path: Follow your own unique path. Last but not least, most important subjects in school were organized in a very linear way. Take Spanish 1, then Spanish 2. Take introductory economics, then intermediate economics, then advanced. Twenty years of that training can leave us looking for a straight ladder to climb in our careers. Yet most women find their career aspirations don't match that ladder. Be open to unexpected career moves, steps off the linear path, and leveraging your past professional experiences in creative ways.
Are you ready to make the shift from "good student" skills to "knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park" career skills?
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