Project Wonderful

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

5 New Years Resolutions for Professional Women

Hello Kids! Apologies for the slight lapse in blogmunication over the past couple of days. I am 3/4 the way through what I've deemed Conference-thon 2012. I started off going to a SIPA career conference in DC, followed by a Jewish learning conference in upstate New York and I am now smackdab in the middle of a Women in Leadership Conference at my home turf of Columbia Univesity. (Look forward to some posts from an upcoming conference on Mormonism in American Politics, should be interesting!)

Although the value of the sessions I've attended has varied greatly, one thing I always love is hearing advice from other women who have had paths both extremely different and similiar to my own. A sort of "if I knew then what I know now" thing. And since 'tis the season (still barely) for resolutions and one of mine is to actively promote the values I'd like to see in the campaign community, I've come up with this short summary of the most helpful advice I've received from and about professional women over the past year. As always, my comments are campaign specific, but the advice is universal. So, without further ado...

Five New Years Resolutions for Professional Women

1)You're a woman, not a girl. Communicate with confidence. I once had a Democratic Party official point out that my boss and I were referring to potential field organizer candidates as "girls" rather than "women." As soon as she pointed this out, I started noticing this phenomenon everywhere. It seems natural to refer to "the girls in HR" but odd to talk about "the boys who work in the research division" (unless of course, you're speaking in the sense of Mad Men). If we don't make the effort to give ourselves weight in a professional context, who will? This week I was horrified to receive an email from the leadership conference I'm attending containing a smiley face emoticon. Could you imagine a man writing professional conference email containing "dress business professional, lol?" It's just not done. Similarly, at a Women and Power brunch I hosted recently we identified the huge problem of our female colleagues speaking too softly or going up at the end of their sentences as if looking for approval. Why is it that even some of the best and brightest female professionals don't back their ideas up with the confidence they deserve? This year let's make an effort to stop verbally and vocally apologizing for ourselves.

2)Take Credit. This is one of the hardest pieces of advice for me to internalize since it seems anathema to the job of a campaign worker. As a manager I've often found myself saying "I don't care whose fault it is, I just care that it gets fixed." Searching for personal recognition especially from those much higher up in the chain is one of the least attractive qualities I've observed among coworkers. It's not about making yourself look good, it's about making the candidate look good. Still as my Women in Power Professor was fond of reminding us, the workforce is not a meritocracy. While most jobs are found through networking I find that within a campaign good work is eventually recognized and rewarded. However, that eventually can take years. One simple thing we can all do is say "thank you" when complimented, rather than to downplay an accomplishment. Another is to seek out opportunities to share your knowledge. If you've come up with a particularly good program or training strategy find a way to share it. That way you are making the campaign community better while highlighting your contributions to it.

3)Know Your Brand. Your brand, beyond how you want to be seen or what you do is what other people feel when they think of you. My Women and Power Professor last semester described it in a way that should hit home particularly for campaign people. Think about a can of Diet Coke. If you're like me, you can hear the pop of the tab, feel the coolness of the can and the bubbles in your mouth. You can sense the relief you feel with the first sip. That's how clear your personal brand should be. I was surprised to learn how much opposition my female classmates had to the concept of personal branding. When we talked about it last semester there seemed to be a consensus that specifically cultivating a professional brand is somehow phony or inauthentic. On the contrary, authenticity can be an integral part of one's personal brand, and I hope you will agree it is part of mine. Their resistance reminded me of Coco Chanel's famous line "Dress shabbily and they remember the dress, dress impeccably and they remember the woman." Branding is all about sending a cohesive and purposeful message to the world about who you are. A thoughtful, clear brand, will allow your skills and ideas to shine through and to reach a wider audience. Knowing your brand often requires some uncomfortable market research and facing some hard truths, but the process is well worth it. Like it or not you already have a brand, and it is time to take control of it. For more on personal branding check out this series by my good friend and branding guru, Cole Imperi.

4)Network Before You Need It. This is another place I was astonished to find pushback from my classmates. Maybe because as organizers, we are networking all the time, professional networking comes as second nature to me. My female classmates,on the other hand, seemed to find it disingenuous. They viewed networking as "using" people to get what you want. All the more reason to build your network before you have something to ask for. One of the biological gifts we have as women is a natural inclination to build and foster relationships. Networking is doing just that. It is meeting people who share your professional path or interests and fostering connections among them. One of the great joys of my professional experience has been connecting people. A former organizer wants to go to Minnesota for the recount and I happen to know the Field Director. A classmate wants to work for the Sierra Club and I attended a training with someone who works there. Not only have I helped my colleagues find jobs or staff, but I know that there are competent people working for the causes in which I believe. By building a network before you need it, you enable yourself to help shape your professional community and people are more than happy to return the favor when the time comes.

5)Don't Ask 'Why Me,' Ask 'Why NOT Me?' My branding guru friend mentioned above, who began her own marketing firm at the age of 25, once attributed her success to the follow statement, "Nobody told me I couldn't." I learned recently that one of the top three questions a woman asks when approached by a headhunter for a position is "Are you sure I'm qualified?" Can you imagine a man asking that? While most of the men I've worked with seem to feel professionally entitled (and granted, politicos are a self-selecting group) women are just the opposite. As organizers, we're taught to make a plan and we're taught to make an ask. Though we are more than willing to do this for our work, when it comes to ourselves we often fall short. My challenge to my sisters in organizing this year is to think about something you'd like to accomplish in 2012 and then go after it like a vote goal. Make a plan, work hard, and ask for what you want. You need to take control of your professional destiny, because no one else is going to do it for you.

To a successful and empowered calendar and election year!


  1. Nancy, really great list.
    With regard to personal branding, it is even more important for women than for men as women are scrutinized more in this area. If you take time to put together a professional appearance in the 'real world' then you better take time to put together a professional appearance in the 'digital world' too.

  2. I really wish there was a female equivalent to the word "guys". You would probably refer to them as "the guys in the research division" and not "the men in the research division". Same, you would probably say "this guy I work with" and not "this man I work with".

    I'm sort of ok with "girl" being the female form of "guy" to casually refer to a female in the workplace.

    Smiley faces in work emails are pretty terrible, though.

  3. This is a really great article. I first saw it back in March, and I sent it to a friend who needed to hear some of it. She made a late resolution to work on a few of the items listed above. :)

    Your blog is fantastic. Keep writing!

    1. Thanks so much! I'm super proud to know a lot of great professional women both in and out of the campaign world!