Launching a Career: 5 Ways Women Can Get Ahead at Work


Career advancement can be difficult to navigate. Whether managing your first direct report, looking to get a promotion, or changing fields altogether, it may be tough to know where to start to get ahead at work.

Susan Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL) at Babson College, has spent much of her career helping women reach the next step. Here are her tips for women professionals on how to successfully take a career to the next level.

Believe in Yourself

Whether you’re looking to change careers, join a nonprofit, or go after a promotion—you need to start with desire. From there, take it one entrepreneurial step at a time. That means you must think and act entrepreneurially in any setting by focusing on what you have, rather than on what you need.

You don’t need a master plan or even a fully baked idea. You just need the desire to move in a given direction. From there, ask yourself three questions:

  • What are my means at hand right now?
    Who am I, what do I know, whom do I know? This includes your education, experience, network, values, and any other assets that make you who you are.
  • What am I willing to invest and possibly lose?
    This is your “affordable loss” and might include time, money, reputation, or opportunity cost— just be clear that you are willing to lose it.
  • Whom can I count on to support me moving forward?
    Share 80 percent of your idea with someone else who could be a potential ally. Let them give you 20 percent of their thinking to help the idea move forward.

Once you have the answers to these three questions, you act—take the first step. That singular action leads to learning and points to your next indicated step—which may be very different from where you thought you were headed.

The learning from this first step will let you know if you want to keep moving forward. When mistakes are made—and they will be—the costs are low and the intel is high. Now that you are acting your way forward, you will need all of the assets and energy you can muster.

The Landscape Is Gendered; Pay Attention to it

It’s real. While gender is never all of the story, it is always a part of it.

It can come in many different forms: the double-bind, invisible work, homophily, the problem versus potential narrative, and stereotype threat are all ways gender impacts our work environments. Once you understand it, you will be able to have your antenna up and spot it.

With those tools, you can manage yourself strategically in a diverse set of scenarios. You will be able to allocate your energy, time, and resources to the things that matter most to you and your career.

Find Your Special Sauce

Women spend too much time on their deficits rather than developing their strengths. To focus in on your special sauce, seek the input of others in helping you identify it.

Ask those around you to identify the unique leadership traits that you bring to the table. This kind of exercise is a powerful and functional tool to increase your leadership impact, especially as so many of our strengths are forgotten or minimized. Recognize them, articulate them, and connect them to strategic contributions.

It’s also important to remember that each of us has leadership strengths that are unique. They are a combination of values, education, experiences, social identities, and even biology. We each have a special sauce to bring to the world based on these unique ingredients.

Find Your Tribe

We are often told about the importance of networking. While it remains vital to success, women entrepreneurs also need to create tribes. Tribes are close communities of women and men who look out for your best interest, who understand you and your business.

They are people who “get” you. Think of tribes as a personal, rather than professional, board of advisors. The difference between a tribe and a network is that a network is transactional—it is a means to an end.

Tribes are transformational—they make us feel great about ourselves. While spending time with your tribe is fun, it’s more functional than you might realize.

The science behind the importance of finding your tribe comes from a social learning concept called self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the confidence—not the competence—that we have what it takes to be successful.

Here are four ways that women entrepreneurs build self-efficacy and what a tribe can do to support this.

  • Mastery Experiences
    Tribes offer a safe space to try on new behaviors and test out new experiences.
  • Vicarious Learning
    Tribes offer us direct access to role models who look like us and sound like us. We think: if she can do it, I can do it.
  • Anxiety Reduction
    Tribes help us stay calm by sharing similar experiences to the challenges we face. Trusted members of our tribe demonstrate how they survived and often thrived in tricky situations.
  • Champion Cheerleading
    Tribes offer us the “atta girls” we need just when we need them. They pick us up when we are down, inspire us to reach high, and applaud us on to the finish line.

Suffice it to say, the committed people of your tribe support you to access your best self—all of those special ingredients you need to run your amazing organizations and companies.

Create Your Own Path

Careers don’t happen to us, we make them happen. Understand the path that got you to today and be intentional about where you want to go in the future. Then identify the skills and networks or experiences you need to build toward that future. Doing this allows you to begin to frame out what your future state looks like, an exercise that we rarely take time to walk through.

We tend to be reactive to our careers rather than proactive. Changing that behavior requires a shift in mindset around strategic thinking. It means saying “I’d like to do that” no matter how far out in the distance that goal might be.

Now, you can begin to walk the path, instead of waiting for the path to come to you.

Posted in Insights

More from Insights »