How To Further Your Career With A Strategic “No”
At the ABA Women Lawyers Leadership Academythis month, the formidable working mother Mary Cranston, Chair of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the first woman Chair of an AmLaw100 firm, instructed the crowd of eager young women lawyers to set audacious goals and learn the art of the strategic “no.”
When Cranston achieved her goal of making partner at Pillsbury (no small accomplishment) she realized she needed another goal.
No book of business in hand and with no knowledge of how to build one, she said to herself, “I’ll build the biggest book at Pillsbury” (more than audacious -in the category of immaculate conceptions).
I don’t know if Cranston built the biggest, but she built one large enough to be a major player in a mega-firm with a sterling reputation – a goal that few women at the time had achieved and that most women continue to find unreachable.
For Cranston, the strategic “no” was simple.
If the task did not further her career plans (or feed a passion) the answer was “no.” She had two children at home at a time when the “standard” advice was not to have children before you made partner. We boomer women lawyers were told that pregnancy “showed a lack of commitment.”The men, of course, fathered children whenever they damn well pleased.
Cranston knew she didn’t have time to say “yes” to everything her firm asked her to do and “yes” to children as well.
Why It’s Hard For Us To Do
This morning, over at The Glass Hammer, an executive coach also advises women to use the strategic no after reminding us why it’s so difficult to do.
A lot of my executive coaching clients have a hard time saying “No” too, yet it’s a critical skill we need to succeed and keep our sanity. Saying “No” is hard because it’s inconsistent with the beliefs we have about ourselves (we’re supposed to be collaborative, empathetic, care-taking), and the expectations others have of us. I often catch myself resenting a woman establishing boundaries when I would never think twice about a man doing it. So how do we as women leaders establish boundaries with both power and grace?
Say it loud and say it proud.
“No, I’m sorry, but I’m heading up the trial team for Microsoft and we’re choosing the jury in three weeks. I’d love to help. Why don’t you ask Jack? His hours are low.”
O.K., so you don’t need to throw Jack under the bus but remember the men are doing it to one another and to us every working day.
Say, “I’m on the Finance Committee and we’re just digging ourselves out of the recession and interviewing possible merger partners as well. I’d love to serve on the hiring or diversity committee. They do essential work. Why don’t you ask Robert? He hasn’t picked up a Committee assignment yet and he needs one if he expects to stay on the partnership track.”
Be On Purpose
Notice I’m suggesting men rather than my professional sisters for low-status committee work. Maybe if men begin to populate those committees, they’ll increase in status, and diversity will become something other than a glittering lure for law students who still believe in the Tooth Fairy and law firms’ commitment to work-life balance.