We are currently at a very exciting time in the world of business. With the emergence of the sharing economy over the past few years, advancements in technology and AI, an enhanced business focus on global responsibility, and so many other developments, companies are finding themselves with staffing gaps that they'd never even thought of before.
Even at Thomson Reuters, where I lead Corporate Social Responsibility, the once ironclad career ladder with a set progression of steps, titles and responsibilities that you would reach after 3, 5, or 7 years no longer exists, and there's opportunity for individuals to carve out niche roles for themselves within existing companies and startups.
More and more, candidates with what seem like completely unrelated skill sets are being hired in new hybrid roles - many that they've designed for themselves. The reason is that a core set of competencies, not experience in one specific role, is becoming more valuable to companies. Especially in the startup world where businesses are constantly pivoting, companies rely on agile, creative, adaptable employees who can tackle one problem after the next, and connect the individual dots within a company on a larger scale.
Every job I've had since I left the finance world at age 23 has been one that I envisioned and created for myself. The key is identifying your passions and unique skills, figuring out what that looks like for you, and finding companies that fit into your vision. Now, to be sure, the traditional career ladder is very much still there, so finding companies that are forward-thinking and open to change and adaptation is key - but it might surprise you who those players actually are.
I knew at a young age that my passion was for connecting others and helping to better our community and world. I had originally planned to be a doctor - I started pre-med but after college, ultimately took a position in Finance. Being a cog in what felt like a very big machine (not to mention a boy's club), I knew that I needed to find ways to differentiate myself from my colleagues - for the benefit of my career and also to be true to my own values.
Finding Your Passion
In terms of finding your passion - it's never too early, or too late, to get started. I meet so many young women who feel like they haven't yet found their “calling," and many feel lost because of that - like they don't know what direction to go in and therefore wind up being stagnant. Certainly, there's a benefit to identifying this early and making it your one-track mission, but if you're not there yet, my biggest advice for you would be to just go out and explore. Try new things. See where you feel energized, gratified and invigorated. Be observant about your own feelings.
In terms of finding your passion - it's never too early, or too late, to get started. I meet so many young women who feel like they haven't yet found their “calling," and many feel lost because of that - like they don't know what direction to go in and therefore wind up being stagnant.
What Drives You
Examine what drives you. Do you enjoy managing others, or do you prefer to work alone? Do you enjoy building teams and creating job functions? Are you comfortable diving into new challenges that you haven't faced before, or do you prefer to stick to what you know? Do you enjoy working on a series of short-term projects, or do you prefer broader, longer term projects? For me, working with teams to build something was my first passion, and my passion for learning and development came along later.
Evaluate Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Employers are looking for candidates who can fill multiple roles at once, and it's better for you to have a variety of relevant, but seemingly unrelated skills that can offer value in several areas of the company. Examine your skill set. Are you good at writing, connecting with others, data analysis, or coding? Are you super organized? Do you have language skills? Are you good at helping others solve problems, or do you prefer tackling them on your own? Set out all the skills that you feel you can jump into, and then piece them together to see what a hybrid role might look like for you. At the same time, if there are skills you're lacking but would like to acquire, it's never too late to learn more. For me, tapping into my strengths meant building teams and generating ideas and initiatives from the ground up. I enjoy freedom and flexibility and the opportunity to take calculated risks within a company for the greater good. That's how I originally came to Thomson Reuters to lead learning and development, but that job over time developed into another role where I was leading global corporate social responsibility.
My philosophy on leveraging your strengths is that it's important to know your boundaries and limits as well as what you need and want from a position. For me, I know that I need variety in my work, to be constantly busy, and to be able to build a great team from the ground up. I also know that socializing and time with family is very important to me as well, so I built a system that allows that to happen.
Do Your Research
Identify companies that you'd enjoy working for. Especially among millennials today, company culture is a key factor for attracting talent. Does the company have a culture that you identify with? Would you feel fulfilled working there? Do you prefer working for established companies where processes and roles are set, or do you prefer smaller, developing companies where you can make a larger impact?
Maybe you want to create a new role within your existing company. The best way to do that is to make a list of areas in the company or within your current role that aren't being served. Quantify exactly what additional areas you'd like to take on, or what a new role would entail, as well as why the company needs it. It's ok to start small with one or two new initiatives at a time. Simply raising your hand and showing that you have an interest, and then acting on and fulfilling that interest will show that you can follow through.
Keep abreast of the news. Where are other companies investing that yours isn't? Are you seeing trends in the field that could be applied to your work? Seeing an opportunity early on and jumping at it can give you a head start and provide immense value to your company.
Know The Key Players
The key to being heard in the workplace (or anywhere, really), is to understand the other person's style and thinking, and approach it from their perspective. I was a student in the second class of women to ever attend Washington & Lee University, and at the time, many alumni and students were unhappy with the idea of women joining their ranks.
However, understanding why they felt this way, their concerns and their goals, helped me to approach them with new ideas, and we were able to develop programs and groups to support female students. Understanding what drives the other person, what their needs are, and how you can bring value to the table will help you get ahead. Sell your unique expertise and experiences, and position those things as beneficial to the other party.
Show Your Passion
Have you ever been passed over for a position (or declined to hire someone) because you simply didn't display a passion or excitement for the position? It's more important that you may think to explain why you're passionate about an area or opportunity - maybe it's a personal experience, or something you got a taste of at a previous company but wanted to learn more about.
Sometimes the best candidates are the most passionate, not necessarily those with the most experience. I took a position at JP Morgan straight out of college - I'd been on the pre-med track during college, and never took a single business class, but my skills and passions were able to translate into the finance world.
Take Leaps of Faith
I've always believed that when it comes to new opportunities, you should always say yes. There are a million ways to talk yourself out of doing something - but instead of doing that, tell yourself yes, I want this, here's what I need to get there, here are the reasons I shouldn't or couldn't do this, and then work them out. No obstacle is truly insurmountable with the right attitude.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."