“I’m the CEO yet they talk past me. Typical good old boys, so I’ve learned to not take it personally.”
“I wanted gender parity in my seed round, but men are easier to negotiate with. They make a decision faster.”
Two snippets from two of the many conversations I’ve had over the past few days with female tech founders. The hunt for advisors / mentors / funding involves navigating a very male terrain.
My own career path – corporate lawyer to law firm manager to startup advisor/co-founder/angel investor to startup advisor to LP in a fund to speaker and strategist – has always included men. From the frat boys of my CMBS days to emerging tech, my path has frequently been cleared or repaired by men, and I have been sponsored and mentored by men (yes, I consider myself VERY lucky to have had mentors of either gender during my career). But don’t get me wrong, having male support in male dominated fields hasn’t made it easy career street (more like navigating the sidewalks of New York City in 5-inch heels) it is simply a recognition of my professional reality. It is a [still under construction] career path I’ve stuck to and more importantly, it is a route I choose to actively take with my eyes wide open every single work day.
Here are a few of my career tips for those women embarking on a similar journey:
Get In The Room!
YOU need to get in a room with the decision makers!
Don’t relegate yourself to the outsider roles and opportunities. If there’s an opportunity to go to a meeting, you want to be the one who says you want to go. That means sharing the cab to airport, getting in the elevator with that person, showing up 15 minutes before the meeting starts because you know that’s when all the good stuff really happens.
Do not just be the one who goes back to the office. Of the boys suggest grabbing a beer, go. Go, listen, be there. Sometimes that’s the most important thing to do – simply being seen. Don’t use the excuse “Oh, I’ll go back to the office and do my work…” As for the topic of making small talk (sports, golf…) who cares what they’re talking about! Best thing you can add to the conversation are your ears. Maybe chime in and ask a question.
Knowing you have something to do back at the office is a great excuse to leave once you’ve made the initial effort. They need to see you as that colleague and not just “the reliable girl Friday” – the one who will go back to the office and do the work.” So,as hard as it may be, or as uncomfortable as you might initially feel, you need to take a deep breath and get in the room!
Figure Out Where the Right Room is.
Get politically/biz decison-making savvy and figure out where decisions actually get made! Do decisions get made at baseball games or rock concerts or on the golf course? You need to figure this out – fast.
If you’re entertaining thoughts of “I want to work at……..” then take a look at how people network within the profession and figure out where they go to make decisions. Then be honest with yourself: this is what the terrain looks like ahead. This is what I need to do to gain my expertise or to make this company successful. Do I have the stomach/fortitude for it? Really ask those questions early on so you’re not taken by surprise….but take a career decision based on choice.
Let me give you an example from my first career as a corporate attorney. As a young associate, I worked a big bankruptcy case in Toronto. The partner noticed my work commitment and that I had a bit of enthusiasm for the practice area. He took me out to dinner and asked what seemed like a simple question: ‘Do you like this practice area?’
“Yes, actually, I do.” was my response.
“Do you notice anything Kelly?”
Well, it wasn’t hard to notice. All the important clients and prominent lawyers were men in the 50+ range (I was 25 or 26 at the time). They also all knew each other. It was the old boys club Bay Street chapter. I looked at the partner and said, “Yes, Ward. Everyone looks like you.”
He said, “yes, and we all golf……Do you golf?”
Do I golf…gulp. I grew up in the only part of Canada where one can golf 12 months of the year (there is one) and no, other than walking across the Oak Bay Golf Course after dark to drink beer on the beach….so I replied
“I guess the answer to that question is I’m going to learn.”
The partner continued – “I want you to be in the room where the decisions are made. I don’t care if you just play three holes. I just want you there [with the decision makers] for the full 18 holes.”
The key for me was the partner recognized that I needed to play golf if I was going to advance in the profession, if I was going to be successful as a bankruptcy attorney in that particular legal market. I recognized I had a choice: I could be the outsider, the one who showed up every once in awhile, or I could head to the driving range every Sunday – and be the one getting the good cases.
Figure out where the decisions are made – then go back to my first piece of advice, and get yourself in that room.
When in Doubt, Fake It. Really.
But once you get in the room,what do you do when you know nothing about the conversation? Easy. Fake it. Develop your facial muscles so you don’t look at baseball or NASCAR with disdain or utter boredom. I know nothing about flyfishing and a little about guns and gardening….and I can ask questions and look like I’m really interested.
Be Kind to Everyone.
Sometimes the best way to network and get noticed by the higher up is what you do for the people at your own level. You don’t necessarily network with the [insert top dog title here] but you talk all the time with someone at their office. Your professionalism and relationship with that person may be the best networking you do. When you’re being helpful and respectful of the other members of the team that can get reported up. That means occasionally picking up the phone rather than e-mailing. Stopping by and saying, “Hi, How are you?” Remembering some little detail about the people you’re working with.
Little things often make the biggest impact.
Advice from a retired Wall Street banker (yes, male and yes, a champion for the women who worked with him): “You just need to dive into it. Regardless of your sex, what us old white guys want to see are people who are excited about their job, and excited about learning, and willing to bust their butt for the team.”
All of us are busy. We have deadlines, work and life choices we’re committed to and we spin ourselves into a “I can’t afford to take that hour and a half to ……’ That hour and a half is so much more than an hour and a half, it is your career. Every opportunity you have to be in the presence of the decision makers, seize it.
Another career benefit of golf, has been writing about it. The PGA found my original post and invited me to speak at their inaugural Beyond The Green event at the PGA Championship. I’m heading back to the PGA Championship again this year to speak.