Use Your Strengths to Advance Your Career

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Early in my financial services career, I helped farmers and local churches build livelihood and sense of unity, offering financial guidance. I loved it, so I didn’t think about the fact that the team I was on was heavily male-dominated and that no one looked like me.

There was an unspoken rule that my role was to hold down the fort when everyone else was building relationships with clients on the golf course. At first, I rolled with the punches—women typically didn’t conduct business that way. At events and tournaments, women were mostly relegated to volunteering at the promotional tent or signing in participants. But one summer, I wasn’t willing to miss client engagement opportunities anymore. Plus, I saw myself as an athlete, so I learned the rules of the game and began to perfect my golf swing.

I started taking sales calls on the golf course and participating in corporate events. I didn’t realize it at the time but claiming my confidence as a woman and as an athlete uniquely positioned me for exposure to new client relationships, business leads to which I would not have otherwise been privy, and I built camaraderie and respect with the team at my organization.

It wasn’t easy to put myself out there, but ultimately, leaning into my talents created opportunities for me in ways I hadn’t imagined, and it also yielded ROI the for business.

But if sports aren’t your thing, there are certainly diverse and transferable skills you can leverage. Here are two critical strategies that will help you and your female co-workers make the best of just about any corporate culture.

Show Your Solidarity. Woman to woman, we have a tremendous opportunity to motivate, inspire, and collaborate with one another. There is incredible power in speaking up, even when you think you’re the only female voice in the room. You may be surprised that other women may be feeling the same way, but don’t have the courage to put their careers on the line. It’s hard to be the squeaky wheel.

I remember working with a colleague as part of a selection team for a leadership role. During our weekly briefings, he would refer to our final candidate with masculine pronouns. “When we land on the most qualified candidate, he will hit the ground running.” While the comments may not have been ill-intentioned or a conscious assumption that the final candidate would be a man, I felt compelled to assert myself. When others made similar remarks, I would weave female references into the dialogue. People noticed. In fact, a colleague caught himself several times and acknowledged my comments. Sometimes raising issues and embracing teachable moments with positive intent can make an impact, even in what may seem like a small win.

Take Care of Number One. It may seem obvious that we have to take care of our health. But it’s amazingly easy to forget when you’re dealing with deadlines and high-pressure situations. Don’t forget to check in with yourself. Take your pulse every so often. All of the passion and ambition in the world means nothing if you can’t function mentally or physically. Recently, I had to be honest with myself about what I was capable of delivering due to health issues. I think of myself as self-sufficient and caring for others’ needs above my own. It’s a process, but I am learning that asking for help makes me strong, not weak.

A close friend recently pointed out that while I am an effective communicator in my career, I struggle with expressing my own needs. It’s ok not to be perfect—stepping up to every demand that comes our way. It’s ok—smart, even—to pause, take a timeout, impose self-care and let friends and family help you to be your best self.

Jess Downey