Women Need to Realize Work Isn't School

Harvard Business Review

Academic institutions are churning out ever-more female graduates. But the very skills that propel women to the top of the class in school are earning us middle-of the-pack marks in the workplace. Indeed, a recent study found that women account for 51.4% of middle managers in the U.S. but only 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEO's. Based on our experience, the CEO statistics will continue to improve, but only incrementally, until women recognize that the boardroom is not the schoolroom. To be successful, we must now do the very thing we were always taught not to: be disruptive.

In school, being disruptive might get you sent to the principal's office, but in business, disruption is a proven path to success, describing innovations that take root at the low end of the market, or create a new market, and then eventually upend an industry. If you play disruptively as you go into the workplace, you'll be doing the upending.

Consider disrupting yourself when it comes to these five areas — areas where the skills you honed as a high-achieving student are likely doing you a disservice in your career:

1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority. In school, in order to get the grade, you learned to provide the authority figure — the teacher — what he or she wanted. In the workplace, that translates into asking "good girl" questions: "What does this boss want from me? Which of my boss's needs aren't being met? What do I need to do to get an A?"

This approach may get you some initial gold stars, but it won't get you what you really want, which is to be an indispensable player, not just to your boss, but in your industry. To become an all-star, you need to develop a new skill: you need to learn how to challenge and influence authority, rather than simply giving the authority figures what they want.

Once you find problems that need to be solved and think up solutions, start talking, and especially start persuading. According to recent research on entrepreneurs (and to be successful, the entrepreneurial mindset is required), the single most important trait is the ability to persuade. That means trusting and advocating your ideas, even when those around you hold a different point of view.

2. Prepare, but also learn to improvise. In school, you prepared as much as possible for the test. You tried to know the answer to anything you might be asked. In the workplace, not everything you need to know can be found in a textbook. Instead of over-preparing, or dithering out of fear or insecurity, spend that time learning to improvise. This will feel a bit like taking a test (or proposing an idea or making a pitch) while feeling unprepared. You won't be. You'll simply be learning to move into a part of your brain that knows you know.

We think improv is off the cuff, but any great jazz musician will tell you it is anything but. Improvising takes practice. So practice when the stakes are lower. Sitting in a meeting and haven't contributed yet? Come up with something to say — right now. Running out of time to perfect that presentation? Don't push back the meeting — plow ahead with what you've got. If there's a cool project you don't quite have all the skills for, volunteer anyway.

For instance, when one young woman in our network was completing an internship in Dubai as part of a graduate program, the company asked her to write a business plan. Her field of study was in international relations, not business. But did she tell them she wasn't qualified? Hardly; she bought a copy of Business Plans for Dummies (really) and came up with one. As it turned out, she had quite a knack for business strategy; she enjoyed it so much that she ended up switching fields and getting accepted to a doctoral program at a top business school. She might never have known how much she enjoyed business strategy — or how good she was at it — if she hadn't taken that chance.

3. Find effective forms of self-promotion. In school, you learned that if you worked hard and performed well, you got an 'A' on your report card. A's got you into college, and they likely landed you a great job. Performing well was most of what you needed to do. Now, you need to work hard, perform well, and make sure people know about your hard work and excellent performance.

Until our culture evolves, as a woman, you'll have to do this within the context of the double-bind. You'll often have to do better work than male counterparts to stay ahead, but you'll be shamed or gaslighted if you toot your own horn. So find the forms of self-promotion that work — for a woman — within your workplace. They will likely be subtler than those that typically work for men.

4. Welcome a less prescribed, full of surprise, career path. In school, most students follow a prescribed and universal trajectory: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, Calculus and so forth. A career path is far less scripted, and often full of surprises. Embrace your individual, unusual career path — which, by the way, is the new normal. If you are a baby boomer, you are going to hold 11 jobs on average. If you are a millennial, you are projected to have worked at 14 jobs by the time you are 40.

When you are scared, consider that to be a good sign. Unlike running with the pack, forging your personal path may feel uncomfortable, but you don't upend anything while clinging to the herd. I (Whitney) went from studying music to equity research to co-founding a hedge fund and couldn't be happier now writing, speaking and advising on innovation. I (Tara) went from the nonprofit sector to Stanford Business School to launching my own business, training women for leadership and helping them find greater fulfillment in work and life. More and more women are embracing unusual, self-directed career paths that play to their strengths and are aligned with their values.

5. Go for being respected, not just liked. In school, many of us did what was necessary to survive socially; at times we both found ourselves acting like airheads, trading in being smart for being cool. But in our careers, and over time, we are learning to shoot for being respected by those we work with - rather than striving to be liked by everyone.

To pursue your professional dreams, put what's popular in the backseat. For example, if your gifts and aptitudes lie in areas that aren't see as "girl appropriate," you may find yourself pulling back. The statistics indicate many women are: between 2000 and 2008, there was a 79% decline in the number of incoming undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science, likely because the stereotype of a "coder" is still a geeky white male. Yet nearly any mid-career professional will tell you that knowing how to code opens professional doors, elicits tremendous respect, and ironically, popularity. It's not easy to fight stereotypes, but doing the unexpected is exactly what disruption is all about.

None of this is to say that the skills honed in the academy are unnecessary. They are vital to both your career and life, and were, in fact, the price of entry into the workplace. You have learned to respect authority and rules. You believe effort will be rewarded. You can adapt to others' reactions and opinions. Now it's time to build on these bedrock skills and actively pursue disruption, recognizing that because you are trying something new, you may not make the grade initially. But as you learn to challenge the status quo, think on your feet, forsake popularity, and explore unusual paths, you may just upend your way to a best-in-class career.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.