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Economic downturns aside, the road to success as a businesswoman is not an easy one. While the hope is that the working world is gender-blind, women face certain challenges that men often avoid. Fortunately, there are plenty of successful, effective women who have killed it in the business world to keep the rest of the female population hopeful motivated. And while many of the assets of these women are gender-neutral, some of the habits and skills they share come from harnessing and molding uniquely female strengths to their advantage. All it takes is perseverance, organization and an unwavering sense of self. Piece of cake, right?
It’s the ability to keep going despite all the challenges and hurdles.
Maseena Ziegler, author of "Ladies Who Launch in Hong Kong"
1. Have Confidence
No matter what your trajectory may be, having confidence in yourself and your goals is hands-down the top quality you will need for success. This confidence will fuel the ultimate edge in any profession: perseverance.
“(Perseverance) requires an unwavering sense of self-belief about yourself, your product, your mission,” said Maseena Ziegler, author of a No. 1 best-selling book in Hong Kong, "Ladies Who Launch in Hong Kong." Perseverance is the characteristic common to the 12 female entrepreneurs about whom Ziegler wrote. “It’s the ability to keep going despite all the challenges and hurdles,” she said.
While men tend to be overly confident, women are taught to be humble and demure. In order to overcome that in the workplace, it is important to identify your best traits and highlight them. One trait that women possess in spades is intuition. “Most women can walk into a room, read the room, and be fairly accurate about it,” said Lisa Johnson Mandell, author of the best-selling book "Career Comeback." She encourages women to trust and pay attention to those feelings, and — before communicating them — critically analyze and understand why they feel a certain way about a situation. If you can translate those feelings into objective business-speak, you’ll blow the men-folk out of the water.
Kimberly Roussel, a successful entrepreneur who opened the Los Angeles restaurant Kitchen 24, the Hollywood club Cinespace, and a catering service, said she feels lucky that her parents instilled confidence in her. She feels that it is critical to have a level of conviction that enables you to take risks and let go of the fear of failing. Once you defeat those anxieties, the world can open up in surprising ways.
2. Monitor Emotions
While men struggle with being vulnerable and emotive, women are encouraged from an early age to express their emotions. This can prove problematic in the workplace. Letting emotions take over in a business setting can often mean losing control of the situation.
“Men don’t take business challenges personally,” said Ziegler, “The'yre able to remain objective and in control – and perhaps they make better business decisions as a result.”
Roussel says she struggles with managing her emotions in business on a daily basis. “I make an effort to keep emotions out of situations and be more rational," she said. "At the end of the day, business is business, and you can’t over-analyze or take things too personally.”
Mandell recommends taking a beat before you react to a tense situation. And while a heated conversation is bad enough, a reactive, emotional email turns into physical evidence of rash behavior.
The ultimate manifestation of stereotypical female emotion – crying – is the one behavior that nearly every woman is both guilty of and advises against. “There’s no crying in baseball … or in the boardroom,” said Mandell, “While it is natural, it can make us look weak.” But don’t get yourself down over needing a good cry. If emotions overwhelm in the workplace, go for an extended bathroom break and get out what ails you. If you're finding yourself doing this every day, it may be an indicator to examine your current work situation.
3. Organize and Structure
Whether you’re working for yourself or someone else, having your own personal structure to a day is a huge help in making strides toward your goals. Roussel advises taking one step at a time and one day at a time, and not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by larger, long-term goals.
Writing a to-do list is a simple, satisfying way to tackle a day's objectives. Samira Asemanfar, founder of the Los Angeles-based high-end nail salon franchise Bellacures, caps off every evening by taking a look at her master to-do list and adjusting it. “I take an inventory of my to-do list," she said. "What did I accomplish today? What do I need to accomplish tomorrow and in what order? It's hard to think about this early in the morning.”
Whether your schedule is set for you or you create it yourself, sticking to a structured day — even in your personal life — is imperative. Roussel rises early every morning, heads to the gym, returns home and reads the news over breakfast. While this is just the start of her schedule, maintaining her personal goals and expectations every morning helps her be efficient throughout the day.
Mandell stresses the need to be prompt in work-related activities. Don't make excuses of being a "late person" to yourself or others. Make a point of changing that behavior. Being late to work, a meeting, or even to a social gathering, will imply either that you don’t have your act together or that your time is more important than that of the person who was waiting for you. Being prompt reflects courtesy and reliability, both of which are powerful traits in business.
4. Hone Communication Skills
Speaking from behind a lectern, participating in a conference call or composing an email, excellent communication skills are essential. While some people may be naturally gregarious or charismatic, even introverted women may still excel at this, as long as they are assertive and pay attention to detail.
“All too often, we soften or weaken our message with words like ‘you know what I mean?,’ or ‘if that’s okay with you?’” said Ziegler. “What you have to remember is that you’re an intelligent, articulate woman and you’ve more than earned your place at the table.” If you have a tendency toward falling back on weaker language, prepare what you have to say in advance of any meeting so that you’re sure of the words coming out of your mouth.
And in a world where most communication is done via email, you will get bonus points (or at least no points deducted) if your emails are spell-checked and grammar-proofed — no matter how casual the communication. A person who communicates sloppily will be perceived as someone with poor attention to detail.
5. Find a Mentor or Community
“You always hear of those good ol’ boys’ clubs," said Mandell. "But you never hear about any good ol’ girls’ clubs.” It is crucial to actively seek out women with whom to connect in your industry. It is easy to get wrapped up in seeing another woman as a threat, but that will only keep both of you down. “Older women need to look at younger women as allies, colleagues, equals," Mandell said. "And younger women need to look toward older women as leaders, mentors and gurus.”
If you’re in an office, try to pull the same “boys’ club” moves that the men do. Invite a female colleague to play tennis or lunch. Or you can go an even more basic route. “A lot gets done at the urinal,” said Theresa Zagnoli, CEO of the consulting firm ZMF. “Now I always talk to my women colleagues in the bathroom just so the men know they have been left out. When I get back in the meeting room I will say things like ‘Beth and I were just discussing ... ’ They hate it.”
When you’re just starting out or changing careers, seek out women in your industry and build relationships with them. It sometimes seems easier to ask for quick favors, but often that will not be well-received. Roussel recommends — particularly to women starting out in a new industry — finding a woman who is doing exactly what you want to do and offering to work for her for free. While this may not be feasible over a long-term period, try helping a woman you’d like to shadow once a week. Not only will you be obtaining a free education, but you also are likely to come away from it with a stellar relationship.
6. Keep Personal Life Personal
In most modern work environments, the line between friends and co-workers is often blurred, and before you know it, your entire office knows about your marital woes or your chronic insomnia. Mandell advises against revealing too much about your personal life in the workplace. “Be it romantic life, home life or health,” she said, “if you say you have a headache, guys are going to think, ‘Oh, it’s that time of the month.’ ” Gushing about your personal problems will give colleagues an altered perception of who you are as a person. The relationships will seem more frivolous and casual. And while there’s no problem with being friends outside of work with your co-workers, refrain from talking about last night’s traumatic first date until your lunch break.
By the same token, it is critical to protect your personal life from being invaded by your career. While many people check emails until bedtime, make sure that when you want a break — whether to connect with a family member or go for a run — the phones go away. Not only is it good manners, but it allows you to take a mental vacation from the intensity of the work day. Balancing those two sides of life — knowing how to distance yourself from work in personal time and from personal life during work — will help you thrive in both worlds.
7. Stay Informed and Connected
Of the women interviewed, most begin their days checking newspapers, blogs, RSS feeds, Facebook and Twitter to stay connected with the world around them. While the majority are involved in media-focused industries, this is not an exclusive skill. Knowing what’s happening in your own career field — from real estate to teaching 1st grade — will set you apart from the pack. Seek out blogs, set up Google alerts, and follow leaders in your industry on Twitter to keep yourself continually in the loop with what’s happening each day. This will allow you to be ready to participate in any conversation and come up with new, relevant ideas.
Social networks, if you know how to use them, are valuable resources. Roussel makes a point of commenting on posts, wishing people happy birthday, and providing updates about herself to ensure that her network is continually maintained. “Keeping in touch, putting yourself out there, networking … you never know," she said. "You can connect with someone online and then months later they give you the biggest job you’ve ever had.”
As long as you set time aside in your schedule, you may happily browse your global community to maintain connections with people in every facet of business.
Dress for Success
Baring cleavage or showing off your newly shaped Pilates butt is all well and good at a social event. But Lisa Johnson Mandell, author of the best-selling book "Career Comeback," advises women to keep cleavage covered at the office.
“A low-cut top may grab attention, but all the wrong kind,” said Mandell. While sexy clothes should stay in your closet from 9 to 5, there’s no reason to avoid flattering, form-fitting work clothes, with thought-out accessories. Such outfits evoke class and attention to detail, she said.
Mandell recommends a well-tailored blazer and — to women inclined to wear them — power heels. “It's going to put you on a physical level with a male counterpart, give you height, which makes you more powerful,” she said. The right heels can also help women have better posture and walk straighter, all of which will give them a greater sense of power. And the heels also are an edge that men don’t have, so all the better. Just be careful not to step on any toes on your way to the top.
Melissa Hunter has been writing since 2007. She first delved into the world of Los Angeles dating and relationships in her web shows "Let's Get Laid!" and "The Morning After." In 2009 she became a full-time editor and writer for MSN's entertainment Web site, Wonder Wall. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University, studying theatre and sociology.