Stuck at Mid-Level And Eager to Climb
Women's Assumptions Can Impede Growth

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

What if, instead of a glass ceiling, it's a sticky floor that holds down women in corporate America? That's the thinking of Rebecca Shambaugh.

Society has changed; the workforce has changed. But women still rely on old-school skills and leadership qualities to try to get ahead and into executive positions, says Shambaugh, president and chief executive of Shambaugh Leadership, a consulting firm. Women still practice unconscious behaviors that keep them in middle management rather than the executive suite. It's high time they figure out what they have to do to let themselves thrive at work.

Women are well poised to rule the world, Shambaugh says (well, not in so many words). Baby boomers are retiring. Companies are eyeing the people next in line.

And women are making some strides: Women held 14.7 percent of all Fortune 500 board seats, up from 13.6 percent in 2003 and 9.6 percent in 1995, according to a 2005 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors of the Fortune 500.

Of course, if things keep going at that rate, Catalyst points out, it would take 70 years for women to equal the number of men on the boards.

But Shambaugh argues that 50 percent or more of the things holding women back are behavioral traits and "assumptions about themselves." And once they figure out what they are doing to hold themselves back, maybe then there will be more female executives and board members.

Lori Behrens is the senior director of marketing, planning and analysis at Marriott. About a year ago, she began to attend coaching sessions with Shambaugh's company. Behrens felt she had always been able to advance in her career and get the opportunities she wanted. But lately she didn't have time to even think about what opportunities she wanted next. "I wanted to step back and figure out what I was working toward and what I wanted to focus on," she said.

A major crystallizing moment: At one session, she was asked to take out her calendar and look at it. More than once a week, she was double- or even triple-booked. Her schedule on most days included meetings from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. How could anyone have a moment to figure out how to do things better for her own department with a day like that?

She was told by a coach at Shambaugh, "You have complete control of your calendar." In other words, it's okay to say no. Or to delegate. A light bulb went on.

It's hard to grow into a more senior position if you don't have a minute to make new contacts, change things or think, she realized.

"It's a hard transition to move into more delegating and seeing a bigger picture," Shambaugh said. As for Behrens, as with so many others, it was important to "set boundaries and expectations. And learning that the details, someone else can do."

Behrens now hands off some of those meetings to her employees, freeing herself while helping them to grow and gain new experiences. She also now simply skips some meetings.

With all that extra time, she purposefully carves out blocks to build relationships in other departments and integrate work between departments. And with that, she recently formed a sort of partnership between her team and an e-commerce team to test online marketing strategies. In the past, each department would have worked on a similar project, but separately.

"We weren't sharing with each other what we were doing," Behrens said. "Now we're making sure we're getting insights from each other."

Christine Dingivan, vice president of clinical research and operations at MedImmune Inc., realized her sticking point was that she had little knowledge about how to communicate. "I'm a surgeon by training, so I'm not used to being diplomatic," she said.

At first skeptical, she now loves the term "sticky floor." "It really does explain what I've experienced. You're not really artificially limited as much as folks believe."

Dingivan now realizes her old way of communicating was more like demanding. And the way she communicated was never adapted to her audience. So sometimes a good idea might have evaporated into the ether because her approach rubbed someone the wrong way.

Now, she has learned, it's the little things that are important: saying hello to people in the hallway, for instance. "I was intimidating, and I didn't think of myself in that way. I didn't realize they did," she said.

But she also learned that she didn't have to stop expressing her strong opinions (of which she has many). Rather, she needed to use them in a more productive way.

It worked.

At a large meeting not too long ago, she disagreed with something a senior person in the organization was recommending. The person became "rather obnoxious" about his stance, and it made everyone in the room uncomfortable. She noticed people were looking to her to take control.

Previously, she would have fought back in the same way he was fighting, and it probably wouldn't have ended the way she wanted. But instead, she was able to calm the situation and put the meeting back on track.

The reward came later: Two people who worked for her said, "That's why we like to work for you." It impressed them that Dingivan didn't sink to the other person's level. Now she feels that by being more approachable, her employees will rally behind her and want to do their best.

"Everyone likes to respect and be proud of the people they work for," she said. "You don't want to come to work when you work for a jerk."

Once she realized that, and how she could change things, she was able to unstick her feet from the floor. She was just promoted for the second time in three years.

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