By: Jennifer Buck

I’ve had the pleasure of coaching women leaders in fast growth, fast paced organizations for over 15 years.  Throughout these years, I’ve seen a range of themes emerge.  One of these themes is what I refer to as the ” Project Superhero.” For a group of women, there appears to be a common pattern of quick success followed by a seemingly endless career plateau.  It is not the “glass ceiling” plateau.  It is a different phenomenon.

Most of these women have enjoyed relatively fast paced career growth based on their intense drive, attention to detail, and reliability. They were hired for these traits. They are willing to work longer and harder than others. And if you throw something at them, no matter how challenging, you can count on them to get it done.  They will take on the projects that no one else wants without complaint and give 100% to ensure their success.  That has served them well to date.  They are the heroes.  They are the firefighters. They thrive on the adrenaline of a challenge. That has been the basis of their own personal brand at work.  They always get it done.  And they get it done well.  They are usually well liked or at least well respected.  Sometimes they leave bodies in the wake and need some coaching to refine their interpersonal skills and advance their emotional intelligence, but not usually.  Typically, they have strong relationships and play reasonably well with others. But there comes a point at which these women’s careers plateau.

When I conduct 360 feedback interviews, I often hear how critical these women are to the business.  They are the go-tos. They are filled with institutional knowledge. They are valued and well respected.  They are given increasing responsibilities, larger scopes, and bigger teams.  However, what I do not typically hear when they are described by others is the word “leader”.  They are considered “doers” not “leaders.”

These women are victims of their own tactical tenacity.  Their willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, while accelerating their career trajectory initially, eventually creates an execution vacuum.  They are so critical to the success of projects that the organization cannot afford to move them into more strategic, more senior roles.  They have inadvertently created a organizational dependence on maintaining the status quo.

So how do you prevent yourself from falling into this trap or begin to dig yourself out if you think you are already there?

Their willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, while accelerating their career trajectory initially, eventually creates an execution vacuum.

Five  Keys to Transform Your Brand

1. Be helpful, but not too helpful.

It is generally an advantage to be seen as helpful, easy to work with, and a team player The problem is when women take on tasks that undermine their credibility, reduce their perceived status, or send the message that they do not have anything more important to do.

I remember a Director I worked with at a large entertainment company. She was a perfectionist and wanted to ensure everything she touched was a home run. Unfortunately, this resulted in her taking on all the administrative functions for projects such as setting up meeting spaces and ordering lunches in order to ensure they were done “correctly.”  She was the only female leader in the department.  I asked her how many of her male counterparts would ever volunteer for those tasks. She told me zero.  She had backed herself into a corner in which she was viewed as more of an administrator than an equal to her male colleagues.

2. Push the work where the work belongs.

This is a natural follow up to #1. Don’t volunteer to take on work that really belongs to someone else – another department, an administrative assistant, a direct report, etc. If you are extending yourself to take on extra work, make sure it will enhance your brand and provide a contribution of strategic significance or visibility within the organization.

3. Develop others.

The number one reason careers of successful people stall is because they have no clear successor.  If you take the time to develop others, you will not only build bench strength on your team, but will also be able to delegate more and create a space in which to elevate your contributions to a more strategic level.

4. Cultivate a balanced brand.   

Everyone has a brand at work, whether they realize it or not.  It is what they are known for and how they are viewed.  Consider yourself the curator of your brand. If you are viewed as a tactical guru, seek out opportunities to demonstrate your strategic capabilities. Look for ways to contribute insight in meetings or ask thought provoking questions that allow others to get a glimpse into your brain and thought process at work.  If you are viewed as highly technical, revered for a specific knowledge set, seek out opportunities to mentor and develop others, actively invest in relationship and team building, to show your people skills.

5. Utilize the Doorway Principle

I call this the “doorway principle” because it literally consists of pausing momentarily each time you walk through a doorway to reflect on three things:

  • What is my role in this meeting?
  • What contribution do I want to make?
  • How do I want to be perceived?

Take a moment to focus on Items #1-4 above and become more conscious of your goals and intentions. As you walk through the doorway to a new meeting, get clear and mindful about these things.  As a leader you wear many different hats.  How you engage with a room of senior executives may be very different from how you need to engage with peers or your team of employees. Just that moment of reflection may enable you to find the appropriate hat for the particular context.

While simple, these steps can be extremely challenging. They often involve changing deeply ingrained habits.  Working with a coach can help you to clarify and embrace you own strengths, to identify your trips and traps, and to reflect on what aspects of your professional self that you might want to develop.  It also is helpful to have a coach as a thought partner in crafting a plan of action and for accountability and support as you implement your plan.

Putting these concepts into practice can do wonders to help people transform the way they are viewed at work and can re-energize a stalling career.