Having spent a large portion of my adult life in the corporate world, I recently left to try my hand at not being in the corporate world by starting my own business. As someone who never dreamed she’d end up a “company man,” you’d think it would be an easy transition.
Now I work for myself and set my own hours. I am the master of my day. I never worry about asking myself for any time off. I never have to waste hours wondering what I meant by that. I am free of “The Man.” And let’s face it; The Man doesn’t look like Don Draper most of the time, which would make him a lot easier on the eyes. Even Don Draper is starting to seem like an old stick in the mud, as he stands around befuddled, holding his hat and still Brylcreem-ing his hair while the late 60s explodes around him.
On the other hand, I have to admit that The Man was kind of good for me, career wise. I value and cherish my time with the Man. The Man gave me benefits, put me up in nice hotels, and didn’t require hourly billing. The Man offered someone like me administrative support. The Man didn’t require me to hustle for clients, which feels unseemly even when you are not actually hustling. The Man discretely removed taxes from my paycheck so I never experienced the heartache of paying quarterly estimates and witnessing my tiny profits travel immediately into Uncle Sam’s pocket.
The Man, and his brother, Uncle Law Firm, where I also did some time, offered valuable and seemingly constant “constructive feedback” in order to help me improve my many deficiencies and dress for success. In fact, the Man offered me a perk that has grown quite common in the business world. This perk is known as a “career coach.”
But before I address the continuous benefits of feedback and coaching, I have a confession to make. I was never a Company Man and never could be, because I was and still remain a woman. I am also a certain TYPE of woman. I am an overly feminine woman in possession of many characteristics that made success by the standards of The Man challenging. However, I have had success in the corporate world despite them. As a public service to younger corporate women, who may be like me, I want to share some experiences to help them navigate successfully around modern day Don and Donna Drapers.
In today’s corporate world, Don has had sexual harassment training. He is no longer leering at secretaries, imbibing 5 glasses of scotch before noon and then passing out on his sofa for the remainder of the afternoon. And if he is doing all of these things, HR is all over him with sensitivity re-training, substance abuse intervention, or a nice severance package in exchange for a hasty and quiet exit.
But there are modern Dons and even some Donnas out there. These are corporate strivers and executives, men and women, who yearn (with the best of intentions) to squeeze everyone into the same corporate molds. In corporate speak, everyone must
be “bucketized,” and there is not a great variety of buckets to choose from. Those of us who don’t fit into that mold and who also happen to be of the female persuasion need to revolutionize the workplace from within — or accept the still prevailing culture that assumes male qualities are better suited for the working world and mold ourselves accordingly.
On a smaller scale, I want to help other women maintain some shred of sanity if they are experiencing similar well-intentioned coaching and feedback like I did. To these women, I urge you to not give up and not drop out of the workplace, because you are needed. You can handle the criticism (some of which is legitimate), and adapt while staying true to yourselves.
Now, without further ado, because I think you have had enough ado, I am going to share some of the best feedback gems given to me over the years, with some advice on what to do if you receive similar nuggets of wisdom:
1. “You don’t take up enough space. Please make an effort to take up more space, especially in meetings.”
This one made me laugh out loud when I received it. Although when I laughed, my coach glared at me with laser eyes and I realized she was actually serious.
I am petite and slender. When I received this feedback I was already over thirty, and it was unlikely that I would have a sudden growth spurt, except maybe outward. In order to overcome my smallness, I was advised to wear big-shouldered suits (this was decades after the 80s, mind you) and carry a ginormous portfolio. I was directed to spread out said portfolio on the boardroom table, and then lounge there in as un-ladylike a position as possible.
I actually internalized this feedback and ran with it. I bought a giant leather portfolio and carried it everywhere and sat in the power seat at the table (that is, not the head of the table) as conspicuously as possible. I bought some conservative suits (and did the best I could with the shoulder pads)… and presto, suddenly I had more gravitas and was LARGER. As this was fairly easy to accomplish, I felt it was a small price to pay for a job I liked. I was promoted shortly thereafter, so don’t underestimate the power of a black Ann Taylor suit and a manly leather portfolio. Did any of this make me smarter or better at my job? Nope. Did it help my career? You betcha. Was it fairly painless to execute? Yup. I say, pick your battles wisely.
(Part two of this feedback was that I talked with my hands too much, was too self-deprecating, was too transparent, and was overly feminine in my manner and speech. I quickly figured out that there was one manager who was particularly bothered by my femininity and worked hard to be more deadpan and gesture less with that person. With everyone else, I remained exactly the same. No one else seemed to notice or care because I didn’t really change anything besides my suit. I continued to do well in my career.)
2. “You are too outspoken and too mousy.”
This was indeed a head-scratching conundrum. The outspoken part I could accept. Despite my small stature I am usually told that I am pretty charismatic. My husband will tell you that it takes me an hour to get to the point of any story (I call that “effective storytelling”) but to this day I remain perplexed by the mousy part – other than I am just physically small.
I received this confusing feedback during a corporate torture session known as a “360 review.” During a 360, everyone you work with bravely rails against you (anonymously) for any real or imagined slights you have committed against them.
To remedy this, I wore conservative suits and carried a big portfolio (see #1 above). While this adjustment had nothing whatsoever to do with this feedback, it sure helped remedy the situation. Since I was already executing the change anyway in response to problem #1, it involved no additional effort. Also, as a result of hearing this feedback, I had to admit that sometimes I “over-contributed” — and I worked hard to improve my listening skills, which proved helpful to me in my career and personal life. So, overall, another win.
3. “Remember when you helped me with that closing, after you were up for 36 hours straight getting those documents ready while I hovered over you and questioned your abilities every step of the way? I was really disappointed that you showed signs of being tired. Being tired looks weak, and we can’t have that in our practice.”
This came from a partner in a law firm when I was a new associate. My advice if you get this kind of feedback? Find a better job and hightail it out of there. That’s what I did. Some kinds of crazy are just not worth it.
4. “You are always in meetings and with clients. You are not visible enough in the department. Please come in by 7 am and make sure that management (me) sees you at the water cooler/kitchenette/roaming the halls pointlessly like an exhausted zombie.”
This came from an older manager who arrived around 7 am every morning and left around 3. I had a baby and toddler and worked until around 7 pm every night, so I would head directly into the office and go to my regularly scheduled morning team meetings with clients, as soon as the nanny arrived.
Frankly, I would be damned if I was going to come in at 7 am to a virtually empty office. Solution? I asked my assistant to put a note on my door in the morning: “Suzanne is at a meeting in X location until X time.” As a reliable professional with an excellent work ethic, having to do this stuck in my craw but hey, you gotta bend a little in order to win against the Dons and Donnas. Just putting those notes up convinced this one manager that I was indeed working and not sleeping in or getting manicures during morning business hours. Did I have to change anything I was doing? No. Was this easy to do? Hell yes. My only regret? I never got to sleep in or get manicures.
As an aside, this manager also volunteered that while she was sure having a newborn and toddler at home was tiring, my colleague Bob’s stay-at-home wife hd just had twins, and Bob was managing fine. (Bob also arrived at work later than I did, but we won’t go there, because I really like Bob and consider him a friend to this day.) You can’t make this stuff up.
5. “Perception is reality. I don’t care if you are working as hard as everyone else, or even harder. I don’t care if your clients love you. The perception of being hard working and being visible to your management is more important than just quietly getting your work done.”
Hello, George Orwell. Or is it Kafka? It doesn’t matter. Once someone gets an idea in his or her head about you (like, you are physically small, therefore you are mousy) it is very hard to overcome. My advice: agree profusely. And then don’t change a thing. It is amazing how much mileage you can get out of appearing to be malleable and receptive and agreeable with all feedback. Being defensive gets you nowhere, except maybe packing up your office.
Being agreeable and appreciative of the comments, even when they are nonsensical, non-helpful and sometimes sexist, results in good will and the self-satisfaction of your critics that they are right, you are wrong and good things are coming as a result of their insight. The perception that you agree with this nonsense becomes reality — and it works.
I have another confession to make. If you follow my advice, you might not create a revolution from within. But you can preserve your self-respect and dignity, play well with others and even advance your career. Career coaches and continuous feedback aren’t going away, so sometimes the best you can do for yourself is be agreeable, put on that Ann Taylor suit and keep doing the great job you were doing all along.
The upside for me was that over the course of my career with The Man, I enjoyed the substance of my work, met really smart and interesting people and developed lifelong friendships. I even became friends with some of the managers who I’m kind of poking fun at now and I’m grateful for their help. Turns out, they had a lot to teach me, and while they didn’t understand me, they saw my potential and were willing to give me the chance to succeed.
Remember that you will get a lot of feedback throughout your career. Some of this feedback will be negative (corporate-speak calls it constructive”). Some of the constructive feedback will sting because it is true, and you should take it seriously and make changes in how you interact. Some of it will be just plain silly. And some you can accommodate without much effort, even if you think it is silly. It is important to know when to change. If you have insight and awareness into yourself, you can make the perception that you choose the reality your bosses accept. Finally, if you don’t yet have a thick skin and great sense of humor, develop those immediately. You’ll need them.