How to Go Further, Faster On Purpose
I landed my first corporate job at an ad agency when I was 19. My clients were alcohol and tobacco brands and a tractor trailer engine maker. I was bright eyed, over-confident and very naive. I assumed I was there to contribute and I assumed everyone would (and should!) listen to me.
It was my job to understand the people we were trying to reach, and translate my findings and insights about those people and the product we were selling into a creative strategy that would lead to compelling, persuasive work. I spent afternoons in the lounges of truck stops, paying truckers $20 to talk to me about ads. Unbeknownst to my employer, I used my fake ID (nobody asked, and I didn’t tell) to go to bars to talk to people about drinks and drinking, and to meet with clients over drinks.
The CEO of the company was an enigmatic woman with exceptional style, perfectly coiffed hair and always-bright nails. She had a southern accent and a smile that could cut through tension and reset any conversation simply because it was so arrestingly glowy. You felt like a jerk for saying anything that wasn’t agreeable when she was smiling at you. On the day of my first new business pitch, she pulled me aside and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Now darlin’, just smile and sell like hell.” I stood up a little straighter, smiled confidently, and walked right into the room and did exactly as instructed. Her voice, her smile, and these words have stuck with me ever since. I can hear her voice in my head every time I step onstage to speak at a large meeting, boardroom or job interview. Now darlin, just smile and sell like hell.
Years later, another career-defining mentor would tell me, “Everybody sells. Parents, teachers, nonprofits — everybody is selling something to someone. Don’t feel bad about it, get good at it.” And yet, I’m sure I’ve underestimated the importance of selling for most of my career. I thought I could and should just show up with really smart ideas and the rewards would follow. I put my head down and worked hard. I considered networking a distraction from work. I wanted to get the job done, not socialize. This approach worked, results and opportunities did follow. But I believe I also missed a lot of opportunities by not cultivating relationships or spending time reflecting on how I wanted to contribute.
It took me about 10 years to realize that in my intense focus on the work, I had missed opportunities to get ahead by not getting to know others and giving them a chance to get to know me. I clung to that early naive assumption that everyone would and should just listen to me. I made my ambitions known, but I didn’t invest in relationships that would help others see my potential. I certainly didn’t spend time reflecting on my personal ambition, let alone my purpose. I just knew I wanted to keep climbing, ideally as fast as possible. The goal was just bigger challenges, more opportunity. I climbed. I cultivated my craft and studied the art of management. I was so busy working, I didn’t think about how to position myself for my next move. I waited for my next move to find me. I took every opportunity that came my way. I put myself forward for bigger jobs and new opportunities, leveraging the proof of the results I had achieved. What it took me too long to realize, is that when it comes to getting ahead, it’s as much about how we position our potential as it is about the proof that we can do the job well.
Research shows that in order to apply for a job women feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria while men usually apply after meeting about 60%. LinkedIn behavioral data backs this up — women tend to screen themselves out of the conversation and end up applying to 20% fewer jobs than men. What’s more, women are more hesitant to ask for a referral from somebody they know at the company. I’ve seen and experienced this firsthand. When evaluating folks for promotion, I’ve called out (and sometimes contributed to) a bias that evaluates men based on their potential, “he would totally crush it,” and women based on their performance, “has she done this kind of work before? Are we sure she’s ready?”. It’s subtle and it’s real. I had to unlearn the performance/potential bias. As a manager, I constantly check my unconscious biases and ensure that I’m evaluating everyone according to both their potential and the proof of their ability and impact.
I had to embrace the importance of selling, of marketing myself as a leader who is capable of more. I had to make time to connect with others so that they understood not just what I had done but what I’m capable of. I had to take time to define my ambitions, to outline the contours of the career path I wanted to realize. So that I could sign up for challenges strategically, instead of volunteering as tribute every time someone else has a challenge they think I could help with. I had to practice saying ‘no’ to some things and saying ‘yes’ to the things that would help me advance my vision and my goals.
The irony: I’ve spent my career as a marketer helping companies position their products and services, and yet I struggle to effectively and forcefully position myself. It takes practice, focus and clarity. I have to constantly reground myself in how I want to contribute, how I can contribute most effectively, not just how I could possibly contribute. I have to remind myself that just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.
Taking the time to develop clarity about what we’re doing and why pays dividends. Investing this time has helped me calibrate my ambition and align it to purpose. I’m positioning myself for the roles and opportunities that I want, not just those that others need me to play or think I’m qualified for. I’m applying the skills and experience that I’ve gained to the change I want to see in the world. I’m stepping onto new stages and into new contexts. Each time I step forward, I can hear my first boss in my ear saying, “now darlin, just smile and sell like hell”. And that’s exactly what I do.