Jane was a family law associate in a large firm where she hoped to be made partner within 2 years. While she had a good client base including clients whom she had brought to the firm and excellent billings, she felt that she was invisible to most of the partners.
She didn’t work in a large practice group and had no apparent champion who might speak for her at the partnership table. She often felt that the partners saw her family practice as a sideline service they were happy to provide their corporate clients provided they didn’t have to touch it. Family law lacked the cache of the big corporate deals or the high profile litigation.
She watched other associates – usually male – come back from court or after closing a large transaction – do the victory lap around the floor to make sure everyone knew about their success. This was not Jane’s style. Like many women, she found it very difficult to boast about her success. It felt false and embarrassing. While young boys grow up competing with one another as to who is the strongest, fastest or bravest, girls are taught to be cooperative and collaborate and be modest about their accomplishments.
But Jane knew she had to raise her profile within the firm if she were to have a shot at partnership. Observing her male colleagues she realized that she wasn’t having lunch or playing golf or even regularly having a drink in the boardroom on Friday’s with any of the partners. It wasn’t just her practice that was invisible – Jane was invisible to most of the partners. They didn’t relate to her as a friend or serious colleague but more as a helpful assistant to their clients’ occasional needs.
Jane needed to market herself within the firm just as she did outside the firm to gain clients. Jane was making a mistake common amongst women by expecting that her hard work and long hours would speak for themselves and she would be duly recognized for this without having to do anything more. Her modesty was actually erecting an invisible wall around her. What she saw as boasting, I suggested was actually building relationships with people where they could know her better. This put talking about herself into an entirely new context.
I asked Jane if there were situations where she was comfortable talking about herself. She said she was comfortable speaking to people one-on-one even if she didn’t know them well. We decided that she should start asking individual partners for lunch especially those whom she didn’t know. She decided to schedule two lunches a month and make sure that she talked about her recent new clients and successes; her interest in becoming a partner and why her practice was good for the firm and what she did outside the office. She also asked questions about the partner’s practice and his or her life. Jane was doing what she was good at – building relationships.
Next she tackled the Friday afternoon boardroom drinking sessions. Jane had usually avoided these as she didn’t drink and felt awkward when pressed to do so. She also found it challenging to compete with the many war stories. We decided that she should take a bottle of Perrier with her to the boardroom to deflect the pressure to have a beer. Next, she planned ahead of time, some interesting stories about her week that she could share one-on-one with people. Again, she was building relationships one partner at a time.
Jane also learned to accept praise for a successful result without diminishing it as if it were nothing or deflecting it out of embarrassment. Instead, she simply said “thank you” and used the opportunity to expand on why the file was challenging or how the client benefited from the success.
She also quietly advised a partner who always called her “Janey” that she preferred to be called “Jane”. She told me that the use of this nickname always made her feel like a child around him and not his equal. She noticed that he never called David “Davey” or Michael “Mikey” – and the shortened “Dave” and “Mike” didn’t have the same childish sound to her as “Janey”. In this way as well, Jane was announcing that she wanted to be taken seriously.
All of these changes were part of Jane’s marketing plan to be seen as a player in the firm ready for partnership. Her plan also included presentations on family law issues; volunteering to sit on firm committees and circulating articles. Her biggest and boldest idea was asking a colleague in the firm to nominate her for a community award. She felt audacious and embarrassed asking but had she not asked, it would not have occurred to any of her busy colleagues to nominate her. Jane didn’t win the award but the publicity that she garnered in the press as one of the nominees brought her significant credibility both within and outside the firm. All of this translated into Jane being offered partnership 18 months after she drew up her internal marketing plan.
There are many corporate studies that have shown that men are often promoted on their potential while women have to prove themselves first before senior management will take a chance on promoting them.
Jane didn’t wait until she was made a partner to start behaving or looking like a partner. The leadership she demonstrated in the firm and in the community, the relationships she built with key partners and the over-all confident manner in which she refused to be invisible any longer earned her the partnership. While both male and female associates can learn from this – women especially need to examine what unconscious attitudes hold them back and then promote themselves in ways that feel authentic and comfortable. No one else is going to do it for you.