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How working moms can rise to the C-suite

November 25, 2014, 5:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Thomas J. Peri

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How can women rise to the C-suite? is written by Tracy Brady, VP of Agency Communications for Hill Holliday.

I am fortunate to work at a company run by a woman, and not just any woman. She’s been a force at our ad agency for over thirty years, and as many of your readers probably know, Karen Kaplan rose from receptionist to Chairman and CEO. As you’d expect, she is bright, savvy, seasoned, and deeply knowledgeable about our business, and I learn from her every day.

But I think what working women (and men) sometimes forget is that you can (and should) learn from everyone, at every level, at your company. Good lessons and bad. Strategies for being more productive, more efficient and yes, sometimes, more political. Not to mention, how to manage and perhaps even more important, how NOT to manage. Women have a different journey than men when rising to the C-suite and it’s particularly different (and arguably more complicated) if they are raising children.

I’ve been working for over 20 years, and my career shifted when I had children and moved across the country. Like all working mothers, at any given moment I juggle playdates, soccer practice, summer camp, tantrums, and yes, head lice, along with work responsibilities. I don’t have much time to plot out my career path these days. I’m not in the C-suite yet, but there are a few things I’ve learned about how to keep my career climbing, sort of, despite – indeed sometimes because of – complications:

There is no substitute for confidence
As argued by Katty Kay, BBC News anchor and co-author of The Confidence Code, the confidence gap between men and women is real. Confidence does not mean bragging, being a blowhard or deliberately misrepresenting your abilities (although we’ve all seen that work too). It means being intimately familiar with your talents, experience and accomplishments, and seizing every appropriate opportunity to showcase them. If you are negotiating for a promotion, be comfortable talking about how you’ve earned it. Anticipate pushback – and go into the meeting prepared, with a calm, confident, and professional approach removed from emotion.

Be authentic
And by that I mean be honest. Be true to yourself. Don’t model yourself or your career based on anyone else. Recognize your value, but also your limitations and where you can improve. You can speak truth to power, but do it respectfully and professionally, with humility and grace and only when appropriate.

Go (and stay) where you are celebrated
I’m borrowing this one from our CEO because I believe it deeply. I once spent four miserable years at a company where I intuitively knew the fit wasn’t right. They were the longest four years of my career, and I’m sure it was no picnic for them either. When the culture of a place aligns with your own values and ideas, you are much more likely to thrive. And when you’re happy at work, you’re a better worker – not to mention a better mother, wife, colleague and friend.

Manage yourself
Give yourself quarterly performance reviews, even if no one else is. Be a problem solver, not a problem presenter. Be realistic. Be forgiving. Realize you cannot have and be everything at once. Focus and learn patience, which is different advice than being patient. If this seems difficult, try doing it while raising three children alone and going back to school. See? Now it’s not so hard.

Never give anything less than your best
Anything else is a waste of your precious time. You are building your own brand, whether you realize it or not. In the movie Chef, Jon Favreau plays a talented chef struggling to build a new food truck business. His young son, helping him in the truck, one day attempts to save a few minutes by serving a free but slightly charred Cubano sandwich to a customer. Chef grabs it from his hand. “What does it matter? He’s not paying for it,” his son argues. Chef looks hard into his son’s eyes and says, “I love this. I’m good at this and I want to share this with you. I get to touch people’s lives with what I do. And it keeps me going and I love it. Now, should we have served that sandwich?” The kid makes a new sandwich.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How can women rise to the C-suite?

How failure could get you to the C-suite by Angélica Fuentes, CEO of Omnilife.

Why hard work won’t get you to the C-suite by Stephanie Ruhle, Editor-at-Large, Bloomberg News and Anchor/Managing Editor, BloombergTV.

How can women rise to the C-suite? by Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company.