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The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth - oh yeah?

23 October 2019

How being modest and humble is hurting your career. I am a 90s child. I grew up in a time and place where landline phones were a distinct household luxury. To be connected was to attend the annual class picnic, not to be embraced in a permanent, perpetual web of ambient, digital awareness.

That might explain why in an age where everyone and everything is on the holy trinity of WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, my high school classmates as a group were not. It just never occurred to us to go seek that connection, so pre-digital did those memories feel. Until now. About a month or so ago, an enterprising classmate finally created an alumni group and set about assiduously interweaving us. Before too long, we were all mostly there, meeting virtually after 25 years. After some initial hesitation, the awkwardness subsided and the stories and the banter came gushing out. Where did we go after school? What did we do? Who did we meet or marry? Hobbies, heartbreaks, triumphs - much was shared; old memories were retriggered and new meets-ups were planned. Amidst all this, one pattern stood out: women spoke about their journeys differently. Our personal arcs as a group were not materially different to those of our male counterparts, yet the way we spoke about those journeys felt so. We tended to avoid superlatives and avoided spotlighting the details of our achievements, unless somebody coaxed them out of us. And even when we received praise or acknowledgement for the distance we had covered, our response tended to be self-deprecatory. It was divine grace or lady luck or parental blessings. It was a shoulder shrug, couched as a bashful, demure emoji. In comparison, the guys in the group tended to be a lot more comfortable discussing their achievements. They were not necessarily boastful but they seemed a lot more direct.  Inherent Modesty Syndrome or IMS I call it. Both in this group but also as a broader pattern that I have noticed throughout my career, women seem conditioned to be intrinsically modest and humble. To be Direct or Assertive: these are often seen as masculine traits that women should eschew in favour of a gentler, more feminine style. Strong, aggressive men are go-getting leaders but strong, aggressive women are pushy, bossy or over-confident <insert obligatory joke about hormonal imbalances or mood swings here>. These are not harmless biases nor are they only held by men. As women, we need to acknowledge our own role in buying into or even perpetuating these biases, consciously or otherwise.  IMS costs us when it comes to our annual performance review at our jobs or at the time of negotiating our salaries or asking for a promotion. It costs us when we fail to challenge lazy assumptions about our capabilities or professionalism (in turn, often masquerading as faux concern for our needs for work-life balance or our biological clock). It costs us when we talk ourselves out of applying for roles for which we may be a decent but not a perfect fit (a timidity that as per research, men are far less likely to suffer from). As per a study done on male vs. female entrepreneurs on Kickstarter, the latter is statistically speaking, much more likely to pull out if she fails to reach her Kickstarter goal. In contrast, when a man fails, he's much more likely to give his idea another go in a new avatar and try again.  I see this same pattern, even in my role as the founder of Leadhers, a  mentoring platform that aims to empower women. At Leadhers, we run Saturday Showcase, whereby we seek to spotlight the extraordinary heroism and triumph that often lies hidden in ‘ordinary’ lives (one Leadher per week). I find that women are typically more restrained when writing about their own journey than men and they also choose different things to highlight.   Women tend to gloss over their achievements and their own hard work, but seem to prefer detailing neutral subjects like the people impacted by their work or their passion for their hobbies. Whereas when it comes to men I find that while they too speak about their work or hobbies, they combine it with a healthy appreciation of their own contribution to their destiny; of the credit they (rightly) deserve for challenging norms or fighting odds with determination and courage. The point is not that men are doing it wrong. The point is that women need to do it better; that we need to become more comfortable with grabbing our place in the spotlight.  It is of course not my claim that every woman is vulnerable to IMS. I know plenty of women who have figured out how to be comfortable in their own skin, while navigating their professional lives. But I do not know too many who achieved that comfort without having to first fight for it. And that really is the point. If you feel you suffer from IMS, then first, take comfort that you are not alone. And second, set out to change that. The steps below may provide some initial direction Here are some steps that we could take to overcome IMS:


    • Become a thought leader: Share what you know. Volunteer for conducting training or workshops. Write white papers. Present at conferences. Publish online. Promote your content once it is online. Remember, your IMS may insinuate you are not yet ready to be a thought leader or that it only counts if you can be a thought leader on the biggest stages. Both are traps. If you need to start small but start and over time build up to bigger stages.

    • Reach out to your network: Seek LinkedIn recommendations from your clients and colleagues. If you have done good work, don’t wait till the end of the year to seek feedback. Reach out now to capture and document that feedback, so you can refer to it later in the year.


    • Document: 

      • If you receive a “thank you” note from a client appreciating your work, please share it with your Manager and keep a copy in your appraisal folder.

      • Keep a journal or a folder of your achievements and learnings. Use the STAR format (google it).

      • Insist on periodic 1 on 1s with your manager if possible, so that you can keep her or him informed of your achievements as well as your challenges.

  • Innovate: 

    • If possible, be intentional about selecting high quality side projects that you can complete and use to stand out from the crowd.

    • If your office has tools like an office noticeboard or an internal newsletter, do not be shy about finding out what it takes to be featured there. Once you find out, use that knowledge to get featured.

  • Reach Out and Look Back: 

    • Seek out a sponsor who can back you up and help you navigate organisational dynamics better. Conversely if you are at a stage in your career where you can mentor, please do so generously to help those who come after you.

Some of these steps can feel awkward at first but none of them require you to become less You. Stay true to yourself but persevere. Over time, you will start feeling more comfortable in this new, more assertive version of yourself and you will find people around you will start noticing too . Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You are and always must be your biggest advocate. The meek may inherit the earth but when it comes to corporate life, a little less meekness and a little more bravado can make a huge difference.

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