The Great Career Advice I've Gotten From Women

Last Updated Apr 14, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

How strange and sad that my fellow BNET blogger Penelope Trunk got such bad advice from older women. She must have asked the wrong ones. But advice can be tricky. We ask for advice as a way of exploring, even discovering, our own views. We often feel beholden to those who give it. The best advice I can give about advice is this: only accept what makes sense to you. It doesn't matter whether it comes from men, women, an expert or a stranger on a train. Almost all advice is self-serving; that is, it tells you more about the experience of the person giving it than the person asking for it. Lots of people ask me for advice -- some even pay for it -- but when I provide it, I do so with the proviso that the beneficiary must feel free to reject it completely. It's my advice -- but it's your life. No one knows you like you do, and no one knows the future.

The best way to get good advice is to ask good questions -- the kind that don't lend themselves to yes/no, young/old, male/female answers. At what age should you have kids? Statistics will give you an answer for a broad cross-section of the population, but that won't help you make your individual decision. Should you report sexual harassment? Depends on the circumstances and the people. Should you read business books? You should read as broadly as you can. And yes, there are plenty of good business books by women. My first book aggregated lots of advice from women around the world on the assumption that readers would pick and choose what worked for them.

The most successful men and women I've known seek advice widely. Nobody gets to the top without it. Some even have what they call personal boards of directors: friends and relatives who want to see them succeed personally and professionally. Just as no company really thrives without a diverse board, nor, I'd argue, do individuals. Much of the advice I've received over the years -- from men and women, young and old -- has saved my bacon. Much of it I've probably forgotten, some I've absorbed so thoroughly that I've forgotten where it came from. But here are three of the best:

  1. Your kids need you more as they grow older. This came from my sister and, at the time, I thought she was just being passive aggressive; I had toddlers and she had teenagers, and I thought she was just trying to compete with my misery! But now that my toddlers are teenagers, I realize she was right. Lots of people can look after small children well. But once your kids start getting drawn into the world of drugs, sex and exams, only a parent's advice and oversight will do. This has real consequences for how you pace your career. In my case, I worked like crazy when my kids were young, in part because just at that moment my career was taking off and I didn't want to stop. The success I had then means I have a lot more flexibility now, at a time when my teenagers are dauntingly needy.
  2. Money matters. Women hate negotiating pay, and we like to work for love. But money, while it isn't everything, brings a great deal of freedom and autonomy. I've always made sure I had my "running away" money -- enough cash to ensure that I wouldn't have to stay in any abusive relationship, at home or at work, for one second longer than I had to. Low overheads and plenty of savings changes the choices we have. This advice came to me from my mother who had learned its truth the hard way.
  3. Don't take it personally. Women are under-paid, under-promoted and under-recognized. But that's systemic and historic, not personal. The minute you take these offences personally, you reduce your ability to handle them. When I discovered I was being paid 50 percent of what my male peers made, I assumed it was a mistake and, on that basis, got it fixed overnight. Do I really believe it was a mistake? It doesn't matter. Fixing it was what mattered. This advice came to me from the female HR head who had identified the discrepancy.
As for my own advice to women? We are stronger together than divided. No one succeeds alone.
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.