I had lunch last week with the woman who hired me into my first “real” post-college job. She remembers when I was first starting out, and — like an overly eager puppy — was having to learn some lessons the hard way. Lucky for me, she was a good manager who cared about the professional development of people who worked for her. She was willing to share her greater professional and life skills and was the first in a number of helpful, intelligent women who, over the years, have given me invaluable career guidance and advice.
If you are looking to change a career or to enhance the one you have, or are just plain looking for a job, I highly recommend finding a mentor to help you navigate the road ahead. But if you don’t have an experienced advisor to guide you, and even if you do, there are lots of good books by extremely knowledgeable women who can mentor you from afar.
Seattle writer Karen Burns encourages women in any stage of their career with The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use (Running Press, 2009). Don’t let the breezy tone and chick-lit cover illustrations of this compact little book fool you; the author uses every single one of the 59 jobs she’s had to render good, solid career advice. Like any good mentor, she distills her job adventures — good and bad — into lessons learned. Some definitely fall into the category of “learning your lessons the hard way,” but that’s the idea. We can learn from her mistakes and avoid making them ourselves. I also found helpful reminders of things I’d forgotten I already knew.
Fun and interesting “Job Survival Tips” gathered from women in various working environments are interspersed throughout. Quick and helpful, this book is full of advice both for women who are starting out in careers and for those who have been in the working world for a while.
In See Jane Lead: 99 Ways for Women to Take Charge at Work and in Life (Warner Books, 2007), well-known life coach and best-selling author Lois P. Frankel (Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage their Careers), questions whether women must act like men in order to succeed in the business world. A recognized expert in the field of workplace behavior, Frankel has previously written about how even strong, independent women can be held back by unconscious behaviors they’ve been socialized with (e.g., the way some women tilt their heads when they speak, as if they’re seeking approval). Through her own studies she shows how characteristics historically associated with women actually make them more qualified for leadership roles.
Just out in both paperback and audio, See Jane Lead is full of useful tips, anecdotes and exercises that can benefit anyone in a leadership role, from business managers to community service volunteers to parents. Like Burns, Frankel shares her worst career and personal mistakes and lessons learned the hard way. In addition to techniques for career advancement, she includes a reading list for further career development.
Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a book, opened it at random and found exactly the bit of insight you needed on that particular day? That’s what happened to me with How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life (Crown Business, 2009) by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston. The book began as a research project on what the authors call “centered leadership” and examines how successful women leaders get things done.
Like any good mentor, the authors pass along their insights into what it takes in work, and in life, to be successful. After five years of research, they identified five elements they believe are key to successful leadership: meaning, framing, connecting, engaging and energizing. The authors not only look at ways to advance in the competitive environment of business, but do so with an appreciation for issues that pertain particularly to women. Inspiring and practical, this book should be helpful not only to women in professional careers but also to the unsung heroines of community service (think PTA) who are on the frontlines of all kinds of causes.
Speaking of community service work, all women (and men) who’ve made the decision to scale back on paid work to be at home with their children can learn from author Sharon Reed Abboud. In All Moms Work: Short-Term Career Strategies for Long-Range Success (Capital Books, 2009), she shares plenty of practical advice about what counts as being résumé-worthy. She refuses to come down on either side of the at-home or at-work dilemma, and I particularly appreciate what she has to say about what women bring to the table when they return to work after having taken time out to raise children. You don’t even have to be leaving your full-time career to find useful advice for keeping skills, contacts and résumés fresh. Anyone concerned about suspending their career to take time out for family reasons and then transitioning back to professional part-time or full-time work will find this book helpful.
Another book that has generated a fair amount of buzz, both positive and negative, is The Comeback: Seven Stories of Women Who Went from Career to Family and Back Again by Emma Gilbey Keller (Bloomsbury, 2008). Like Reed Abboud, Keller refuses to come down on either side of the so-called “Mommy Wars.” Each of the seven women portrayed in the book has life stories filled with twists and turns, as well as the struggles, choices and trade-offs all mothers face. Although much of it is anecdotal and not reflective of every woman’s experience (they are mostly well-off, accomplished, upper west-side New Yorkers), this book is helpful to women who are thinking their way through the at-work or at-home dilemma, or who have already made the choice to opt out of the career track for a time and now want to return. Keller understands the issues and specific challenges women face when they do decide to return to paid work, and these women’s stories provide encouragement and support to others questioning what they might contribute after they’ve been at home with children. This is a good resource if you’re looking for advice and guidance on how other women who want both children and career have managed to find a balance.
Here’s a mentor I could have used after I bailed out on corporate life and made my first half-hearted attempt at freelancing over a decade ago. Michelle Goodman, another local Seattle author, is both practical and fun as she passes along all kinds of skills, knowledge and resources in My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire (Seal Press, 2008). Her first book, The Anti 9 to 5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube, was written for women looking to move out of unfulfilling jobs into careers that combined work with a true passion. In this book, Goodman includes similar practical guidance and support, so it’s not just about freelancing. I personally could have used her suggestions about building what she calls a “freelance posse.” It doesn’t matter how well you do the work if no one knows that you exist.
When it comes to professional development, my personal downfall is the idea of selling — anything. Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (And Your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience by Stephanie Palmer (Doubleday, 2008) is for people like me. Palmer, who developed her expertise during countless high-stakes meetings in Hollywood as director of creative affairs for MGM, wants to share what she knows. She learned her techniques for making effective presentations and selling ideas and concepts to coworkers, bosses and clients in one of the most competitive business environments out there. She includes lots of nitty-gritty details — everything from how to meet people you want to set up meetings with to handling interruptions and mistakes, and how best to follow up and stay in touch with people.
Finally, tough yet helpful advice for any woman can be found in Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Bantam, 2007). Consider this statement by the authors: “By not negotiating a first salary, an individual stands to lose more than $500,000 by age 60 — and men are more than four times as likely as women to negotiate a first salary.” Thought-provoking research, revealing commentary and case studies demonstrate how women are socialized in ways that keep them from developing and using negotiation skills. Changing the way we look at negotiating and learning how to ask is a tremendous asset in anyone’s career. ?
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