Carpe Diem: Career Advice for Women from An American Icon

Carpe DiemI absolutely love an advice column. I don’t even care if the letters are so fraught with drama as to be absolutely, certainly, 100% made-up; the more ridiculous, the more thrilling to read. Reading about other people’s dilemmas and then evaluating the quality of the advice provided is one of the best ways to spend time on the Internet, in my opinion.

So when New York Magazine did “Advice Week” this June, it was a sure bet that I was clicking on most of those stories. I was expecting some guilty pleasure relationship dilemmas, but instead found smart women providing awesome career advice. Among them was Madeleine Albright.

Albright speaking at Tufts University in 2015. Photo is from the Boston Globe.
Albright speaking at Tufts University in 2015. Photo is from the Boston Globe.

If you’re not familiar with Madeleine Albright . . . you should be. Ms. Albright is best known for being the first female American Secretary of State. I really became aware of her in 1997, when she was the commencement speaker at Harvard University. I was working at Widener Library at the time, which faces the stage where the graduation ceremony takes place. My boss told me to take a break, stand on the steps, and listen to Albright talk.

As part of the conclusion of her talk that day, Albright said:

There is no certain road map to success, either for individuals or for generations. Ultimately, it is a matter of judgment, a question of choice. In making that choice, let us remember that there is not a page of American history, of which we are proud, that was authored by a chronic complainer or prophet of despair. We are doers. We have a responsibility, as others have had in theirs, not to be prisoners of history, but to shape history.

Albright’s advice to women in New York echoed her speech 18 years ago at Harvard. She focused on how women in the workplace can proactively making their voices heard:

If you raise your hand, and you don’t get called on, by the time you do, what you had to say doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s not germane. So I made up this term, active listening — you listen differently if you think you’re going to interrupt.

Contributing to a conversation may not be about waiting for the right moment so much as it is about finding the right moment and seizing it. Be a doer, and not a reactor. As Albright points out, this comes more easily to the average man than the average woman.

Albright’s advice is important because not only are many leadership positions at work held by men (depending on the industry, of course), but workplaces in the United States were mostly born out of a male-oriented culture. The communication styles associated with achievement at work are not necessarily the ones that come naturally to most women. While we may work on shifting the workplace culture to perceive more feminine behaviors as successful too, cultural shifts take a lot of time. In the meanwhile, we can effect change by also working on our own behavior and interjecting in conversation when we can add value with our thoughts and questions.

An important caveat that Albright makes is that it’s important for anyone, but especially women, to add value with their words. She notes,

The combination of being raised to be polite, listen to other people’s ideas, and then this kind of lack of security, “Is this something I’m competent to discuss?” …  we question ourselves much more than men. But if you’re going to interrupt, you have to know what you’re talking about.

Frankly, I wish everyone would follow this advice a bit more. Backing up your words with ideas is essential to be taken seriously.

Albright went on to note that women can also help each other in their careers by affirming each other’s statements and building on them (e.g. “As Sally was saying  . . . “). She pointed out that when women are struggling to be heard, we can amplify each others’ voices.  Although Albright didn’t focus on this point as much, I believe that lending legitimacy to our colleagues whose styles differ from the mainstream is another way to help accelerate culture change.

So ladies, seize the moment. When you have something to say, make your voice heard.