I received the email message 20 minutes before our coaching session was about to begin. This young woman executive was asking to reschedule – again – because she had just been called into a meeting that was very important and she was very, very sorry! When we finally got together, I pointed out to her that this was the third time she had rescheduled at the last minute, plus she had cut one session short due to a work emergency, showed up late to one session because a meeting ran over and she hadn’t completed her goals yet.

“Your company is paying me whether you show up or not,” I reminded her. “But this is an opportunity to focus on you and your own development and you’re throwing it away. Your company is telling you that your career is important enough that they are willing to invest in you and you are not taking that investment seriously.” What I wanted to say but bit my tongue was: ‘Believe me, the guys in this coaching program are taking it seriously; not one of them has missed a session or an assignment.’

This was not the first time I’ve seen women be so focused on getting the job done that they’ve not been able to step back and take advantage of a subtle career development opportunity. Last year I was invited to do a seminar on emotional intelligence for a department at a technology company and the executive in charge arranged for the department members to take an assessment of their own emotional intelligence prior to the workshop. The assessment was online and required 15 minutes to complete. Only about two-thirds of the department members took the assessment, and the third that didn’t take it were all women. They were too busy.

Helena Knorr at the University of Minnesota did an extensive literature review to identify the factors that contribute to women’s career development (“Factors that Contribute to Women’s Career Development in Organizations: A Review of the Literature.”) and through this review she identified a number of themes:
• Organizational policies that support women such as work-family programs, flexible schedules and providing assistance for dependent care.
• Top Management commitment such that CEOs and other executives recognized the need for initiatives and took responsibilities for their success.
• Organizational support systems such as access to networks, mentors, sponsors and other female role models.
• Training and Development – while training and development should enhance any employee’s overall achievement, women’s access to formal management programs, training in gender equality, training focus on the needs of women and coaching are all believed to positively influence women’s achievements.
• Organizational cultures that promote gender equality are more likely to have an increasing number of women in management positions.

I have found that most large organizations are starting to tackle these issues. They don’t do it perfectly. They are in various stages. For some, it is more lip service than real action. But women who are intent on succeeding in their careers must take advantage of every opportunity presented. I often tell young women with whom I work that doing a great job is a necessary but insufficient condition to get promoted and that confuses them. I try to explain that doing a great job is a singular achievement; but they must also demonstrate great communication skills, an understanding of the bigger picture, they must work well with peers in other departments, they must demonstrate that they grasp the bigger strategy; all skills that may not be easy to demonstrate in their current work environment.

How do women succeed at work? That is a complicated, multi-layered question. There are myriad conscious and unconscious biases at play as we navigate our way through organizations and I want to be very careful to acknowledge that those biases exist and not be seen as blaming women themselves for not getting ahead. But remember that you are responsible for your own career. Take advantage of every opportunity to grow.

“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” – Moliere