8 rules every ambitious woman needs to know

What does female ambition look like in 2020? VIV GROSKOP, author of Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition, shares the new rules for furthering your cause without harming anyone else’s


Everyone knows the expression coined by Madeleine Albright: “There’s a special place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women.” No pressure, then. Not only are you supposed to ‘own’ your individual ambition, but you’re meant to help others achieve theirs, too. Female ambition in the 21st century is meant to be inclusive, collegiate, sisterly even. But how do you do that? What does it look like in practice? How do you move forward and get what you want without impeding others? Hell, you might even enhance their chances. Which means extra brownie points, a path straight to heaven and more kudos to you.

Lift as you climb

There’s an old saying: “Be careful how you treat people on the way up, as you might meet them on the way down.” This isn’t the only reason to lift as you climb, but it still makes sense. You never know who is going to be able to help you when you are down on your luck or you need some inside information or a supportive nod. Be kind, generous, giving and as open as is professionally sensible. If you have to turn down an opportunity, recommend someone else. Treat people as you would like to be treated – not necessarily for your own benefit, but because it’s the right thing to do.

If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for other women

Sometimes it can really help to ‘borrow’ the confidence and hopes of other women. We all face situations where we feel daunted and we fear that something is beyond our reach. It really helps to think, “I’m not sure I’m up to this, but I am going to try.” And imagine other women watching you try and being inspired by that. This is about saying yes without fearing the outcome, and remembering that others are watching and thinking, “If she can do that, I can, too – and maybe I can even do it better than her.”

Do it before you’re ready

Anyone who has ever achieved success in any field parrots this maxim. We are rarely properly ready for opportunities when they come our way. In any case, what does ‘ready’ mean anyway? Meet challenges with an open mind and perform to the best of your ability, while being open to learning.

Luck is where preparedness meets opportunity

An important addendum to rule three: for anything to work, you need a dose of preparedness (being ready or almost ready), the right opportunity and a prevailing wind. Look out for all three. Getting what you want means being able to take risks, trust yourself and spot when the timing is right.

Cultivate allies, mentors and cheerleaders

We all need people to cheer us on, remind us what our strengths are and to lift our spirits when we are down. It’s good to have an awareness of who these people are for you, so that you can make sure you spend enough time around them. Also: flip this around. Be an ally, a mentor or a cheerleader for others by promoting their work, increasing their visibility or supporting behind the scenes without any expectation of recognition.

Write a positive weekly report about yourself

Business mentor and TED talker Margaret Heffernan advises that you keep a private note for yourself of everything you have achieved that week – wins that are big, small, personal and invisible. In the course of working life, we can forget all the accidents we avoided, all the disasters we saw off, the nightmare clients we ditched and the good decisions we took to say “no”. These are the invisible successes that don’t often get noticed. Don’t let yours go uncelebrated.

Ask for what you’re worth

The financial conversation around ambition is complicated for women at the moment. Increasingly, there is pressure for structural change and openness about public legal challenges in big organizations. This is great and important. But it doesn’t often help in the short term if you personally want to secure a pay rise or a promotion in the next six weeks. Some of this work is going to be achieved at an individual level – and this involves being well-informed and well-rehearsed. Research pay scales and rewards in your industry meticulously. Be sure that you’re on top of all the facts. Find the precise language and wording that reflects your value, what you have contributed and what you will be contributing imminently. Practice making the case for yourself. Even if and when structural change levels the playing field and makes these conversations easier and/or unnecessary, learning how to advocate for yourself is never a wasted skill.

People will take their cues from you

This expression comes from Dear Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri, a brilliant account of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign seen through the eyes of her communications director. One rule they had on the team was always to remember that it is possible to direct people’s response to you. That response is influenced by your posture when you enter a room, by the boundaries and expectations that you show in relationships and by how you think and speak. This is the upgrade of “fake it ’til you make it”. Teach other people how to treat you by being assertive and straightforward.

Lift As You Climb: Women and the Art of Ambition is out on March 5

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