Friday, January 24, 2014

Ask an Executive: Five Ways to Advance Your Career

By Jo Miller

If you had one hour to speak candidly with a senior executive, what questions would you ask about becoming a leader? What would you like to know, strictly “off the record,” about the differences between leaders and followers?

That’s the gist of my latest webinar program, Ask an Executive. When I polled audience members about their own burning leadership questions, a common theme among the responses submitted was whether or not there were still perceived differences between men and women when it came to assuming leadership positions.

“What are those gaps between expectation and performance?” our audience was wondering, “and how can women overcome them to advance their careers?”

Guest speaker Kieth Cockrell, Divestiture Executive with Bank of America, spoke candidly about the similarities and differences between male and female leaders, and the steps women can take to advance their careers and become business leaders. When summarized, his responses can be categorized into the following Five Ways to Advance Your Career:

1. Great performance is hormone blind”
The good news, according to Cockrell, is that success is apparently hormone blind. “When I'm thinking about opportunities or filling a key role in the organization,” he explains, “I don't really see differences between men and women. For me, it comes down to great performance. That's just table stakes. There are plenty of people who do good work. What I'm looking for is superior results and a commitment to doing exceptional work.”

While a candidate’s sex may not be on Cockrell’s radar, performance definitely is. “I'm passionate about two things,” he notes, “teammates and customers. When I find people who are passionate about those, then I think ‘we have an opportunity to do some exceptional work together.”

2. Competitive sports are a differentiator
Based on Cockrell’s experience, something that sets future leaders apart is the experience gained through playing team sports. “I grew up playing competitive team sports,” he explains, “which teach many things: the value of teamwork, the value of receiving coaching, of someone giving you tough love from time to time and demanding even more than you think you're physically and mentally capable of doing.”

The news may come as a bit of an eye-opener to women of a certain generation, who were often encouraged to cheer sports teams on from the sidelines, rather than participate on the playing field.

But Cockrell is quick to point out the closing gap between men and women in this vital area. “If there was one thing that I would say that may have been a difference between men and women in my generation,” he says, “it is that there was not as many opportunities for women to play team sports. I'm glad to see that has evaporated over the years.”

3. Performance without relationships goes nowhere
For those wanting to transition from individual performer to leader, Cockrell relates his own realization of just how much more can be achieved through rallying a team than by working hard as an individual. “There's so much more that an army of people can do versus what I could do alone.”

But how will you know when it’s time to transition from performer to leader? According to Cockrell, it’s a personal evolution every leader comes to on his or her own time. He explains, “Eventually you realize that you don't have all the answers. There are other people who have different perspectives, experiences, and intelligence. Over time, I have learned to listen a little more versus always thinking that I had the right answers.”

Of course, no man – or woman – is an island and even leaders need to stay grounded with a core group of intense, strong and powerful connections. Cockrell, who has seen his own share of friends working hard but going nowhere, explained, “I'm a big believer that you have to work hard and you have to perform but you also have to develop relationships. Performance plus relationships lead to advancement.”

4. Stay in your sweet spot
Trust in oneself, according to Cockrell, is a universal trait, and one particularly inherent in future leaders, male or female. “A lot of people focus on the feedback that they've received on the things that they need to do to be better. I encourage you to listen to that feedback but also know who you are and the things that make you special.”

Cockrell refers to this innate self-confidence – while still being open-minded to performance feedback – as the leadership “sweet spot”.

And once you find it, Cockrell insists, own it: “Do your best to stay in your leadership sweet spot because it's not work; it's not hard for you; it just comes very naturally and you have the opportunity to be impactful.”

5. Articulate your interests
Finally, Cockrell suggests that women shouldn’t be shy about letting current leadership know of their further ambitions. He explains, “If there’s one piece of advice that I would give women, in general, it is to not allow people, including your boss, to assume what's in your best interest. If anything, it's your obligation to ensure that the people who are in your direct chain of command have an understanding of what your interests really are, your willingness to relocate, and your readiness to take on greater responsibilities.”

He concludes, “You may not be able to articulate exactly what you want, but make sure that people don't make assumptions about what the best career choices are for you.”

What’s refreshing about this discussion, I believe, is the performance-based aspect that seemed to weave its way through all of Cockrell’s answers. While acknowledging the gap that still exists between male and female leaders, Kieth Cockrell nonetheless insists that leadership is a skill, not a label, and that results are truly “hormone blind”!

Listen to my entire conversation with Kieth Cockrell and John Hall in the webinar “Ask an Executive”. Members, log in now to view the webinar recording.
Not a member yet? Join now for immediate access to the webinar.

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