Deb Siegle, WIC’s president, was recently interviewed (by email) regarding women consultants and business owners for possible inclusion in an article for one of the Boston College blogs. Here are excerpts from that interview.
In February of 2015, the Cass Business School At City University London hosted an event called Women In Consulting – Challenges And Opportunities. What have been some of the major challenges you’ve dealt with, as a woman in the business world?
I think the challenges of being a woman in the business world vary by industry, position and area of expertise. I think women have to be alert to potential bias, but not focus on it.
Face it, none of us can change our gender, race or age. But we can develop skills and expertise that make us relevant, credible, and sought after.
As an independent consultant, I think I may face less bias than I might as an employee. Companies are much more interested in whether a consultant can do the job than what the person’s demographic is.
So my focus is not on potential gender discrimination as much as it is on the challenges anyone faces running a business. I need to be constantly developing and marketing differentiated products or services that meet a need, that I can deliver in a quality manner and that people will pay for.
Similarly, what are some of the main opportunities available to female consultants? Where may they go about finding these opportunities?
As far as finding opportunities, I work to develop relationships with clients, prospects, referral sources, and other colleagues in complementary businesses. These relationships almost always lead to opportunities for me and my colleagues.
That’s why I recommend that women consultants become active in organizations or groups that connect them with other professionals. A mix of both industry-specific organizations and general business or consulting organizations can work well.
For example, I am active in Women In Consulting (WIC), an organization that encourages its members to collaborate and share resources and information. Many of our members trace a large part of their businesses to the contacts they have made in the organization (even though we’re not really a “leads group”).
A side note. A sales trainer told me that he thought women were better salespeople because they engage with the prospect. In his view, men tend to immediately try to solve the problem. Women dig deeper, get the prospect talking and, in the process, probably uncover greater (and clearer) needs and wants. (Granted, the trainer’s focus was strictly sales, but all consultants and independent professionals need to be salespeople.)
The consultancy company Bain & Company wrote an interesting – and also disturbing – report called What Stops Women From Reaching The Top, speculating on some of the things holding women back from top corporate positions. They talk about women and men having different styles, in the business world, and that effecting promotability, such as collaboration vs. self promotion, or the ability to make tough decisions based on logic. What are a few other differences in style you’ve noticed, and how can these actually benefit both a consultant and the company they’re working with?
I think that employees might need a different style to be successful than consultants do. In fact, I believe many women go into consulting partially because a more collaborative style works well for them.
I also think many women (both consultants and employees) fail to promote themselves and do not draw attention to their achievements. Somehow they expect their results to be noticed without needing self-promotion. I do think women can benefit from developing vision and leadership skills, not just management skills.
Years ago I read about two managers in the same company. The woman ran her department well; it was organized, efficient and effective. The man did not, and eventually a crisis ensued. He quelled the crisis, and got praised and (if my memory is correct) a promotion. The woman, on the other hand, remained in her position. She may have been more valuable to the company in lots of ways, but her contribution was less noticed. As with many things, sometimes the well-greased wheel gets taken for granted.
Finally, I think many women do make “decisions based on logic,” but they might present that decision in a softer way, aware that the data are only part of the issue.
One of the criticisms leveled at women is maintaining a balance between work and a personal life. Instead of seeing this as a drawback, what are some ways everyone can benefit from maintaining this balance?
Work-life balance is a challenge for most professionals. I am in the Silicon Valley area, where 60-to-80 hour work weeks are common.
That is probably one reason women become consultants. When you’re an employee, it can be harder to tell the boss that you have to leave for your daughter’s concert. As a consultant, you have more control over how you spend your time, so you can choose to go to the concert and then work later, typically with little or no repercussions.
At the same time, there is the old axiom that “when you’re in business for yourself, you get to choose which 24 hours you work.” The consultants I know work very hard, but they also have clear priorities, which often include caring for themselves and their families. (“No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office.”)
I believe many employers are seeking how to enhance work-life balance, and many others could benefit from having more flexibility for work/life balance, by (for example) providing more flexible hours, providing personal services on campus where they make sense, and reducing expectations that employees be available 24/7.
On a philosophical note, I think the pursuit of balance is a good goal, but I’m not sure anyone ever achieves true balance. I subscribe to the idea of “sequential balance,” where I work intensely for a period, and then take some down time, helping me achieve more balance and focus.
For women thinking of going into consultancy, do you have any advice on how to portray their strengths, skills, and achievements to overcome some of this systemic prejudice?
I do think many women have to learn how to “toot their horn without blowing it.”
One way is to let others do the talking through references, testimonials, case studies and the like, all of which help position a person as an expert, without the person appearing to promote herself.
Another way is to network, both with competitors and non-competitors. Many consultants have built strong businesses by teaming with others. And being a productive member of such a team increases the referral mechanism. Many of the consultants I know get virtually all their business by word of mouth.
At the same time, I think people should cover some marketing basics. A good LinkedIn profile, a website, and some other marketing tools (e.g., social media, webinars, workshops, direct marketing, newsletters or the like) can help a person get the word out regarding her skills.
A colleague once suggested that consultants focus on three marketing tools, do them well and do them consistently. My three are having a LinkedIn profile, and being active in three professional organizations, Marketing Executives Networking Group (MENG), Women in Telecom and Women In Consulting. Another colleague has a website, a blog, and a LinkedIn profile. Everyone needs to come up with the combination that works for her, and that she can sustain.
As you probably realize by now, I have a bias for volunteering. This volunteer experience helps you develop deeper relationships and gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your contribution, your value and your skills – in addition to providing a good service.