Strategies for Women To Reach the Heights
Set Big Goals, Network and Persevere

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 8, 2007; K01

Stepheny Kucera was clear on what she wanted to accomplish that day.

"I set a personal goal of meeting five new people here and following up with them," said Kucera, 37, vice president for business banking at a Bank of America branch in Fairfax.

There were plenty of other people with goals at the 21st Annual Leadership Conference, sponsored recently by the Women's Center, a Vienna nonprofit group. About 750 women and a handful of men gathered at a McLean hotel to hear how they could meet their career objectives.

"Women are natural leaders and collaborators. . . . When we work together for large or small goals, everything is possible," Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, told the group.

Sue Marcum, 49, an accounting professor at the Kogod School of Business at American University, said she came "because the list of speakers sounded interesting and empowering."

Besides Fiorina, speakers included Sheila Johnson, who is co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics and a partner in Lincoln Holdings; Jane Pauley, former co-host of the "Today" show and "Dateline NBC"; Diane Rehm, executive producer and host of the "Diane Rehm Show" on National Public Radio; and Catherine B. Reynolds, a philanthropist, financier and social entrepreneur.

Among the career strategies suggested:

? Recognize the importance of education."Just as you feed your body every day, you need to feed your mind," Johnson said. That does not mean you have to be a full-time student, but you should still find a way to learn new skills that will help you achieve your goals. "This is even truer for men and women in mid-life than it is for children," she said.

? Find your passion and persevere in your efforts to pursue it."Don't sidestep and say, 'Oh, I'll do this for a while,' " and don't be afraid to take risks, Johnson said. Rather, take time to reflect upon your goals and make clear plans on how to achieve them.

? Act together with other women rather than alone to accomplish what you want."All of us were brought up with the mantra 'I can do it,' but it's time to switch to 'we can do it,' " said Gail Evans, former executive vice president at CNN and author of "She Wins, You Win" and "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman."

? Own your successes. Women commonly preface a statement in a meeting with, "This may be a silly idea but," only to have a man later suggest that same idea to the boss and take credit for it, Evans said. Better to speak confidently, she advised. Also, when women receive a compliment such as, "That was a terrific presentation," they discount their efforts by responding, "Oh, it was nothing," when they should simply respond, "Thank you," she said.

? Network in your professional life as you probably already do in your personal life. Women have "no rules and no shame" when it comes to asking one another about how to find the right purse, yet in the office they are more reluctant to share information, Evans said. She offered this advice: "Go to lunch with four or five women on a regular basis and talk about business for at least half the time."

? Negotiate more the way men do."We self-select ourselves out at so many levels," Evans said, when in reality employers are often willing to negotiate over issues such as travel and working from home in order to keep valued employees in the workplace. "A guy walks in [to the boss] with a problem, and the negotiation begins," she said. "A women walks in with a problem and she has already [given up]. We have to go for it."

? Do not let others define you. Fiorina said that people called her a "bimbo" when she was a young account executive, and a "cold, heartless, that other b-word" when she was a chief executive, but she ignored the chatter. "Only I could decide" whether to internalize those labels, Fiorina said.

? Aim high. Better to set a high bar and miss it by a little than to set it low and step right over it, Fiorina said. Also, don't be afraid to make mistakes. "Your goal is not perfection but progress," she said. "Be proud of who you are -- everything you've learned gives you experience."

"It's sad that we still need to have events like this that focus on women, but the reality is that we do," said Lisa Colten, 49, a human resources consultant in Fairfax who attended the conference. "We have to learn how to be successful in our own way."

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