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11 Lessons
How Successful Women
Bust Through the Glass Ceiling
to Reach Their Full Potential

"Sure, the inequality gap between men and women in the workforce continues to close," says Roxanne Rivera, the author of There's No Crying in Business: How Women Can Succeed in Male-Dominated Industries. "But the hard reality is that often women still have to work harder and smarter to get the respect and proverbial piece of the pie they deserve.

Thankfully, many great women have already figured that out. They know that there are certain attributes that successful women have used to get ahead. Now the challenge is spreading the word about those attributes to all women."

Speaking of successful women, in her new book, Rivera provides lessons she learned through her own experience running her multi-million-dollar construction company. And she rounds out her own advice with lessons from women from a variety of male-dominated fields, including medicine, the military, academia, politics, and other professions, whom she interviewed for the book.

"To succeed in a company or industry where men hold sway, we need to know both the obstacles and the opportunities," says Rivera. "The good news is that every day, women figure out how to do well in these environments. All my experience and research shows me that women can do extraordinarily well in most organizations and industries, no matter how long it has been a bastion of male dominance or how widespread and ingrained that dominance has been."

Based on information from her new book, here are a few tips from Rivera on what successful women do right.

Successful women choose credibility over insecurity.

Successful women do not hide behind their insecurities. Instead, they go out and earn credibility through their actions and attitude. They prove their credibility by being effective doers rather than trying to stay under the radar as nice but ineffectual employees. They also understand that once credibility is established, it must be maintained. They know that there is always the chance that what they say or do will affect their reputation.

"A great way to establish credibility and to create a reputation as being a strong and confident woman is to become a person of influence," says Rivera. "Years ago, I supported a friend and fellow contractor by holding a fundraiser when he ran for governor. He ended up getting elected and asked me to serve on his Advisory Board for Workers' Compensation. I eventually became the board chair and noticed that male contractors who previously had ignored me now contacted me with questions about workers' compensation.

Over time, I became a much more visible public person and earned the respect of labor unions, lawmakers, and business people. My work on the board attracted the attention of former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. She asked if I would like to serve as the only business person on the then newly formed National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics and I accepted.

"The bottom line here is that your career and your business can benefit from your heightened stature, but you have to put yourself out there. In my case, companies that had not been interested in doing business with me became interested. Organizations that had given us a limited amount of business gave us more. Talented people were attracted to our company because of my visibility and credibility. And all of these benefits accrued because I made the decision to boost my credibility and make a name for myself rather than let myself believe that no one would want my input."

Successful women are "thoughtful risk-takers."

Women need an edge if they're going to enjoy exceptional success in a male-focused culture, and that edge often comes from taking calculated risks.

"Many of the women I interviewed for my book talked about how men often are macho in their risk-taking, impulsively seizing the moment to recommend bold, decisive action," says Rivera. "Successful women, on the other hand, take educated risks. They do a certain amount of research and will spend some time analyzing and planning before taking a chance. This doesn't guarantee the risk will pay off, but it gives them better odds.

Remember, risk-taking is often admired in male cultures, so women who take risks (that pay off) are seen as part of the brotherhood. More to the point, risk-takers are seen as managers and leaders; they're willing to accept responsibility for taking chances."

Successful women are passionate about their work.

Often overlooked, passion is a crucial point for women who want to make it to the top. "At least in my experience, I have never seen a woman CEO who is always cool, calm, and unemotional, yet still highly efficient," says Rivera. "Instead, they are extroverted, enthusiastic, and fiercely dedicated. There is no question that they care deeply about their companies and their job performance, and they bring energy to their work that few can match. They have the drive to lead others.

Just think about today's women CEOs and political leaders. If you were to describe them using three words, would 'passionate' be one of them? I would wager that at least nine out of ten times, it would. If you don't have a passion for what you are doing that can push you through the tough times, it will be very difficult for you to reach your full potential."

Successful women know when to say no.

Women often feel that they need to do more than men to get ahead. And usually, doing more translates into saying yes to all requests and assignments, no matter how unfair they might be. But successful women know that setting and keeping their boundaries will have many more long-term benefits for them than doing every little project or task they are asked to do.

"All of that said, most women feel guilty when they say no," says Rivera. "When I interviewed women who work in male-oriented companies, they said the major cause of work unhappiness was their inability to say no. What is highly stressful for many women is feeling like they have to do everything asked of them; that they can't delegate or create boundaries. It makes them feel like peons, and that's not a good feeling.

"To get comfortable with saying no, practice! It might sound silly, but rehearsing saying no in front of a mirror, visualizing saying no to a specific request from a specific person, and even enlisting friends to role play scenarios can make a difference. What you're really doing is convincing yourself that you can draw a line in the sand between appropriate requests and inappropriate requests and still survive the experience."

Successful women know how to provide strong support to their leaders.

A major factor for successful women is knowing when to contribute versus when to take the backseat. Successful women can read their leaders. They can intuit when their immediate boss, manager, or company CEO wants them to contribute a slew of ideas and when he just needs some strong support. And nine times out of ten the best way to provide that support is to listen first, speak second. That's because people who feel they are being listened to—especially leaders—will respect the listener.

"In my book I relay the story of Tia, a new hire fresh out of graduate school at an engineering firm," says Rivera. "She had been with the firm a few months when she was asked to attend a brainstorming session. The firm owner had called the meeting to solicit ideas for improving work flow. But the owner's true motive was that he wanted to propose his own solution and obtain feedback on its viability. During the meeting, the owner offered his idea. Immediately, everyone had a lot to say about it, including offering their own ideas.

"Tia, though, didn't say a thing. She kept her eyes trained on the owner, responded with nods or shakes of her head and scribbled notes on a legal pad. At the end of the meeting, the owner told the group that he felt that most of them had completely missed the point. Then he turned to Tia and said, 'I suspect she's the only one who really gets what I'm suggesting we do.' Now, I'm not telling you to always be silent. Instead, I relate this story because it illustrates the power of knowing when it's your support, not your opinions, that is needed."

Successful women know when to ask for help.

Confident women realize that asking for help does not mean they are incompetent. Asking colleagues for help engages them and allows them the chance to feel valued. "At the end of the day, you simply can't do it all," says Rivera. "If you want to earn the respect of your colleagues, approach every task with the mindset of a learner. This means that you're open to new ideas and that you're not afraid to say, 'I don't know' when you're venturing into new territory.

And if you are a leader, remember that people love it when 'higher-ups' ask them for assistance—it suggests they value what others know. More than that, it communicates that they're not too proud to ask for help."

Successful women put the "pro" in professional.

When given an alternative project—even when it is something they may not necessarily have wanted—successful women always handle it like a pro. Doing so shows the people in their organizations that not only are they team players, but they can also change horses mid-stream and still do an excellent job.

"Hillary Clinton is a great example of a true pro," says Rivera. "After losing the democratic presidential nomination, she made a smart decision. She quickly got over the loss and accepted the Secretary of State position in President Obama's cabinet. Since taking the position, she has earned the respect of many of her former opponents and has shown that success for her doesn't have to be winning the presidency. It can also mean being a great team player and collaborator.

"Always handle yourself with class and dignity," adds Rivera. "And remember that doing a great job on those projects that you may not be all that passionate about will eventually lead to your getting to do what you truly want to do."

Successful women build effective teams rather than seek the limelight.

Women have a naturally participatory style. We tend to listen to ideas and acknowledge our colleagues. We also have the ability to "read" people's styles, which helps us put the right people together. Rather than try to become the superstar or take all of the credit for achievements that required a group effort, successful women put their teams on a pedestal and never miss an opportunity to applaud their achievements.

"People have tremendous respect for anyone who puts others first," says Rivera. "And team-building is a great way to do that. Men are often excellent individual performers, but they aren't always adept at getting the same high-level performance out of a group. In fact, many male-oriented companies are characterized by a superstar performer and sub-par teams. Use team-building skills to demonstrate how you can deliver superior results. At a time when more and more organizations are depending on teams to get work done, this is a crucial performance skill."

Successful women have a "thick" skin.

Take pride in your abilities and understand that while standing up for yourself and being decisive and authoritative may be viewed by some negatively, most people will view it as being competent and self-confident.

"The sad fact is that there are going to be certain men that you can never win over," says Rivera. "Maybe they think they are better than women or are intimidated by having to work with women. Regardless, they won't be afraid to show their distaste for you. When this happens you absolutely must keep pushing bravely forward. Don't let them shake you. Recognize that you have the right and responsibility to do your job and do it well. Be assertive when necessary and always stand up for yourself and what you believe in."

Successful women don't use being a woman as an excuse for not succeeding.

For some women it can be all too easy to resort to an I-can't-get-ahead-because-I-am-a-woman mentality when things aren't going their way. However, successful women understand that that excuse is unfair and self-defeating. They understand that the strengths and qualities that they bring to the job are uniquely their own and complementary to the qualities of their colleagues.

"Women in male-dominated businesses often become upset because they aren't as decisive as the guy who previously held their job or they aren't seen as a charismatic father figure like the company's male CEO," says Rivera. "One thing women learn quickly when working with a bunch of guys is that men and women are like apples and oranges: Comparisons are unfair. By accepting the gender differences and focusing on doing the best you can do, you increase the odds you'll excel."

Successful women know how to earn the respect of their male peers.

These women understand that there is no better way to earn respect or faster way to grow than to tackle a project that stretches them to their limits. Even if they fail, they understand that they always learn from their mistakes.

"Performance trumps bias," says Rivera. "In other words, management may be prejudiced against promoting women into top positions, for instance, but they ignore their own prejudices when someone demonstrates outstanding performance. Let's say you handle a challenging task well, achieving a significant goal. In response, male colleagues who seemed to view you negatively, or at least questioningly, become much more willing to accept you, and bosses are more willing to promote you.

Companies dominated by men tend to have plenty of these challenging projects, in large part because of their aggressive, risk-taking cultures. And remember, while these tough projects can feel onerous at times, they are crucibles for developing strong leaders."

"Show me a business or industry that has been dominated by men, and I'll show you women who have broken barriers and become accepted and successful," says Rivera. "So remember, as daunting as finding acceptance and success in a male-centric culture may seem, others have done it, and you can too!"

Roxanne Rivera is the president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico. She also serves as New Mexico's liaison to the National Associated Builders and Contractors in Washington, DC.

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