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Why Women Need to Do Things Their Way at Work

Career advice from Sallie Krawcheck, author of 'Own It'


Among women who’ve succeeded in business, Sallie Krawcheck is an uber-player. She was the CEO of Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and CFO of Citigroup. She’s currently the co-founder and CEO of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women and chair of Ellevate Network, a professional women’s network. So, to paraphrase the old E.F.Hutton commercial: When Sallie Krawcheck talks, working women should listen.

Krawcheck released the book Own It: The Power of Women at Work in January, doling out keen advice, and I recommend working women read it.

I recently interviewed Krawcheck so she could flesh out some points, but before I get to what she said, let me give you a shorthand version of Own It.

2 Themes of ‘Own It’ for Working Women

Her book has two overarching themes:

The traditional view of negotiating — you ask for the raise and either get it or don’t — can limit the outcomes to one where one side ‘wins’ and the other ‘loses.’

— Sallie Krawcheck, author of 'Own It'

First, women can succeed in their careers by doing things their way, not by trying to emulate the male model of “command and conquer,” as Krawcheck calls it.  Women love to learn, she writes. So, she advises: “Take a class in something you know nothing about, master some new technology you don’t even know how to pronounce, request challenging assignments in the areas of the company that are doing the most interesting work. Once you’re comfortable in your job, ask for the new project; join a nonprofit board that can expand your skills; take an online coding class; make the lateral move into a new department; freelance on the side to boost your skills; spend time with people who are innovating in your industry and read, read, read. Whatever you can do to keep yourself moving forward will help you remain in a state of reinvention; it will reduce your career risk, and, honestly, it can simply make your life a lot more interesting and fun.”

ownitSecond, Krawcheck tells women, take control of your financial life. That will help give you confidence to take charge at work and let you take a job or start a business that you love even if the salary is less than you’d want.

Krawcheck came to that second realization after a painful divorce. She writes: “While I had been the one making the Spanish tortillas, he had been the one who was paying the bills and making the financial decisions… Here I was, building a career on Wall Street, and I realized I didn’t even know how much money we had as a couple or where we were investing it or spending it.”

I asked Krawcheck to expound on the connection between managing your money and having a successful career. “Let me ask you a few questions,” she said. “Do you feel better voicing a dissenting opinion that you feel strongly about at work if you have more money in the bank? Do you feel better asking for a promotion that you might not feel you are fully ready for, but want the opportunity, if you have more money or less? Do you feel better leaving your job to start a business that you have wanted to do if you have more money put away? Do you feel better leaving an abusive relationship you are in if you have more money or less? The answer to everything is more.”

My Conversation With Sallie Krawcheck

More highlights from our conversation:

Next Avenue: What are the strengths women bring to the workplace?

Author, Sallie Krawcheck
Author Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck: Women have an ability to see situations and solve problems holistically. Women tend to bring in information from a broader array of resources and not make quick decisions. Women tend to be more risk-aware. They think about the downside more. Women tend to take on more of a long-term perspective. Women tend to be more relationship-oriented. Women bring a sense of meaning and purpose to their work than men do.

Why should women stop acting like men at work? So much of the advice for women has been to do just that.

Women have the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ backlash when they act like men. And it is exhausting trying to be somebody you are not day after day after day. It is clearly a factor in women leaving the workforce. It is much easier to go to work if you can be yourself.

We must have at work what I call the ‘courageous conversations.’ These are conversations where we point gender biases quietly, respectfully, gently, nicely, factually. You might point out, for example, that ‘Hey, you interrupted Suzy numerous times in that meeting, but not Steve.’ These things have proven to make a difference. It is awkward, but we must point out gender-biased actions and comments.

How are women more valuable in the workplace today than a decade or more ago?

Business is changing. What is valuable now is solving problems holistically. Women are very good communicators and good at convincing people. We are going from command and control to communication and collaboration.

How should women ask for a raise?

Is the answer that we simply ‘man up,’ so to speak, before we head into a negotiation? For most women, doing this the old way — the man’s way — doesn’t generally work. That’s in part because the hard truth is that, and data supports this, our taking that type of tough approach can backfire for us as the old gender norms kick in and we are perceived as ‘bitchy’ or ‘not team players.’

I also think that this traditional view of negotiating — you ask for the raise and you either get it or you don’t — does us a disservice, because it can limit the outcomes to one where one side ‘wins’ and the other ‘loses.’ This black-and-white approach can cause us to miss the other opportunities for win-wins that open up once we introduce more variables into our negotiations.

I can’t stress this enough: It’s not always just about a raise. There are many, many things that can have value for you — like the opportunity to learn new skills, to travel, to work under a particular person at your company . . . and some can be much easier for your manager to say ‘yes’ to than money in any given year.

So if you go in and the only ask you have is a raise, you’re selling yourself short. If you get a ‘no’ and you have other requests that are of value to you —let’s say. better health benefits or more vacation or work-from-home Fridays — you can leave with a victory that can pay off over time.

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