by Ana Duarte-McCarthy

Chief Diversity Officer

When I was yonger and first entering the workforce in the early ’80s, the book Games Mother Never Taught You, by Betty Lehan Harragan, grabbed my attention in its discussion of how young girls, not familiar with playing games to win, carried that lack of experience into the workplace as a limitation in understanding competition.

Nearly 30 years later, women are clearly engaged in competition through involvement in a broad array of sports along with other activities—even bands and choirs compete! But have the lessons learned in the throes of competition translated to the workplace? Research would suggest that challenges remain.

Riley Bowles, a Harvard Business School professor interviewed for the article “Negotiating Challenges for Women Leaders,” noted that, “within society, we do have a greater expectation of ‘niceness’ from women than from men. There’s a body of research showing that when women step into the realm of stereotypically masculine behavior and need to use an authoritative or directive leadership style, or need to aggressively claim, saying, ‘You should give me more money and resources,’ that this doesn’t feel right coming from a woman.”

Whether women are expected to compete for resources in the same manner as male colleagues or not, there are some who perceive that the social constructs influencing women and competition still persist. However, it’s my perspective, from 15 years in Diversity and six years coaching girls’ basketball, that there are ways for women to learn to compete in a positive way (i.e., no sharp elbows) and get results.

“The biggest lesson is how to think about what my core skills are, not necessarily what my current position is, and how I can transfer these core skills to a another position and take on stretch assignments.”

For example—in competitive sports you are often contemplating how to advance toward a goal (‘should I use the six iron or the five iron, and then hopefully get to about 20 yards out and then chip on?’). At work, people who are in the game also consider their next moves—what do I need to get ahead?—and a key move is strategic networking. Many people do not consider strategic networking as something to add to their already busy schedules. However, it’s essential. It’s been my experience that to advance, along with talent, you need advocates and sponsors that will speak on your behalf, give you access and visibility, and help you navigate the culture. Savvy people make those connections strategically.

Another question to consider—do you put your hand up for the ball? Some of the girls on my basketball team would complain that they were not getting the ball. We told them they needed to get open (lose their defenders) and call for the ball. In the workplace, people may not realize you are open. When a choice opportunity comes open, don’t scratch your head and have countless conversations (generally with yourself) about whether or not you should put yourself forward. DO IT! If you think you have some of the requirements for a position, don’t hold yourself back. At the minimum, you’ll get feedback about yourself and knowledge about areas for development.

My last piece of advice—work as a team. Playing as a team means understanding that everyone in the game matters, whether they’re the MVP (most valuable player) or the benchwarmer that only gets play time during practice—everyone has a role. I think that fostering a great team requires having leaders who are passionate and encourage teammates to work collaboratively toward common goals.

What can companies do to help people compete? At Citi, we are partnering with the UCLA Anderson School of Business to offer a program for highly valued women poised for senior management roles. The women participate in 2.5 days of leadership training, learning from professors who are experts in women’s studies and leadership, and focusing on core skills like strategic networking, communicating for high impact, and strategic leadership. The aspiration is that participants emerge ready to demonstrate executive readiness, feeling buoyed by their new network of peers, and that they share the lessons from the training with their managers and colleagues.

The women who have participated in the program give it two thumbs up. Said one participant, “the biggest lesson is how to think about what my core skills are, not necessarily what my current position is, and how I can transfer these core skills to a another position and take on stretch assignments.” She’s plotting her next move—and is clearly in the game. Are you?