Interview: Joan Kuhl, Author of ‘Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS and Build the Company You Deserve’

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with sought-after speaker and business consultant Joan Kuhl, author of the new book Dig Your Heels In: Navigate Corporate BS and Build the Company You Deserve. We spoke at length about why women are fleeing corporate America, how to navigate the decision to stay or go, and the self-limiting behaviors that may be holding women back. Here is some of our conversation:

Frustrated by “boys’ clubs,” systemic gender inequality, and pay gaps, women are fleeing corporate America. But you encourage women to consider digging in their heels instead. Why is that?

It’s no mystery why women are leaving the world’s largest companies in droves: systemic gender inequalities that leave us feeling unheard and unappreciated; constantly putting on a face because who we really are makes others uncomfortable (either we’re too bossy or too nice, too pushy or too hands-off, too ambitious or too passive); and feeling like the only way to get ahead is to sacrifice other parts of our lives. It’s not fair, and it’s exhausting.

When we’re feeling this way (and we have all felt this way), calling it quits can seem like the only way out. On to bigger and better. But for some of us, maybe even for many of us, leaving the company where we’ve built up so much enterprise knowledge to start all over again at another company—and all the unknowns that go with that—is not what’s going to move us forward, individually or collectively. I believe that “bigger and better” happens when we have the courage to stay where we are, to dig our heels in and use our hard-earned influence and operational know-how to carve out change from within. We must leverage our collective power and influence to create the companies and roles we deserve—and which deserve us.

Change can happen. I know because I’ve led the charge at several companies. These companies saw the business and ethical need to change their mindsets and cultures to be more inclusive. I worked with them to make radical changes in how they are structured and how they communicate. But here’s the thing: To lead these efforts, they needed women to steer and drive solutions for workplace equity throughout the broadest, deepest levels of the organization. They needed women to help create this vision and see it through. And that’s why I encourage women to consider if digging their heels in is an option for them.

How can women navigate the decision of “Should I stay, or should I go?”

First, let me make it clear that digging your heels in is a very personal decision; each woman has to make it for herself. I’m not here to convince anyone to stay in a toxic work environment because the rest of us are counting on her to sacrifice her happiness and well-being for the greater good. If a woman’s job is wearing away at her soul, her priority has to be what’s best for her.

That said, here are the big considerations I ask all women to make in deciding the best course of action:

  1. What do you know about your current workplace and its ability to change?
  • How and why are people rewarded in your company? Does this align with your skills and goals?
  • What unique holes can you fill within your organization? Would they be seen as valuable?
  • Who within your organization is aware of your career performance, skills, and goals and can advocate for you?
  • Is there anyone in your company who is in a similar situation and has chosen to stay? Find out why.
  • How strong is your institutional knowledge? What influential relationships have you built?
  • How far could you get if you used this equity to carve out a career path that works for you?
  1. If you’re considering a new job, what do you know about your new, potential workplace?

It’s important to realize that you’ll be working from the starting line to build up your reputation and operational knowledge—two key factors in advancing and creating change—so it’s important to know what you’re signing up for. Consider:

  • Is the new opportunity something that excites you and fulfills your career ambitions, or…
  • Does your motivation stem from running away from problems within your current company?
  • What kinds of barriers and inequities are you likely to face at your new company?
  • Who can you talk to for more insight into how women advance through the company and the challenges they encounter?

What is sponsorship, and why is it such an elusive concept for many women?

I agree that the concept of sponsorship is not well understood; that may be part of the reason why men are 46 percent more likely to have a sponsor than women. I define sponsors as higher-level career advocates who can position you for more money and promotions. Obviously, these are relationships all women need. My advice to women is to seek out two sponsors within your organization—one in your line of reporting and one in a different department or division—as well as a sponsor outside of your organization but within your industry.

The problems I see are twofold. First, women tend to look for sponsors who are also role models. They close themselves off from potential sponsors because they see people in positions of power as not being aligned with them. However, sponsors don’t have to be people you aspire to be; you just have to get them invested in your success, so they want to lift you up along with themselves.

Second, I have found that women are less direct with potential sponsors about the value they bring and their career goals. Somewhere along the line, women have been conditioned to consider self-promotion to be unbecoming, and this outdated and incorrect notion is further limiting our progress. My motto is: “Who you know can give you power, but it’s how well they know you that will open doors.”

In the book, you outline several behaviors that hold women back. What’s an example?

Growing up, girls are taught to be “good” and the job of “good girls” is to make other people feel comfortable. The corporate world is still very much male-dominated, which means that most people—even women—carry unconscious biases against women and their value in professional settings. It also means that many people haven’t been exposed to, and are therefore uncomfortable with, more feminine leadership styles. And so, instead of focusing on the actions that will help them advance in their careers, many women are spending their energy trying to fit in by not making waves and shining the light on other people’s contributions instead of their own. This self-limiting behavior is particularly detrimental to women in the workplace, as it’s important to show your value and ask for what you need.

How can women bring men in as allies to this movement? 

As we all know, the majority of leadership positions are held by men. That’s why I believe bringing men in as allies, mentors, and sponsors is not just a “nice-to-have.” We need their influence to move the needle on workplace equity and inclusion. Unfortunately, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, new research has found that male managers are now three times as likely to say they are uncomfortable mentoring women.

To overcome this hurdle, I encourage women to be direct in asking men to be their allies and acknowledging up front that they want it to be a mutually beneficial relationship. (As with all professional relationships, it’s important to find out how you can help out the person who is in a position to help you.) I tell them to make sure that professional growth and development are at the center of meetings and that any feedback provided to them is focused on workplace skills and talent.

If women find the men they try to connect with are feeling hesitant about working closely together, I like the idea of reverse mentoring. A reverse mentor is when a person, usually in a more junior role, takes on the role of a mentor to a more “experienced” person for the overall purpose of understanding diverse perspectives, dual-learning, and skill development. In this case, a man is “reverse mentored” by a woman to understand her experiences at work, the barriers she faces, and how he can support her to overcome the inequity she’s up against. My workshops provide resources and guides to men for creating a safe, trusting, and appropriate mentor relationship with women.

To learn more about Joan Kuhl and her new book, visit her website.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.