Leadership and the Importance of Self-Advocacy in Your Career with Georgetown’s Hillary Sale
Hello everyone and welcome to On Record PR. I’m your host Gina Rubel and the Founder and CEO of Furia Rubel Communications.
Throughout my career as an employee, attorney, CEO and just about every role in between, I have learned to communicate effectively about my skills, what I and my team bring to the table, and the value we deliver We think of that practice as self-advocacy. The term self-advocacy is often used in advice to professionals, particularly when they are faced with a challenging situation in their career. But what does self-advocacy really mean, why does it matter, and what are the tools you can use to effectively advocate for yourself and others in the workplace?
Today, I am excited to be going on record with Hillary A. Sale, Associate Dean, and Professor at Georgetown University, to discuss leadership and the importance of acting as a strong self-advocate in your career.
Hillary is a recognized expert in leadership and corporate governance. She is a director with the DirectWomen Board Institute, a nonprofit focused on increasing the presence of women lawyers on the boards of public companies. In fact, Hillary, I see that we have a friend in common with Roberta Liebenberg who also serves on the board. [Hillary responded with a thumbs up.]
Hillary is the Associate Dean for Strategy, an award-winning scholar, and the Agnes Williams Sesquicentennial Professor of Law and Professor of Management at Georgetown University. As an industry-focused academic, she writes and speaks about leadership and corporate governance. In the spring of 2017, she was the Sullivan & Cromwell Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, teaching Women’s Leadership and Corporate Boards and Governance. She is an accomplished business partner who speaks to and works with industry groups and academic audiences. In addition to running leadership and governance programs, Hillary consults regularly with CEOs and C-suite executives on leadership, governance, strategy, inclusion and diversity, and company culture. She also chairs the .
What is self-advocacy and why does it matter?
Self-advocacy is one of my favorite topics. It’s something I think about all the time. It’s something I teach. I rarely do a women’s leadership program in a company or a firm or in my own institution without including something about self-advocacy.
I think about it as all the ways that you can show up on an ongoing basis and be a good advocate for the opportunities you need for the growth that you’re looking for, and for your teams and other people in the organization.
What is one way women can show up to self-advocate?
I’ll give you a classic missed opportunity – if you’re somebody that arrives at work at approximately the same time every day, and you end up riding the elevator with someone else. I’ll use a law firm as an example here. Let’s say you end up regularly riding the elevator with a department chair or a leader in the firm. Or you’re a junior partner or a counsel, and you’re coming up for promotion.
That’s an opportunity not just to chat about your kids or what you did over the weekend, but an opportunity to talk about the great deposition that you took, or the first chair, second chair, whatever opportunity you had at a recent trial. In other words, to convey enthusiasm about what you do, but at the same time to exhibit your commitment and the experiences and skills you’re building in the organization. And they carry that information away.
Women in particular, and younger associates are often taught to ask a question about the other person before you ever talk about self. I’m curious how you get there.
That’s a great point, because these are all conversations. It’s not like you just launch into your pitch, right? Somebody says to you, “How’s it going?” Or “How was your weekend?” And you say, “My weekend was great. I did this and this.” And then you might ask them a question. Or you might say, “My weekend was great. I actually had such an amazing opportunity last week that I was on cloud nine all weekend.” And then you’ve just transitioned into that great thing that you did that contributed to the growth of the organization
Gina Rubel: In public relations we call that bridging. It’s a great example and I appreciate that because I know some of our listeners are thinking, oh, I’m on the elevator and I’m just going to talk about myself. And that’s not what you’re saying at all. You’re tying it into a conversation with enthusiasm.
Hillary Sale: As I like to say, energy and enthusiasm sell. Being an Eeyore never sells.
What does the Harvard Women’s Leadership Initiative offer?
This is part of Harvard Law School’s executive education program and I happen to chair this initiative. We just met in person for the first time since the pandemic, a couple of weeks ago. It was so much fun to be with these amazing women partners and in-house counsel.
There’s an application process online. We have set dates for next year. It will be in the spring of next year. And we look for women partners and women in-house counsel who are equivalent stature. We take both. In fact, we love that there are both because we love it when they share their perspectives.
Then we do a series of sessions with them that are truly designed to help them better own and manage and be strategic about their careers. We do change management. We do self-advocacy around salary and compensation decisions. We do personal strategic growth planning. We look at leadership case studies and investigate leadership style and talk about presence and how one develops it. We talk about teams and team building, and the research on teams and diagnosing teams.
It’s inspiring to be with empowered and wonderful women who operate. We use Chatham House rules, so people can talk freely and share information without ever repeating it elsewhere. And it just creates the most wonderful atmosphere of psychological safety where women share goals, aspirations, ideas, and opportunities.
Gina Rubel: Self-advocacy and growing as a leader doesn’t ever stop. I’ve run my company for 20 years, and I have to relearn or learn something new every day. We all have an opportunity to learn every day. Just because you think you’ve made it doesn’t mean you can’t learn.
Hillary Sale: I am learning all the time. Even though I teach this material in my consulting practice, every time I’m with a group of empowered leaders, I learn more. I learn more about leadership. I learn more about how to think about it. And of course, the research evolves all the time, and that’s always teaching me as well.
Gina Rubel: It goes right into the idea of inclusion and diversity, and that we start to learn and change the way we speak.
What does the research tell us about gender and work?
There’s a great meta-analysis of leadership research, where they’ve taken a whole bunch of research and studies, and then they combine them to analyze the outcomes overall. And there are some really great takeaways in that research. One key takeaway is that women leaders are actually more effective than our male counterparts across more leadership categories, but men rate themselves higher than women do. We are more effective, but less confident in our skills. It’s very striking to me, and part of why I’m so passionate about developing workshops and programming that is research-based but very practical and strategic in nature. The more practical your approach, the more concrete takeaways you have, the more confident you are when you go to implement it.
There is a lot of other research about gender and work. I think another one that is depressing to me, but super compelling, is that both men and women favor men over equally qualified women when it comes to compensation, performance evaluations, promotion decisions. That’s implicit bias. We all have it, right? Recognizing it is part of it. It’s pernicious. It’s also normal and natural. The question is how we strategize to work around it for ourselves and in our organizations.
Gina Rubel: Do you think that will change with the coming leadership generations? I have a daughter who’s graduating college and a son in college, and I see so much more inclusivity in the way they treat members of their own gender and people who identify as other genders. What are your thoughts about that?
Hillary Sale: I think it’s too early to tell. I also have a daughter who graduated from college last year, and these are conversations we’ve had over and over. She is like so many of her peers and the students I teach, who are much more agile in this space. For me, it’s a mental workaround because I’m not used to it. For her and for her peers, there is a sense of, “We’ll just see where it goes, and it doesn’t make any difference to me. Why would that matter?”
I don’t know how that will carry through into the workspace. For a long time, I’ve been teaching women lawyers and women lawyer wannabes, and I’ve talked about sexual harassment and workplace discrimination in the classroom and been met with a lot of blank stares. A lot of the experience of younger women is sort of 50/50 in high school, unless they went to an all-women’s school. And sort of 50/50-ish in college and even in Law School nowadays.
Then you go into the workplace, and that’s not what it looks like in most organizations, especially in law.
Gina Rubel: I only ever worked for male managing partners or male CEOs. It’s only been in the last five years that we’ve had clients with female and/or minority managing partners, all but one I should say. It’s incredible. Our experience in our generation definitely shapes what that looks like. I’ll be curious to see how that plays out, and maybe in five or six years, you and I will come back and have that conversation.
Hillary Sale: It’s changing. When I hear from female students that have struggled with these issues, it’s sometimes five years after they’ve been out, and then I’ll hear from them saying, “I just had this thing happen at work. Will you talk to me about that?” I think all of this is going to shift and it’ll be very interesting to see how.
The research tells us that you’re much more likely to stay in the workplace if you see people who look like you above you. That’s in regard to race, ethnicity, gender identity, and other factors of that sort. It’s a good reason why we need to make progress.
It’s important to be aware of it, because if that’s what we’re looking for in mentors and sponsors, we’re not going to get it. There aren’t enough women or people of color highly placed to mentor all those of us starting out. We need to broaden our sense of who can help us.
Gina Rubel: It is important for people who don’t look like us to be mentors and to be allies, and to get out there and help people who don’t come from the same backgrounds as them to succeed in every profession and in legal, in particular. We have a long way to go, but I know we’ve come a long way too.
I’ve heard you talk about creative friction. What it is and why does it matter?
Creative friction for me is all about what produces innovation and change. It’s about good ideas rubbing together to shoot off other ideas, and it’s highly connected to diversity and inclusion.
The business case for diversity is really compelling. It’s been studied over and over. It’s probably one of the best business cases we have. The basic premise is that people who think differently and operate differently when they work together are more likely to produce good outcomes and innovation than people who think the same.
The challenge of that is that when you’re on a team with people who operate just like you, it feels better. It’s more comfortable. Homogeneity flows more easily, but heterogeneity is actually what produces the friction and it’s uncomfortable. It can even produce conflict and conflict is what you want. A high performing team has conflict. It just has what we call task-based conflict, not emotional conflict.
You get that through inclusion. When you get that creative friction, that’s where you get innovation and change and great ideas. You can’t get it without inclusion.
Diversity is easy. It’s numbers, bringing numbers in the door. Inclusion is what makes diversity sticky. It’s what makes people want to stay around. That is about creating space for all those voices to be heard for creating positive conflict on a team.
Gina Rubel: I once heard Verna Myers. She was a keynote at the Philadelphia Bar Association, in fact. And I loved the way she put it. It really stuck with me. One is being invited to the dance, and the other is being invited to dance. It’s being invited. It’s having the seat at the table. It’s having the name plate already there before you get there. It’s all of those things.
What advice would you give to our listeners to advocate for themselves in their careers?
Good advocacy requires a plan and preparation. It requires knowing where you want to go. If this were a course on women’s leadership, I would be teaching you how to build a plan and how to do it strategically. How to think about which pieces of your life and career you need to bring into alignment to get there.
Lawyers have a harder time with this than my corporate clients, because having a real plan requires letting go of options, and we are trained option preservers. We spend our lives thinking about options for other people and our clients. And if you’re really going to enact a plan, you have to let go of options.
You have to do your calculation, do your risk appetite, start letting go of options, and home in on a longer term. Then you know what you’re advocating for. It might be skills you need to build. It might be access to certain kinds of experiences. It might be relationships; you might be advocating for introductions to people. If you wanted to get on a corporate board, you’d need to know a bunch of board members, because you’re not getting there without them.
Gina Rubel: That’s exactly the type of thing you do with DirectWomen Board Institute. You can know people, but to get on a public board is very different than to get on a nonprofit board so that you can do free service.
Hillary Sale: I have met many women who think, “I’ll just get on some nonprofit boards and that will get me on to a public company board.” And the answer to that is no. One should do nonprofit board work because you’re passionate about it. If you do nonprofit board work about which you are passionate and on a board on which there are lots of public company directors, you might get on one. Those tend to be big boards in any community.
Can you recommend a book, podcast, or other accessible resource for our listeners about self-advocacy, leadership or inclusion and diversity?
Harvard Business School has a Women at Work podcast that I love. I’m a big fan of Harvard Business Review. You can dip into that research in Harvard Business Review very easily because it’s summarized and short. Then if you want, you can look up the full study. They have great tips on managing diversity, building a strategy, sponsorship, and mentorship. There isn’t a topic that we’ve talked about today that I don’t think you could find in Harvard Business Review.
Turning the Tables: Hillary Sale asks Gina Rubel
As one who does business development, how do you self-advocate?
Self-advocacy for me has grown over time. It was a hard journey. I had a voice in my household, but ethnic Italian Americans were seen and not heard. I was the only woman lawyer in an all-male law firm at one point, and I was the only Gentile in the firm.
I did not know how to advocate for myself. I was paid $20,000 less than my male counterpart who was younger than me, and I only found that out after leaving. I blame myself because I did not do the research, and I did not know how to negotiate properly for myself. Somebody made me an offer, and I took it. I must look back and say, that’s not their fault. That’s my fault because I could have taken more time and not come across as being so hungry.
One of the things I have learned to do was not to take things personally, and to learn that advocacy is about asking for what you want and what you need and presenting why. Even if it’s in business development, it’s why we matter and how we differentiate ourselves, what we bring to the table that’s different from others, and it’s being clear on what that language looks like. It changes all the time.
In fact, my husband and I were talking about differentiations, and I said, “Well, you know, I have a team of people, some of which have been with me for 10 years, and we work so well together.” And he said, “I hope you use that in your business development.” I’m said, “No.”
You don’t always see what’s right in front of you. You’re constantly learning. And we don’t know what other people don’t know.
Hillary Sale: When I think about what your value add is elsewhere, your value proposition is that you’re on the outside looking in. Of course, when you’re working with a client, you get to know them and over time you get to know them well, but you’re not living their day-to-day. And as a result, you are spotting those things they’re not.
Gina Rubel: And vice versa. We’re fully collaborative, and we have to be because we’re not there all the time. When you’re consulting, you have to listen. You have to learn to actively listen, not just take notes.
I’ve sometimes said, I’m a chameleon. I can speak with any audience, but that doesn’t make me fake. It just means I understand the space within which I am speaking. A chameleon changes its colors based on the atmosphere, the type of tree it’s on. Doesn’t make it fake. It’s still a chameleon.
Hillary Sale: I think sometimes women feel like if they try on something, it’s inauthentic. To me, it’s just experimenting and it’s just adjusting to your culture. It’s just recalibrating for culture. It’s not changing who you are at the core. There are lots of ways to present who you are, and I love your chameleon analogy.
Gina Rubel: I once had a client who the managing partner, male managing partner, very into fashion and cared very much about the types of shoes you wore. I don’t really care about the types of shoes you wear, but I knew that I had a couple pairs of shoes that I kept for those meetings because I would hear him talk about it.
I have another incredible client out in the Midwest, and most of the meetings are very laid back. The attorneys don’t get dressed up. Men don’t wear ties to work. She would say, “Don’t come with your New York attire. Come with your Pacific Northwest attire. Just tone it down a little bit.”
If I go to a meeting in New York, I’m in black. We wear our black suits, maybe a red power shirt. It doesn’t make me any different. It just makes me comfortable within that environment. I wouldn’t go to a black-tie event wearing shorts.
It’s about being confident and projecting real confidence with integrity. There have been times in my life where I’ve felt beaten down, exhausted, crushed. I know that I just shouldn’t go to those events when I’m feeling that way, because I don’t have the ability to fake it. That’s not me.
When my dad died 11 years ago and I had to go to these events, I wasn’t good company. I had lost a part of my soul. I’ve learned when I attend things, I must make sure I’m in a good space or find a way to put myself in a good head space even if it’s for a short amount of time. Leave the baggage at the door, especially if you’re advocating for yourself.
Hillary Sale: If you go into one of those spaces, you should have a goal. You should have a plan. You might not get to execute it, but you’ll feel better if you have a plan. So go in with a plan and have three conversation starters in your back pocket. And then if you’re me, because I’m actually really shy as a person, you think about someone you can go talk to and use one of your conversation starters and hope other people join.
Gina Rubel: I love that. And I think that’s a great way to bring this conversation to fruition until we meet again.
I encourage listeners to follow Hillary on Twitter at @HillaryASale and check out some of the additional thought leadership she has shared which can be found on our website in the transcript of this discussion.
- Bloomberg Law: It’s Time to Educate Lawyers as Leaders
- LMA Podcast Episode 73: The Importance of Women in Leadership with Hillary Sale and Brenda Plowman
- Chicago Ideas: Hillary Sale on Corporate Responsibility
Learn More & Connect
Hillary A. Sale is a recognized expert in leadership and corporate governance. She has been a member of the FINRA Board of Governors since 2016, where she Chairs the Regulatory Policy Committee and serves on the Executive, Nominating and Governance, Compensation, and Regulatory Operations Committees. She is also a member of the Advisory Board of Foundation Press, an educational publisher of scholarly books, and a director with DirectWomen, a nonprofit focused on increasing the presence of women on public company boards. Hillary is the Chair of the DirectWomen Board Institute and serves on DirectWomen’s Executive, Nominating and Governance, and Selection Committees.
Hillary is also the Associate Dean for Strategy, an award-winning scholar and teacher, and the Agnes Williams Sesquicentennial Professor of Law and a Professor of Management at Georgetown University. As an industry-focused academic, she writes and speaks about leadership and corporate governance. In the spring of 2017, she was the Sullivan & Cromwell Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, teaching Women’s Leadership and Corporate Boards and Governance.
She is an accomplished business partner who speaks to and works with industry groups and academic audiences and was selected by the St. Louis Business Journal as a “2014 Most Influential Business Woman.” In addition to running leadership and governance programs, Hillary consults regularly with CEOs and C-suite executives on leadership, governance, strategy, inclusion and diversity, and company culture. She also develops custom executive education programs and works with business leaders in programs at Harvard Law, where she Chairs the Women’s Leadership Initiative, and at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and the Law Center.
Hillary graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and holds a master’s degree in Economics from Boston University, where she also completed her B.A., summa cum laude. Before joining the Georgetown faculty, she was the Walter D. Coles Professor of Law and a Professor of Management at Washington University in St. Louis. Hillary also worked in the government investigations and corporate and securities class actions areas at WilmerHale, LLP and in Massachusetts politics.
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