3 Ways to Craft Your Career Story to Inspire & Lead

Every senior woman in accounting has been asked how she did it. How did she manage work and family? How did she crack the code of business development? How did she speak up when she felt she was being overlooked?

move smallWith women comprising only 20% of partners at public accounting firms, according to the 2014 Accounting MOVE Project report, the personal history of each senior woman resonates more powerfully than the individual stories of male leaders.  Men’s experience is helpful, but only to the degree that women can translate the context of male success to their own situations.  Women crave insight and empathy from other women.

Your personal career history – your story – becomes part of the history of your firm and of the women you mentor, sponsor, guide and inspire.

Your history is more than your resume with some verbs thrown in. Here are three ways to build a lasting impression with a few short, energetic stories about career pivot points.

Give them what they want, not what they ask for. Listening between the lines is essential for good client service. Do the same when choosing a couple of stories that address often-asked questions.

At nearly every women’s conference (across all kinds of industries) that I’ve attended, a young woman from the audience has asked a high-powered woman presenter not about career strategy, but a nuts-and-bolts question about how she managed family and work.  Until a couple of conferences ago, this annoyed me. Why ask an industry leader about how she handled carpool, diapers and tax season? Then I realized: these young women are not after parenting advice. They crave reassurance from someone who’s now past the parenting-young-children-stage: are you at peace with your decisions? Did it turn out ok, now that you are looking at those years in your rear-view mirror?  When you craft a story that addresses deeper issues, you build rapport.

Throw open closed doors.  When you become a partner, you suddenly join the club. Until then, you have wondered how decisions are made behind closed doors. To the extent that you can, tell rising women how things work in the meetings they can’t yet attend.  Men often get glimpses in casual settings that don’t include women.  So call out the impenetrable to those on their way. Explain how decisions are made, what kind of give-and-take happens among partners – and help them envision themselves as part of the story.

Be the heroine. One woman partner recently told me how she braved a skeptical panel of male colleagues when she advocated for her firm’s first-ever women’s initiative. “I told them, what if all the women leave? Who’s left? People who aren’t as bright, and it will take us longer to get the work done and we’ll make less money,” she said.

You can picture the surprise on their faces when she showed up wearing her Superwoman cape.  And you won’t be surprised to hear that she walked out with six-figure funding for the initiative.

Take center stage in a few key stories that illustrate pivotal moments in your career. Show yourself in action. Sketch the reaction. And tell what you did to convert that moment to real change. That’s how you convert career history to career legend.

This post was also published on March 12, 2015, by the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance. 

Let’s Pick a Fight With an Opinion Writer!

Doesn’t that sound like a winning strategy – to pick a fight with a contributor to the opinion pages of the tenth largest newspaper in America?

Yup, it just happened. To me. Over this.

Stein InnThat’s right. Someone read my Chicago Tribune personal essay about bed and breakfasts. My main point was that I’m not a fan. I think it’s a strangely co-dependent business model.   Fawning over the host’s recipes and decorating decisions is part of the price of admission. I prefer an anonymous room in an anonymous hotel. B&B’s are too close for comfort.

There’s a trade group for everything, and the executive director of an association of purportedly upscale inns decided to ream me out for my lighthearted essay.

Here’s what landed in my inbox:

I read your opinion piece about your unpleasant stay at some unnamed B&B in Northern Vermont.  Having represented the B&B industry for a long time, I hate to hear about negative experiences.
But, may I ask, what was the purpose of your piece?  Why did you feel compelled to use such a high profile opportunity to be so negative?  This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m truly curious about the motivation or reasoning behind the publication of it.  You are a communications specialist who flexed her mastery of the English language in such a negative way.  It was surprising.  
Let’s unpack his assumptions:
  • I have a secret agenda for writing about a personal experience (after all, I was ‘compelled’; I have a ‘purpose’; and I have a ‘motivation’)
  • I’m “negative” X 2. He didn’t just disagree with me. He made a character judgment.

Here’s the truth: I had fun writing about a series of similar experiences at a particular type of establishment.

That’s it.

Here’s how I responded:

The point of a personal essay is to convey personal experience and a personal point of view. That’s what I wrote, and that’s why my essay was published in Perspective, the Tribune’s opinion section. 
You seem to think that B&B’s exist in a protected bubble and should be immune from comment. Nothing is – or should be – immune from comment in newspaper opinion pages.  
Of course, that didn’t end it. He continued to bray and I tried to wiggle away from his scolding and finally I just deleted his emails.
How my critic views bed & breakfasts

How my critic views bed & breakfasts

    Here’s a guy who represents supposedly the upper crust of an industry category that I think can be dusty, and sometimes crusty.
How I see bed & breakfasts

How I see bed & breakfasts

He had a chance to persuade me to think differently. Instead, he was petulant and paranoid. He could have simply introduced himself and his organization and said, “If you ever consider giving our industry a third chance, please let me know and I can help find the right fit.” That would have been gracious. And, to the point of his professional responsibilities, it would have turned his annoyance with my piece into a tiny step towards relationship.
Instead, he wrote what he did. I wrote this. And you’re reading it.

How to Use Your Hobby to Build Your Reputation through Media Mentions

I love to quilt.

Yes, I sewed this!  A few years ago, while scouting candidates for a big feature about women leaders at Fortune 500 companies, I found myself discussing quilting with another avid quilter.


She was in charge of driving sales for desktop color printers. While her engineers geeked out over the number of buttons and slide trays on the machine, she realized that the ability to print a full-color quilt pattern  at home changed everything for quilt designers. Instead of spending thousands of dollars printing, distributing and marketing printed patterns, they could sell their patterns as digital downloads. That could translate to more creative time and better cash flow.  Her insight resulted in a powerful marketing campaign that sold hundreds of thousands of printers.

Typically, professionals seeking to be quoted in media stories assume that what they bring to the party is their technical expertise. If you specialize in international taxes, that’s what you’d talk about with a reporter, right?

Yes, but it’s not all you bring. Your interests, volunteer work, life stage (new parent, empty nest),  and relationships (child, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker and so on) can be invaluable for reporters seeking ‘real life’  experiences that inject color, personality and humor into stories.

As I explained in Susan Weiner’s blog on smart writing for financial professionals, these angles are an often-overlooked way to build relationships with reporters. Additional benefits to being quoted about ‘who you are’ include:

  • Gaining confidence with on-the-record interviews.
  • Feeding search results with media mentions, which are given top priority in search algorithms. (Google doesn’t care if you were quoted about adopting a puppy or the nuances of merger law; it only cares that you were quoted by an independent news outlet.)
  • Building a reputation as a caring, interesting, three-dimensional person, thus creating context for current and potential clients.
  • Pushing out media mentions through your social networks.

Finding ‘real people’ sources can be frustrating and difficult for reporters. Solve that problem, and you are on your way to becoming a go-to person for the technical quotes and commentary that directly build your professional reputation.

The One Thing Your Company Can Do to Get Better Financial Results by Advancing Women

Slowly, the dots are being connected.  Study by study, analysis by analysis, we’re figuring out what it takes to get women to to the top.

The latest in the string of revelations is that confidence is built when skills training is put into action. A new report from DDI and the Conference Board correlates corporate financial performance with higher proportion of women leaders and women high-potentials.

The top 20% performers in the study’s sample of global companies counted women as 37% of all leaders, and as 12% of all high potentials. But at the bottom-performing 20%, women accounted for 19% of all leaders and 8% of all high potentials.

One of the key factors:  leadership development programs don’t exist in a vacuum at the top-performing companies. Instead, programs are blended with real-life experience. It’s boots-on-the-ground experience that turns book knowledge to financial results.

Programs that make that link drive real results. That’s how accounting firm Rothstein Kass captured $6.5 million in top line revenue growth from its Rainmakers Roundtable program, designed by Melissa McClenaghan Martin of M3.

Mentoring and sponsorship are important, but it’s results that deliver direct return on advancing women. Skills training, put into action – and yes, that means taking calculated risks as women (and men) stride into new territory – might be the final missing link.

Reinvent vs. Retread: Why the Odd Metaphor Wins

Reinvention is the biggest misconception about late in life career shifts.

As I point out in this article for AARP’s “Life ReImagined” website, you just don’t have time to abandon everything and everyone you know.

Retread instead. Gain traction by changing your grip.

But wait! Doesn’t ‘retread’ have bad connotations? Retread tires are likely to shred after a few miles. They’re not a good deal. Isn’t it ‘reinvent’ better?

‘Retread’ is better, in the context of shifting into an encore career, for two reasons.

  • A ‘retread’ only has to get you a few more miles, just one last version of your career really only needs to get you over the retirement line. Most late-in-life entrepreneurs don’t want or expect to build a Fortune 100 company. They want a steady income stream from satisfying work, with a sunset in view. Those factors, which are all wrapped up in the ‘retread’ connotation, make that term a better fit than the open-ended, sunny-with-ambition ‘reinvent.’
  • Secondly, ‘retread’ carries just enough surprise factor. It starts out like “reinvent,” but goes in a different direction. It’s a twist on a term that has become a cliche.

You don’t have to reinvent every metaphor. Sometimes, a retread works turns out to be a better fit all the way around.



“We Love Women!” Ok, Prove It!

Employers love to brag about awards, especially awards that help them attract women and minorities to boost diversity. But how can you see past the self-congratulations to the real deal…especially if you’re interviewing and hoping that you’ll be able to take advantage of such programs?

The current issue of The Glass Hammer cuts through the rhetoric and gets to the point: Yes, if the company is bragging about its wonderful awards, then it’s perfectly in line to ask them to explain how those awards translate to a daily culture and work-life blend that you might experience if you worked there.

Among the great sources for this piece (yes, including me and the Accounting MOVE Project) is Risa Lavine, one of the smartest human resources people I’ve ever met. Her common-sense advice: when you’re scouting a potential employer, simply keep your eyes open. Are women well represented in higher ranks? Does the company back up its happy talk with women taking key roles at all levels?

Both men and women should advocate for the advancement of women. If men do all the talking and the numbers don’t back them up….well, you might have your answer right there.




A Metaphor Formula as Easy as Pie

Does concocting a powerful metaphor trigger a flashback to pop quiz in freshman English?

Does it feel as fun as writing a sonnet on deadline?

It doesn’t have to be. Here’s a simple, effective way to concoct a catchy – possibly, a powerful – metaphor: Add a twist to a cliche.

Take the headline of this post. What if, instead of ‘easy as pie,’ it read, ‘as easy as pi”? You’d immediately flash back to sophomore geometry and a chalkboard filling up with the endless decimalization of pi. So, as easy as ‘pie’ is sweet, but as easy as ‘pi’ is, well, not  so easy.

Let’s add another twist: ‘As easy as Martha Stewart’s pie.” We stay in the realm of pastry, but our claim of simplicity is now up against our assumption that Martha Stewart has needlessly overcomplicated pie.

Here’s how this technique looks in real life. Columnist Susan Tompor’s piece “Detroit retirees facing cuts anxiously await bankruptcy eligibility decision” includes a nice twist on the retirement cliche of a gold watch. “City of Detroit retirees are discovering that the golden watch may have to be pawned, as Detroit deals with an $18-billion mountain of debt and projected liabilities,” she wrote. And that’s how it’s done.

Must a Writer Be Cranky?

Well, in short: no.

But the real question is, when hiring creatives for your content team, must you choose between talent and attitude? That’s basically the question addressed in this story from a business to business marketing advisory about content development.  I’m not the only expert quoted. Fortunately, other journalists-turned-content-gurus share my point of view: choose a short list based on proven ability. Then hire for attitude.

Our content writers and managers are collaborators. They are great at detecting the real story that you have been struggling to tell. As one client recently told us during a message development session, “I’ve been trying for six years to get this said right…and you did it in an afternoon!”

Your story + our skills = your words. Because ultimately, yours is the voice that needs to be heard.

Legally Blonde Meets HBR: How Harvard Business School Moved the Gender Needle

Legally_blondeYou have to be smart and accomplished to get into the Harvard Business School. But many women faced an additional set of hurdles once they arrived on campus: they could let the men dominate and get along, or they could be assertive and shunned.  The culture was quite familiar to fans of the movie Legally Blonde, in which a brainy Barbie shows up at Harvard Law and shows up her classmates.

As described in a beautifully written New York Times narrative, HBR leaders were appalled by that ‘false choice’ – once they figured it out. The story shows how a deep commitment, paired with insight and fearless leadership, more than doubled the proportion of HBR student women top performers in just one year.

Some of the most powerful tactics they adopted are similar to those we’ve seen work at MOVE winning companies:

Women were coached in how to step up in a group situation, how to not be talked over or overlooked when raising a hand to be heard.

Leaders restructured some course material into a collaborative team model, reinforcing the value and power of peer and influence dynamics. The traditional HBR case study method is, as described in the story, a top-down, power-riddled process with students called on the spot by professors. The new Field class structure is all about collaboration.

And to help the professions gain insight into their own assumptions, habits and – dare we say it – privilege? – the school installed tracking software that enabled them to see the gender implications of their grading decisions as they made them. To quote the story:    “New grading software tools let professors instantly check their calling and marking patterns by gender. One professor, Mikolaj Piskorski, summarized Mr. Nohria’s message later: “We’re going to solve it at the school level, but each of you is responsible to identify what you are doing that gets you to this point.”

By blending numbers and stories — the methodology used by Wilson-Taylor’s MOVE Projects — the leaders at HBS effected genuine change. The proportion of female students in the class of 2013, at 40%, was about the same as it was in in 2009 (36%). But the proportion of women in the top 5% of the class rose from 14% to 38% — in just one year.  Most companies would love to win results like that. Nice that HBR backs up how it’s done through MOVE.

P.S. — Take ten minutes to hear Brooke Boyarsky, the heroine of the NYT story, give a commencement address.



Did You Hear What I Meant, Not What I Said?

Gender miscommunication started in the Garden of Eden and has been tangling understanding ever since. When your career is at stake, it takes on a whole new dimension.

Through the Accounting MOVE Project, which measures and supports the advancement of women, the Wilson-Taylor team listens to women accountants who don’t understand what they don’t understand about making partner.

Here’s the thing: they lean in till they are nearly falling over, but when they simply ask their sponsors or mentors “What do I need to do?”, they inevitably get back a cryptic, opaque response: “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

In this piece that ran August 2, 2013 in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion section, I tell the bosses of America what they need to do to turn this conversation around.

But here’s what women need to do: be more specific. It’s not much more risk to get a lot more information. Ask, “What specific skills or experiences do I need to master to fill in the gaps that qualify me for partner?” or for your next critical career step.

When you ask a detailed question, you get a detailed answer. And just like that, you understand what you need to do next. Then, of course, you need to do it.