Bored Young Businesswoman With BindersImagine you were thrust into the world of the professions after 20 years in public sector roles? If that’s not a shock to the system, then imagine that you are a female engineer coming into an engineering consultancy which is very much a ‘boys club’. Well that was exactly the question I was asked recently. This is how I answered the question.

1. Be honest with yourself, is this the right environment for you in the long term?

We tend to perform at our best when we belong rather than actively try to fit in. Therefore, you need to be really honest with yourself here, is this environment or culture going to help you excel? Or will it do the opposite? If it is going to hinder your performance and enjoyment then it’s time to work out a plan to exit. If you’ve just joined the firm then it is better to exit sooner rather than later. If you have made a move into your current team from another part of the firm, how can you plan a way out of this team or department?

2. Who really calls the shots?

It can be an easy mistake to make to assume that the people with the titles and high up in the hierarchy are the only ones with the influence. Within any office there are always informal as well as formal influencers. For example, Executive and Personal Assistants wield a huge amount of power. They are often the people who determine exactly who will get to see the person they look after.
One of the first things you must do is work out who yields the real power and influence in your department. These are the people that you need positive relationships with. Ideally, if your career is going to flourish, they need to be advocates for you and what you do.
I remember when I first joined a professional service firm, BDO LLP. One of the things I found out when meeting people around the firm was which of the partners would throw their toys out of the pram if they were not consulted on a project or initiative. There will be these people too in your department and wider firm. Make it a priority to get to know who these people are.

3. Who are the movers and shakers?

As well as the influencers, there are the people in the team who are either rapidly rising up the ranks or are the firm’s stars. These people can often be influencers as well. Ideally, you want to get on jobs or clients that they own. That way you will gain profile and potentially authority just by working with them and on their clients.

4. Find an internal mentor to guide you

A mentor within the firm can give the inside track on what is going on. They should be able to help you identify who are the movers and shakers, plus who really wields the influence within your part of the firm and the wider firm.
As well as helping you navigate the various power bases, a mentor can be a champion or sponsor for you. I.e they can help you get on the career-enhancing assignments or secondments. If you do fall foul of the politics of your firm you may be able to use your mentor to help smooth the troubled waters around you.

5. Remember the meeting often doesn’t happen in the meeting

One of my clients, a junior partner, was telling me that they were getting fed up of the future management board candidates continually popping by their desk and checking that they had their vote. It’s not just the testy matter of elections of a new management board that prompts this type of behaviour. The real decisions are often taken in small private huddles well away from the formal meeting planned to take the decision. This is the way that partnerships work. It’s all about relationships and stakeholder management.

6. Watch your language

One of my clients has recently joined PWC after a long time with Deloitte. He’s finding PWC very different from the dog-eat-dog and bullish world of Deloitte. Part of his action plan in his first month is to find out whether his new firm are a ‘We’ or ‘I’ type of firm. I.e. Is it more important to be seen to be working collaboratively or more important to just push through and make stuff happen.
There is also a gender issue with using “I” or “We”. In general, men, who tend to have loyalty to their career over their company, are very good at claiming credit for results and making sure that their results and accomplishments are known by the people who matter. Women tend to have more loyalty to their company than their career. They tend to shy away from claiming credit for results and more often will give the credit to others or a wider group of people. Therefore, look carefully at how you are talking. Is it fitting in with the culture of the firm? Are you letting others claim credit for your results?
It may be a small thing that some women often do, but apologising unnecessarily can often be seen as a sign of weakness.

7. How do things get done around here?

You never really get to know all the dirty laundry of a team, firm or department until you join it. Even if you spend a large amount of time talking with people in the team before you arrive, they will only really let their guard down and be truly candid when you’ve arrived properly. Therefore, take the time to identify the ‘norms’ of the team you have joined. For example, is there an unwritten rule that everyone takes the turn to do a coffee shop run? Is it the sort of environment where people compete to be the first person in at the start of the day and the last person to leave? How many black marks will you get if you fail to complete your timesheet every day?

8. Get active and interested in sports

This is a massive generalisation but the conversation in male dominated office environments often revolves around the latest big match and what happened. Whilst I’m not suggesting that you become something that you are not, there is no harm in keeping updated on the world of sport so you can be seen to be taking part in the conversation. It isn’t always the case, but I have noticed that in many male-dominated office environments it’s not just about watching sport, it’s also about taking part. There will often be office organised sports events. This could be an inter-office  5-a-side football league or a game of softball/rounders in the park after work. If being active isn’t your thing then there is no reason why you can’t attend to watch and cheer on people taking part.

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