If you are a woman with a career—or perhaps if you are any human being plugged into the Internet or the world at large—then you know that there has been an ongoing conversation about how women can truly get ahead in their careers with so many odds stacked against them. The latest version of this debate has focused specifically on whether or not women can succeed in their careers while still being liked.
New York Magazine writer Ann Friedman offered what I believe to be the best take on this discussion in her piece How to be Powerful, Likable, and Female: Learn From Jenna Lyons, which came out almost a full year ago now but recently resurfaced online. In it, she argues that it’s an unfair and false dichotomy that women’s options are narrowed down to being either “a successful bitch or a well-liked failure.” If men can be aggressive, assertive, and at times brutish and still be Fortune 500 CEOs , then why can’t women? If we ladies give in to this myth, she argues, things will never change, and women’s collective progression in the workplace will continue to be stagnant—so for the sake of the progress of all women, we must figure out a way to achieve success while also being genuinely likeable. And I could not agree more.
As a bit of background, here’s the abridged version of my own career trajectory. Since graduating from college in May of 2008—wow, nearly seven years ago now—I’ve worked my way up from interning at print magazines (a dying field, sad to say) to being the managing editor of Who What Wear. Not to toot my own horn, but since I left the print industry, I’ve doubled my salary in less than two years—and here’s the kicker: I didn’t do it by being mean, nasty, or brutish. I also didn’t do it by being fake, saccharin, or in any way phony—I did it by being nice. (Talent, hard work, and perseverance played their roles too, of course.)
This is an important point Friedman makes in her essay: that there is a monumental difference between being fakely nice—a sentiment people can generally smell from a mile away—and working to make yourself genuinely likeable by showing people you care about their interests and well-being. She points to Jenna Lyons, J.Crew’s incredibly successful creative director, as a perfect example; not only is Lyons widely looked at as perhaps the most inspiring career figure in all of contemporary fashion, but she also happens to be wildly popular on a personal level. Her employees love her, her fans love her, and pretty much everyone she comes into contact with loves her. (Just ask Kate Middleton.) So what’s her secret?
If all the reports about her management style and general personality are to be believed, then it’s that Lyons makes a real effort to genuinely show people she cares about them. This is something I can see playing out in my career too—that the stronger my network of genuinely friendly relations, the more and more I progress. You’ve likely heard the idiom that you shouldn’t burn bridges—and while I actually believe there are some bridges in life that must be burned in the name of progress—your career is an arena that deserves extra caution in this regard. It simply doesn’t pay to be overly mean or aggressive to anyone you come across in your career—you never know, that person might be the hiring manager of a job you’re interested in at some point in the future. Or, even worse, he or she could end up being your boss.
Instead, I’ve tried to get my Jenna Lyons on in my day-to-day approach to my career by showing my colleagues and acquaintances only the utmost respect and genuine care for how they are doing. I begin as many e-mails as possible by asking people how they are doing and wishing them well—and meaning it. I greet people with a smile when I pass them in the hallway. I ask people about interests I know they have in their personal lives, because I am genuinely curious about what they’ve got going on. Of course, I have had my missteps—I’ve fired off emotional e-mails when I know I shouldn’t have, disregarded people when I know they needed help, and so on. But in these instances, I’ve course-corrected by showing remorse for these actions and truly meaning it—and it’s paid off.
In the world of women to look up to when it comes to my career, I have to believe that Jenna Lyons isn’t half-bad—and I’m of the opinion that her success has partially resulted from her ability to be as likable as she is successful. And if I were absolutely forced to choose, I think it’s more important to leave a positive impression on the people I’ve known than to climb my way to the top of the professional food chain. But in the world of Jenna Lyons, the world I’m working toward—I can do both.
What do you think of the Jenna Lyons theory of career success? Sound off in the comments below!