Sometimes moving your development forward can be a bit like jumping on a moving sidewalk or a ski lift. You have to line yourself up and pick up the pace before you can jump on board, and for many of us, those moments can be a bit jarring. We’ve all heard that our development is in our own hands. That’s a lovely concept, however, the reality is that development and growth are dependent on both the individual pushing for it as well as external stakeholders supporting it. Without either one of those, it won’t happen. Particularly for women, personal drive and external support can be equally critical for advancement.


Sometimes high performing women fly under the radar. Perhaps we value silent running and are less likely to highlight our own achievements. We trust that we will be recognized for the day to day value we add, without needing to self-promote. For a variety of reasons, high performing women may not come to mind when management is looking to stand someone in to provide temporary coverage for a position.


How often have you seen someone get an opportunity that you may not have considered asking for, only to see them perform and realize you not only could have handled it, but you could have excelled. 


Here’s our advice:

  1. Put together a proposal. Include dates and milestones. Identify potential blockers and how those will be mitigated. Don’t just get support and sign off from your boss – make sure it’s supported by their boss as well to ensure there is accountability and clear expectations. Also keep in mind: if your manager agrees to let you stand in for them next time the opportunity arises, you’ll effectively be reporting directly to their manager, so you’d better make sure that person is on board and has resolved any questions about whether or not you can handle the task at hand. They won’t necessarily have gotten to see how great you are up close and in person, and in the heat of the moment, they may prefer to go with a known entity. Try to become as known an entity as possible in preparation for when that opportunity arises.
  2. Ask for projects that provide high visibility and challenge. Make sure that your boss knows that you feel capable of taking on roles outside of your comfort zone, particularly because you recognize that they will be there to support you with their experience and skills if, (when), you have questions or start to falter. Your success will reflect well on your manager. When you take on new territory, you will have challenges. You will make mistakes on your trek up that learning curve. This is to be expected; every expert, every person in leadership, has at one point or another gone through the same thing. Support is important. Sometimes appealing to your boss’s higher sense of self will help ensure you’re not thrown into the deep end with a sink or swim attitude and no support. Those types of experiences can certainly be valuable, though it’s always good to start out set up for success, particularly if you are still establishing your track record and your brand.
  3. Find opportunities to take training and get the certificate.Is there some sort of professional accreditation you can earn? Get it on your development plan and get your management to commit to it. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth the fight. A recent study, commissioned by BP and conducted by Quayfive called “Spot the Difference” found that women value professional development and accreditation at much higher rates than men, and there is a reason. In cases where women aren’t given the benefit of the doubt regarding their experience and capabilities, having some letters after their name can help get their foot in the door. It’s an objective, transferable testimony to their competency. If you encounter resistance, try to seek out others who have taken the training or received the accreditation to help advocate for you. Remind your management that by bolstering your standing in your profession, you will be better enabled to act on behalf of your organization because people will be more likely to trust your opinion upfront, cutting down on the amount valuable time and energy you have to spend proving yourself before you’re able to be effective. These professional training and certifications often provide an external network, technical resources, and access to recent advances in your field that will pay dividends for your organization and keep it competitive.
  4. Do your homework before you present your plan. Your network is a great place to start looking for which opportunities to pursue. Check costs and availability for courses. What are the available dates and how will they match with the team’s schedule or delivery plan for the year? Find others that have completed a similar project, stand-in stint, training or certification and can offer testimonials regarding the value it would provide to you and your organization, should it be requested. 


If you’re told you’re not ready to pursue some of your milestones, then query which intermediate goals you should add to your timeline. It’s helpful to come at it seeking clarification rather than indulging in the urge to defend yourself, (feedback truly is a gift, even when it’s totally off the mark). Sometimes, the very act of asking for specifics will prompt a leader to realize that their assessment may be based in unconscious bias as opposed to concrete facts. Sometimes you really will have a blind spot that you hadn’t considered. You can ask for examples of other people on your track and what they did to prepare and which skills they displayed to earn the opportunities you are seeking. Make sure you focus on specifics and, where possible, try to dig deeper than the vague, qualitative observations that are so easy for managers to give. Ask for things in writing. Taking time to write things down forces a level of reflection that might not have occurred in the course of a conversation. If nothing else, people feel less comfortable writing down a biased, baseless opinion than they do giving it to your face in a closed-door meeting. 


If you sense that you’re being dismissed as pushy or difficult, it can help to remind your manager that women often fall behind because the fail to self-advocate and you want to make sure that you’re not falling into that trap. You want to become the most skilled, competent and trusted employee possible because you truly believe that it benefits the organization, and even your manager directly. If you’re sensing that your boss feels threatened or sees you as potential competition (this is unfortunately more common than we’d like to believe), it’s again helpful to remind them that your success reflects well on them as a leader. Be sure to take an opportunity to recognize them directly and externally for their support when they provide it. It’s that whole “higher sense of self” thing coming into play again. Individuals want to live up to high expectations and sometimes, people can’t help but be drawn to opportunities where they get to look like the good guy, (yes – I said “guy” for a reason). 


With this toolkit in your back pocket, you should have a few more tactics for ensuring that you’re getting the growth opportunities you need in order to reach your potential. Getting your foot in the door can sometimes be tough, but momentum will build with each challenge you take on. Yes, there will be bumps along the way, and sometimes you will stop and think, “I’m in way over my head. Did I seriously ask for this?!” If that never happens, then you clearly aren’t shooting high enough.We have to take those big leaps, so setting up your safety net of support is important. Discomfort is where the growth occurs. 


So step up and stand in!

What has worked for you when looking for development opportunities? What would you have done differently? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Erica D'Eramo

About The Author: Erica D’Eramo

Following a successful two decade career in energy, Erica’s made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. Passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. She founded Two Piers Consulting in 2016 to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide tools and strategies to effectively foster truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. Erica is a member of the International Federation of Coaches and carries the SHRM-SCP certification.

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