Classic Lessons for Daughters Hold True for Professional Women

Early summer in social media is a gathering place of parental wisdom. The weeks connecting Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, with graduations sandwiched between them, feature tributes on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn that give us access to the best life lessons from the parents of our friends, classmates and colleagues. We might find ourselves reflecting on lessons from the mom and dad figures in our own lives, and pausing to consider the lessons we’re sharing with the people who may be listening to us.

That reflection – and subsequent action – is more complicated when it comes to the lessons we are teaching our daughters. As more women lean in, step into more c-suites, and break more glass ceilings, many of the lessons that have been traditionally emphasized with girls are being called into question and labeled as outdated. Other lessons are dismissed outright as traps that hold women back in the professional world.

I’ve heard several of these supposed “outdated” or “trap” lessons come out of my own mouth over the past year, almost without realizing it. I’ve heard myself promote these ingrained ideas while helping launch and grow H+K HER (Helping Executives Rise), H+K Strategies’ women’s network…while mentoring colleagues…while parenting my young daughter. My early reaction was to cringe and slap myself on the wrist as I brought to mind these new arguments that say I might be contributing to holding back the young women I care about most.

But then I paused. And reflected.

Each time I heard myself say those words, I caught myself and checked the assumptions accompanying the lesson. I’m now convinced that many of these lessons, though nuanced, can hold true throughout a woman’s life, especially in a professional context. Here are five classic lessons that not only stand the test of time, but also are imperative to short-term and long-term success in the working world.

Be kind.

Some people criticize the call to kindness as harmful for women in business because they see it as a sign of weakness. Certainly it’s important to be assertive and stand up for yourself, even when that means potentially upsetting others. But as a starting point, being kind is a smart bet. When it comes down to it, team members who are pleasant to be around are the ones the coach wants to keep – and the ones who get the most support from their teammates.

Be a friend to everyone.

The argument against being a ‘friend to all’ centers on competitiveness. When the number of winners is limited, as it is in many business situations, it’s hard to be in the position of pushing a friend out of the winner’s circle. But the value of being a friend to – or at least, being friendly with – everyone in your network has lasting benefits. Not a week goes by without hearing the expression “small world” pop up in my day, and the same is true in many industries. Be it the intern who is now a client, or the former colleague who is now the gatekeeper on a new project or job, you realize early on that upward mobility can happen in a flash, and it’s best not to burn any bridges.

Help others.

The many ways that helping behaviors are overlooked or professionally detrimental to the helper build the case against this classic lesson. The double edge of this sword is real and was outlined brilliantly – and painfully for those recognizing themselves in the telling – by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in their piece in The New York Times about women doing “office housework.”

With the appropriate caveats, however, the lesson can still hold true when considered as a pathway to new opportunity. Offering help to a colleague you admire, or who is doing work you’d love to get your hands on, is a great way to earn their admiration and actually get your hands on that work. Volunteer to take the first crack at an assignment that person hasn’t gotten to yet. Siphon items off of that person’s to do list and knock them out yourself. This does two critical things. It gives you a chance to stretch and grow by working on assignments you wouldn’t otherwise get. And it makes you become the person he or she wants to bring into every professional foxhole, giving you even more opportunities. It all starts with being a helper.

Respect your elders.

Critics of this lesson focus on their well-founded belief that giving respect blindly to authority figures, without questioning the institutions around us and the people in charge, is dangerous. But the idea of recognizing and being mindful of the influence of certain people in your organization or industry is a critical lesson to learn. Hard work and talent can take you part way, but having mentors, advocates and champions ahead of you – opening doors and helping guide you through them – is very powerful.

Say please and thank you.

The naysayers on this lesson caution that overemphasizing “please” and “thank you” trains girls to be subservient. But when you re-frame these in the context of a professional environment, they are skills that the best leaders use constantly. Saying please prepares you to delegate, ask for needed help, and leverage connections to close a deal or get what you want. Saying thank you creates a pattern of gratitude that brings perspective, energy and positivity – all essential tools to handle the highs and lows that come with growing success.

There’s no need to exclude these long-taught lessons from the wisdom we plan to pass along to our daughters, or the women coming up behind us in their careers. When put in the right context, they can serve all women well when climbing those ladders – be they on a playground or on a career path.

Rebecca Ballard, Head of External Communications and H+K HER steering committee at Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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