‘What career advice would you give us?’ is the most common question I’m asked by other women starting their careers or moving into leadership. Everyone wants different things from career and life, so my experience will be different than yours. But, in honor of International Women’s Day, I’ll share the advice I’d give my younger self:

1. Be bold – not perfect.

As noted in the Confidence Code, women are more likely than men to be perfectionists, holding themselves back from applying for a new job, asking for a raise, until they’re absolutely 100 percent sure we can predict the outcome. (Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent.)

If you search for perfection, acknowledgment, and applause you’ll never try anything new, hard or risky. The risk to your self-esteem is too big. Stop searching for the A+ and instead look for rewarding, impactful work.

2. Know what you want. (There isn’t a right answer.)

We all want different things in career and in life. The key is knowing what you want. You can’t duplicate anyone else’s career. Discover your own unique answer through experimenting a little. And, if you are like me, your dream scenario will change over time. Give yourself permission to grow and evolve.

3. Don’t try to be someone else.

A disguise at work is saying what you think you are supposed to say and doing what you think you are supposed to do. Your power comes from letting who you are show through – your humor, sharing ideas outside the norm, and not being afraid to speak up and show up.

Marie was my role model for this early in my career. She was funny, smart, and didn’t hide one ounce of herself in a leadership team made up of almost all senior men. I watched her energy and power shine and so did her influence – just by confidently being herself.

4. Speak up.

Find your voice. You can’t wait for all of the answers to jump into conversations. Speak up early in meetings. Give your point of view even if different than others. Call out the role you want, the title you want and what you want your salary to be. No one will know if you don’t share.

And, don’t use undermining language, such as, “Just an idea, but…”, “I was wondering about….”, or my favorite, “Does that make sense?” Or framing statements as a question by elevating your voice at the end. No apologies for having a point of view.

5. Find your posse.

The bond I’ve had with other women has made a huge difference in my career and my happiness. These women have helped me through being a new parent, losing a parent, they’ve been role models and they’ve made me laugh – a lot. My relationships with such strong, fun women grew into a vibrant network that we all rely upon to help each other.

6. Say yes and figure it out later.

Research indicates that women are less likely to say they are ready for the promotion or take on a big stretch assignment. The truth is if you already have all of the answers, you’re playing it too safe in the roles you take. Step out and try something new. When I started my business, I said yes when I knew so little about what was ahead. I had to figure it out as I went, and it worked out one step at a time.

7. Embrace being in over your head.

Or as Ginny Rometty, the IBM CEO said, “Growth and comfort don’t coexist.” My biggest career growth spurts came in completely new situations and it was a little scary. Over time, I developed confidence that I could learn and figure out something both new and hard. If you are willing, these “career dog years” can catapult you far beyond where you thought you’d ever be – even when they are a challenge at the time.


“Growth and comfort don’t coexist.” … Ginny Rometty


8. Battle stereotypes in others – and within yourself.

When I hear comments about another woman, or I think them myself, I always consider if the same would be said about a man in identical circumstances: ‘she’s bossy, expects too much, or is too ambitious.’ 

Stereotypes also show up in hiring and promotion decisions – ‘women won’t want to travel that much’, or ‘we can’t promote as many women because they opt out when they reach a certain level.’ Push on these stereotypes –and then offer information and solutions. Be a champion for yourself and other women individually and collectively.

9. Toss lifelines (big and small).

Ask other women to participate in the high profile project or join a leadership event. Senior women were such advocates for me that it was years later before I realized that they were more than just nice – they were acting as a champion for me and other women. Be a sounding board for other women whether you are a mentor or just a friend. This isn’t hard to do – but, first, you have to be aware and then make the time.

10. Think about contributing more than approval.

Rather than hoping you gain approval, spend your energy on making a contribution. Everyone can contribute regardless of years of experience, age, level or circumstance. Find how you can contribute because there is always an answer. A contribution mindset helps you speak up and be bolder because you are focused on the goal more than your own performance.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be followed @pattibjohnson or @people_results.