Advice from women executives at Intel, Unilever, McKinsey, and more for standing out as a leader while working from home

  • Many women say working remotely has negatively impacted their careers during the pandemic.
  • Women executives shared with Business Insider how they've adjusted traditional career advice to fit new circumstances when working from home.
  • Prepare key points and questions to bring up on video conferencing calls and offer up suggestions in the chat. 
  • Don't be afraid to step up and take on new challenges or initiatives to expand your skill set, and set up time with mentors to help you navigate through this difficult time. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As companies continue to allow employees to work from home, the career advice women have relied on for years — such as, "take a seat at the table," find a mentor, ask for stretch assignments — may seem irrelevant in the current environment. 

In fact, many women say working remotely has had a negative impact on their careers.

A recent study of 1,000 US adults by experience management software company Qualtrics found that women working remotely at home with children are less likely to say they've been productive since the pandemic than men in the same boat, while a similar survey conducted by women's job search platform Fairygodboss found that 65% of women are not planning on asking for a raise or promotion this year.

"Many of us are facing a new reality, and the way we used to do things at work may not always be the right way to do things now," said Barbara H. Whye, chief diversity and inclusion officer and corporate vice president of social impact and human resources at Intel.

However, women executives told Business Insider that the career advice they've relied on for years just needs to be tweaked to fit the present moment.

"It's not that the advice doesn't work anymore," said Kathie Patterson, chief human resource officer at Ally Financial Inc. in Detroit. "The way in which you navigate it and deploy it is different."

From being visible on a Zoom call to getting invited to meetings with decision makers to being more intentional about networking, here are some ways women in the C-suite are rethinking how they work during the pandemic. 

Make yourself as seen and heard as possible 

"It's too easy to turn your camera off, stay on mute the whole time, and join meeting after meeting without anyone ever realizing you were there," said Mita Mallick, head of diversity and cross cultural marketing at Unilever in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. "Focus on staying visible; ensuring people are hearing your contributions and understanding the impact of your work."

While it can be difficult to speak up on video calls where colleagues are unintentionally talking over each other, most video conferencing platforms offer ways to raise your hand or offer suggestions in the chat. 

"If you have something important to say and you're struggling to be heard, use that hand raise or chat function to say you have an important point you want to interject," said Jennifer Cloherty, chief financial officer of Kellogg North America in Battle Creek, MI.

With everyone jockeying for a chance to speak, it's even more important to be prepared before a meeting with key points to make and questions to ask, Patterson said. "Be informed and have a point of view," she said, adding that too often women come to meetings as observers rather than influencers. 

"Proactively introduce thoughts and ideas that put you in the flow of the conversation," said Alexis Krivkovich, senior partner at McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco and author of the 2019 "Women in the Workplace" study published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey. After a meeting, don't be shy about following up and saying something like, "I had this additional thought …" or, "I'd like to volunteer to take on an action item." 

Ask for a seat at the virtual table by showing interest in a new initiative

Video calls have created a level playing field for meetings. 

"No one is sitting at the head of table, and we're all in T-shirts and jeans," said Alicia Dietsch, chief marketing officer of AT&T cybersecurity at AT&T in Dallas. "The trappings of how we thought about who was in charge has changed, and it presents an opportunity to seize the moment and contribute ideas and suggestions."

For instance, meetings that were once off limits because of travel budget constraints or the size of the conference room are now potentially open to anyone, Krivkovich said. 

"But this requires you to ask to be in all the conversations you need to be in and deserve to be," Krivkovich said. For example, she suggested, you might tell your boss, "I really aspire to get smart on this topic. I know there are a whole series of meetings related to this subject. What would you think of me sitting in on the meeting and then I can help with action items afterwards?" 

"Being able to bring more people into a meeting can help up-and-coming talent participate and bring them up in a way that might not have been as fast or as intentional in the past because of cost constraints," said JJ Davis, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Dell Technologies in Austin. 

Step up for more stretch assignments even if you don't feel ready

Getting out of your comfort zone is trickier while working from home, especially if you're a parent who's also helping to homeschool your children. 

"The tough assignments have probably gotten even tougher," Cloherty said. "It can be easy to say, 'I don't know how to navigate this because it is so different,' or to say, 'I don't know if my experiences apply,'" she said. "Instead, raise your hand and say, 'I may not know the answers, but none of us knows the answers.'" 

"Now more than ever, it's important to be open to different opportunities within your organization, even if it's not something you would have considered in the past," Mallick added. "Organizations are shifting and pivoting, reassessing their priorities in response to the ongoing pandemic. Show your leadership how resilient and valuable you are, and that you are able to step in and help with whatever they need from you right now."

Before you raise your hand, "make sure you know how you'll fit that assignment into your schedule and do it in a way that won't require 12-hour workdays," Davis said. The question isn't just whether someone has the skills to take a new assignment, but if they have the bandwidth, too. Look at your calendar to see how you typically spend your time to determine what you can delegate to others to make time for more meaningful work, Davis recommended. 

However, don't feel obligated to take on more work just to stand out if it's not feasible right now. "Do not be afraid to say no," Whye said. "Saying no is actually saying yes to your needed self-care agenda. If you need time for yourself, I would encourage you to be transparent with your manager and take that time."

Take advantage of leaders stuck at home to grow your network

It's more critical than ever to build and maintain vibrant relationships with mentors who will champion your career, Davis said, but it's also easier right now to make connections with people you haven't interacted with before. 

"No one is traveling, they have more time, and you don't have to wait until you are face to face," she said. Don't be shy about asking your manager or mentor for an introduction, she added.

Whye recommended finding an outside voice or mentor to help guide you through this time. "We're living in an unprecedented time, and sometimes we just need another voice to talk things through and help push us beyond our fears," she said.  

At the beginning of each week, think about two or three people you would like to reach out to, Mallick said. It doesn't have to be a video meeting if you have screen fatigue — you can send someone a text or a brief email to say hello. If you see an article that reminds you of that person, send it to them or consider sharing it and tagging them on LinkedIn, she said.

Also, look for opportunities to collaborate with employees you normally wouldn't work with. "What you want to do is be part of the collaboration, meet new people, and then get new people into your network who you can call after the fact and have other conversations with," said Teresa White, president of Aflac Inc., in Columbus, GA.

Don't be afraid to show your whole, authentic self — use it as an opportunity to build a more inclusive culture

Keep in mind that everyone's lives are different right now — never before have our personal and work lives been so intertwined and on display. 

"Some are raising young children at home without help, some are living alone and experiencing intense loneliness, and some may be caring for elderly parents," said Gail Tifford, chief brand officer for WW, formerly Weight Watchers, in Manhattan. "And, as long as you get your job done, the hours are unimportant. Delivering is." 

If you need to decline a 9 a.m. meeting to get your children ready for online school, tell your manager the reason why you can't be there, Patterson said. "Just because you couldn't make the 9 a.m. meeting doesn't mean you aren't as attentive to your job," she said. Offer to get the notes with someone else or ask if you can meet an hour later. The key, she said, is that you actually follow up. 

"People need to understand what I call the rock we walk around with in our backpack," White said. Everyone has a burden they walk around with, she explained, and the current situation gives us an opportunity to unload those rocks. "Do it in way that allows people to learn," she added. "Don't indict people, but make people think about and understand another perspective. Don't use that as a mallet, use it as a gift of knowledge you give people and tell them what they can do to help."

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