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How to ‘Lean In’ the Right Way


You’ve probably heard of Sheryl Sandberg’s groundbreaking book, Lean In. Maybe you’ve even read it. Obviously, at Her Campus we’re all for women pursuing their ambitions and getting ahead in their careers. But for recent graduates, a well-meaning attempt to “lean in” can come off as ungrateful or inexperienced and even burn bridges. As it turns out, trying too hard to get ahead in your career could actually be hurting you! Read on for four ways to lean in the right way.

1. Negotiating your salary

Too far

You just graduated from college, and you get your first job offer. Congrats! The HR manager also tells you the salary you’ll receive. You know you’re supposed to negotiate, so you let HR know you were really hoping for a higher salary and come back to her with a counteroffer for what you think you deserve. She tells you that she can’t meet your request, and you end up settling for the original offer. What went wrong?

The biggest mistake you made was not having the reasoning to back up why you deserve a bigger paycheck. Not only did you lose the salary you were looking for, but you may have also come off as unprofessional.

Though Christine Sliwicki, a management consultant for Daniels Consulting Group, says that although “negotiating is a must” and that women should always negotiate their first salary, the idea that you should negotiate isn’t reason enough to ask for a higher salary.

“People can get in trouble when they ask for [more money] and don’t provide the support or specific reasoning for their request,” says Lesley Mitler, President of Priority Candidates, Inc, a career coaching service for recent graduates. Mitler says there’s a difference between asking for more responsibility (and with it, higher pay) rather than earning it.

Just right

Instead of just giving HR a number, be prepared to explain what your previous qualifications are and how will be an asset to the company.

“Go into the negotiation with specific reasons about why you deserve more money,” Mitler says. “Make it fact-based and not emotional.”

This means going in not with a story about how much you need the money to pay off student loans, but rather with examples of your past experience, proven leadership and education—as well as how they all benefit the company. You should also do your research and have a picture of what salaries people are earning in comparable positions both in and out of the company; you can find this information on a site like Glassdoor. This will give you an idea for what an acceptable amount to ask for is, but don’t use it as the sole reason for why you should be making more money—just because somebody else at your level is making a certain amount isn’t a justification for how much you should be making.

Maggie Barber, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014 and now works as an assistant buyer at a department store, negotiated her salary for her current (and first) job. “At first, I was surprised at just how uncomfortable the idea of asking for more money made me, but I reminded myself that the worst they could say was no,” she says. “The HR manager said how much she respected me for asking but could not grant my request. I was disappointed at first but felt proud that I would never have to look back and wonder what would have happened if I had asked for more.”

Negotiating a salary isn’t always easy for women. As we read in Lean In, society generally expects men to negotiate, so no one reacts adversely when they do so. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be collaborative, so both men and women can react negatively to women who try to negotiate.

The strategy that Lean In recommends is using communal language and focusing on the team instead of on yourself as an individual. For example, instead of saying, “I deserve a higher salary because I have an advanced degree in this field,” try, “My advanced degree will benefit the team in X, Y and Z ways, so I feel I deserve a higher salary.”

For Maggie, asking for a higher salary actually ended up working out in her favor; the HR manager called her back the next day and offered her a relocation compensation package. Though it wasn’t the salary increase she was looking for, it was compensation she might not have received otherwise.

2. Contributing in meetings

Too far

You walk into a meeting and you sit at the table along with all the higher-ranking employees, and start contributing to every question the CEO poses. You did well, right?

Well, you’re off to a good start by sitting at the table, but you may have taken it too far by speaking up a little too much.

“The biggest mistake you can make is trying to verbally contribute just for the sake of talking,” Sliwicki says. “I have seen too many people (at all levels) say things without thinking or just to talk to show they are present.”

Also, be sure you don’t sit at the head of the table unless told to. That’s usually reserved for the highest-level official (but if that’s you, then own that place, girl!).

Just right

Lean In encourages women to walk into meetings confidently and, when appropriate—every office may have a different etiquette—sit at the table instead of off to the side. You should raise your hand and contribute to the discussion whenever you have something important to say rather than offering your opinion on everything. Be sure to always be the one to answer questions when they are about an assignment that you’re in charge of.

Pay attention, make thoughtful contributions to the conversation and use meetings as an opportunity to learn, Sliwicki advises. And if you’re nervous, remind yourself that everyone at that meeting was starting out once, too.

3. Finding a mentor

Too far

You probably already know that having a mentor can be extremely beneficial throughout your career. A mentor is someone you can go to for career advice, someone you can bounce ideas off of (whether it’s about a specific project you’re working on or something more general) or even someone who might help you score job opportunities. So when you click with a senior-level woman at your office, you walk into her office one day and blurt out, “Will you be my mentor?”

Though you have the right idea, Lean In tells us never to ask the question upfront, because, “if you have to ask the question, the answer is probably, ‘no.’”

Sliwicki says, “Any time I was assigned a mentor or mentee, I found it did not work out. Either we did not have a good connection, we didn’t know each other or we did not have time to get to know each other.”

Just right

Let the process happen naturally. Keep in mind that your mentor doesn’t necessarily need to be someone who works in the same office as you do; it can be a former boss, somebody you met during a past internship, an older alumna in your field or even someone you connected with at a networking event. Whoever it may be, this should be someone you feel comfortable going to with career questions and even personal questions about moving to a new city or going to graduate school.

So when you find a woman (or a man!) you connect well with, just keep up the relationship. Send periodical emails (every mentor-mentee relationship is different, but aim for one email every two to four months) or get coffee regularly with this person. At some point, you’ll realize that this person is acting as your mentor even if you never had to pop the question.

If you don’t have a mentor figure by the time you graduate college and start your career, don’t feel like you have to force a relationship for the sake of having a mentor. Continue to build relationships with the people around you, and over time a mentorship will develop.

But don’t stop once you’ve found one person to be your mentor. Mitler recommends having multiple people whom you can consult. “There is no reason to have just one mentor,” she says. Instead, connect with as many people as you can—everybody has different experiences that have shaped their perspectives about the industry and the career world in general, and it would benefit you to learn from these different views and opinions.

4. Planning your future

Not far enough

As a graduette, you may have a good idea of what you want your life to look like in 10 years. Whether you’re aiming for a senior-level position or are hoping to settle down with a family (or both!), it’s important not to let your ideal image of the future negatively affect the decisions you make in your career now.

Lean In says that too many women “turn down projects, don’t apply for promotions or choose more flexible paths—all to make room for children they don’t have yet, in many cases with partners they’ve not yet met.” You might have met the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, and you’re trying to make plans for your future together—maybe you’ve even talked about marriage and kids. At work, your boss announces there’s a new position opening up and asks if you’re interested in being considered for it. You know this would require longer hours and more traveling, and, given what’s going on in your personal life, you anticipate that you might not be able to take on the new responsibilities later on. So you decide to stay where you are.

Unless you already have concrete plans that will definitely keep you out of the office, you don’t know what exactly the future brings. So, as Lean In says, “don’t leave before you leave”—as in, don’t make career decisions based on what you think might happen in the future.

Just right

Rather than anticipate potential changes, keep going full speed ahead in your career until the moment you’re directly faced with a life change. This means you should continue to take on new responsibilities and aim for promotions and raises, even if you think somewhere down the line, you’ll be faced with changes that could affect the direction of your career.

“It’s so important in your career and in life overall to live in the present,” Sliwicki says.

Though it’s important to recognize when you’re leaning in too far or not enough, remember that if you’re leaning in at all, you’ve at least put yourself on the right track. Too many women aren’t leaning in at all, so you’ve made the first step—now’s the time to refine how you go about it in the workplace to maintain professionalism while being proactive about getting ahead!


At the end of the day, the most important thing is “being true to yourself, thoughtful, respectful and honest,” Sliwicki says. “Everyone can have differing opinions on being ‘aggressive’—do not focus on if you are being too aggressive or not. Focus on connecting with people, listening and respecting others’ opinions, offering your knowledge and dedication and the value you can bring.”

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