How Women Benefit From Mentoring, Sponsorship

The biggest obstacle women face in their professional lives is knowing how and when to advance their careers and when to speak up, says Niloufar Molavi, tax partner and U.S. chief diversity officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Here, she shares some of her secrets.

Having worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for nearly 20 years, Niloufar Molavi, the former chief diversity officer at PwC, No. 1 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, knows what it means to step outside her comfort zone and seize opportunities.

Born and raised in Iran, she and her family moved to France after the 1979 Khomeini revolution and eventually settled in Houston.

"I had to adapt to a new culture, make new friends, learn a new language, and before I knew it, two years later, we were off again, moving to Houston to a whole new culture, and I had to go through the process all over again," she says. "It helped me get comfortable with change and to adapt to new situations and environments."

After graduating from the University of Texas, she started working at PwC's Houston office in the oil and gas tax practice—a decidedly male-dominated bastion. "Here I am, a young 22-year-old woman, and I was often the only woman in the room, not just internally within the organization but also with my client base," she recalls. She was admitted to PwC's partnership in 2001 and five years later assumed the leadership role for PwC's national energy tax practice. Watch our web seminar on talent development.

Throughout her career at PwC, and particularly for the last several years, Molavi has championed diversity. In 2010, Molavi took on a national role, leading diversity and inclusion initiatives as the firm's CDO.

With 14,000 women at PwC, programs to advance and retain women are at the forefront of Molavi's agenda. DiversityInc asked her about the biggest obstacles facing women executives in their professional lives and about her strategies for success.

Hone Your Negotiating Skills

We as women don't like to negotiate. Women analogize the experience of negotiating to going to the dentist. Men love it. But as women, we tend to be a lot more comfortable negotiating with someone who we have a relationship with. It's important that we establish those types of relationships so we can be comfortable negotiating. For women, getting comfortable negotiating is a crucial and critical skill because it plays a very significant role when women are looking for flexibility in their everyday work environment. Your needs are going to be changing over time, the type of flexibility you will need, your interests outside of work … it's a constant negotiation with your team, with your supervisors, with your spouse or partner. If you're not comfortable negotiating, you are not going to be able to achieve the type of work/life balance and flexibility you really need, and that will ultimately become very frustrating and could impact your career down the road.

Generally, women are a lot more comfortable negotiating on behalf of someone else than on behalf of themselves. If you are going into a situation and you need to negotiate for something on behalf of yourself, pretend you're negotiating for someone else. Say to yourself, if I was going in and asking for time off, flexibility, a role, an experience, an opportunity, and I was negotiating on behalf of someone else, what would I say? What are some of the arguments you would put forth knowing what you know about the individual and their skills?

Understand the Parameters and Build Your Networks

Women seem to be more comfortable negotiating when they understand what the parameters are or when they are negotiating with someone they have an ongoing relationship with. Knowing that, one of the strategies you can employ is to know and map your professional and personal networks. Who are those individuals who you can go to when you're in a situation that may be ambiguous? If you need to negotiate, who can help give you some information, put some parameters, help clarify any of the ambiguity for you?

Practice, Practice, Practice

Men enjoy negotiating. It's almost like a sport to them. They love it and they negotiate a lot more frequently than women do because they view it as a much more positive thing versus their female counterparts. What should women do to change that paradigm? Practice asking for things. You may even try to practice at home. I have done some of that. I recognized, at one point, that I wasn't doing a good job of negotiating with my spouse. He was always negotiating with me in terms of who was going to take on certain activities and attend events for the kids, and I wasn't doing that as often. The more you do it, the easier it becomes for you over time. Look at things you can do every day. Observe when others are negotiating. If you have a coach or a mentor or an advocate, use them as a sounding board to help you anticipate what the other side's perspective might be. Do a practice run so when you go into that negotiating situation, you will be a lot more comfortable.

Ask for More Than What You Want

Women don't like the negotiating process to begin with, so we tend to go into a negotiation situation with only what we think we can get out of it. We're trying to be very practical, but as a result, we tend to short-sell ourselves. Remember, it's a negotiation, a back-and-forth. And if you go in and ask for more than you think you would want out of it, then hopefully you will walk out getting what you want at the end of the day.

Speak Up For Yourself

One big misconception women have is, "If I'm doing a great job and my supervisors know me, they should know what I need and what opportunities I should be getting, and therefore, I shouldn't have to negotiate. My performance should stand on its own." Certainly, people will be observing the great job you are doing, but a couple of things can happen. People may say "She is doing a great job. Let's let her keep doing it because it's benefiting me and she seems happy, so why change anything?" They may not understand what your ambitions are. You have to articulate that ambition. Women tend to put their head down and think people will know what they're doing and give them those opportunities. But men are out there in someone's face saying, "When is my opportunity going to come? It's not coming soon enough. I'm ready. Let's move on."

Find a Sponsor

There have been a lot of good studies done that show that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored, and I believe that is very true. I have been very fortunate. Although I wasn't the usual suspect you would expect to see end up on some high-profile engagements, it was those opportunities I got as a young manager that initially helped me develop the skills and have the visibility I needed, not only internally within the organization but externally, from a client perspective. In this industry, it is critical to be credentialed and to have that experience with the right type of clients on the right kinds of projects.

Early on in my career, a director who was being transferred to work in our Moscow practice and was going to make partner approached me and gave me a huge opportunity along with a huge vote of confidence to go and work on one of our largest and most important multi-national energy clients. I would attribute this [opportunity] to the relationship we had built over the years and the trust he had in me. I had worked with him on other engagements and … he was really willing to step out there and put his reputation on the line for me. That was huge. The instant credibility I got from working for this client was significant … and a lot more opportunities came my way after that.

I wasn't sure I was ready and I had a lot of questions. But he not only encouraged me and said yes, you can do this, he said, "I'm here to help you. I'm going to do whatever you need me to do to help you be successful in this engagement." Often times, as women, we don't have those sponsors and advocates who are comfortable putting their reputation on the line for you.

Even after I made partner, I continued to need good sponsors and advocates. At one point, I was in a position where all the mentors I had worked with throughout my career were now going to be working for me, which was a very uncomfortable position for me. But again, I had an advocate that stepped in and … helped me get comfortable with being in that role and, ultimately, the individuals I was going to be interacting with.

Own Your Career

As a woman, you have to ultimately realize that you own your career. If you allow someone else to own it, they may drive you somewhere you didn't want to go and you may wake up one day and say, "How did I end up here?" You need a lot of help along the way, including mentors and very strong advocates, internally and externally. But there are things you have to do for yourself too, whether it's getting comfortable with negotiating, or understanding your ambitions and communicating them. Women can help their own cause by promoting themselves. Have your "elevator speech" ready. Make sure you take ownership of your career. Understand the gaps in your skills and address them. Finally, to continue growing as a professional, make sure to expose yourself to different experiences and not get too comfortable doing the same things.

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