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How To Bloom Where You’re Planted

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Joann Lublin, Bloom Where You're Planted

With Joann Lublin, Wall Street Journal’s management news editor, columnist, and author of  Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World

Joann Lublin, the Wall Street Journal’s management news editor, columnist, and author joins Steve to talk about her book.  The book is Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.  In it, it explores the careers of businesswomen and what they can teach other women about making it in business.

Bloom Where You’re Planted 

Steve keys in on one of the ideas Lublin writes about: “blooming where you’re planted.” The phrase originates in the story Joann tells about Avon CEO Andrea Jung and her early years as an employee of Bloomingdale’s.

In her mid-20s, Jung was working as the store’s swimwear buyer.  Here she had already enjoyed some success.  When the CEO asked Jung to meet him for a chat, she excitedly hoped that she was about to be tapped to run the glamorous “ready-to-wear” department.  Instead, the CEO asked her to take over the neglected “intimate apparel” division. This was a demotion in Jung’s eyes.  Even as the CEO pitched the idea as an opportunity to revitalize a stagnant department in her own vision.

The department had been run by the same man for 30 years and was staffed entirely with men, all with more time in the company than her.  She knew she would have to overcome a mountain of skepticism and defensiveness.

Accept The Opportunities As They Rise

Despite her reservations, she accepted the challenge.

On her first day in the new position, she recalled a poster she had seen in the HR department that read “Bloom Where You’re Planted.”  It seemed to propose an attitude of accepting certain limitations while seeing the possibility of a new type of success.  She realized at that moment that what had seemed like a career detour or setback could also be thought of as a chance to prove her value to management by turning around the fortunes of a failing enterprise.

And turn around the department is exactly what she did.  She began introducing a number of bold changes even when met with resistance from other employees.  During the two years she was in the position, her innovations took hold, transforming customer’s expectations of what “intimate apparel” could be.  In turn, the department took off.
Jung recalled the experience as a “career-defining moment.”  She credits it with helping her deal with situations she ran into at Avon years later.  Finally, she had begun to “bloom where planted.”

Consider The Gender Pay Gap

A common theme in the stories of women in the workplace that Lublin chronicles is being thrust into situations where they felt like they were “in over their heads.”  This kind of scenario often has more to do with lack of experience than lack of talent or aptitude.

Lublin notes that surveys have shown that men are promoted more frequently based on a perception of their potential to do a job, even when outside their realm of experience.  In contrast, women are evaluated for promotions based on the specifics of their previous achievements.

Lublin believes that many women who might assume leadership positions are thwarted from doing so because their skill sets and backgrounds don’t exactly match the new roles they’re striving for.  This standard is not applied consistently to men.

Calculated Risk In The Workplace

One antidote to this unfair and ineffective systemic bias, Lublin suggests, is that women could begin taking more calculated risks.  In Andrea Jung’s story, her calculated risk was sticking with a less-than-ideal job that she didn’t want and putting forth her best effort because she saw opportunity there.

Of course, some kinds of risks are riskier than others, and some of what Lublin calls “mission impossible” risks contain the possibility of a failure that might even damage one’s career.  It’s generally not wise to take on a “mission impossible” project that everyone else has passed on just to have a shot at proving yourself.

On the other hand, if you think you have a reasonable prospect of success at a “mission impossible” task, it may be a smart move to volunteer for it.  The key to these situations is to make sure you have support from a higher-up who will defend you if the mission goes off track.

You need to have a fallback position for the eventuality that things do go wrong.  Lublin relates the story of Ellen Kullman, at one point CEO of du Pont, who earlier in her career was asked to start a new “safety consulting” division which absolutely no one wanted to do.  She protected herself against the very real possibility of failure by convincing the CEO to provide a “get out of jail free card”.  This came in the form of a promise that if the venture didn’t work out after six months, he would reassign her to another job.

Setbacks Are Not Career Killers

One of the primary takeaways within Earning It is that workplace setbacks do not have to be career killers.  Setbacks are opportunities to study and understand what went wrong and then figure out what to do differently going forward.  For example, when the next challenging situation comes along, develop not just a plan A & B, but also a plan C.  This is relevant to a lot of situations in and out of the workplace including major career moves. It’s crucial to have multiple alternatives in mind in case your power move doesn’t go as planned.

How To Negotiate The Pay Gap As A Woman

Wrapping up their conversation, Steve asks Lublin about the persistent pay gap in the workplace between men and women and the idea that women can use a “velvet glove” strategy to improve their pay and position. Lublin argues that women are not as assertive as men about their pay or promotions.

She boils this down to “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”  The velvet glove method of negotiating is one where, for starters, you have done your homework about what other professionals in comparable positions with comparable experience in your company and industry are making.

Whether you’re applying for a new job or a higher-level job, you should be able to ask smart questions, demonstrate the reasonableness of your requests, and show some empathy for the person you are negotiating with.  The “velvet” aspect of this technique is the politeness and consideration of your negotiation style.  However, within that velvet glove is a fist, which represents how informed and strong your convictions are about the deal you’re trying to make.

In a nutshell, “bloom where you’re planted” is a mantra that everyone should earnestly apply in their personal and professional lives.  It will help them make the most of seemingly bad situations and could well open up new doors for happiness and success.


Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

Read The Entire Transcript Here

Steve Pomeranz: Joann Lublin is management news editor for the Wall Street Journal and has written the “Executive Career” advice column since 2010.  She has used her own extensive career experiences, as well as the compelling stories from 52 corporate female leaders, to write her latest book entitled Earning It, and it’s an excellent window into the challenges women executives face in breaking the notorious glass ceiling.
Joann, welcome to the show.

Joann Lublin: Thanks for having me, Steve.

Steve Pomeranz: We’re not going to be able to get into the entire book.  There’s a lot of great information in it, but I want to highlight a few ideas that would give our listeners some important insights.  The first idea that caught my attention was “blooming in place.” You tell a great story of the experiences of Andrea Jung.  Would you take us through that, please?

Joann Lublin: Sure.  Andrea Jung, for those who may not be familiar with her, one day becomes chief executive of the cosmetic giant Avon Products, the very first woman to become CEO of Avon Products.  That was very far in the distant future when in 1984, she was 25 years old, she’s making $23,000 a year, she’s a swimwear buyer for Bloomingdale’s, the glitzy Manhattan department store, and she suddenly gets called to go talk to the chief executive.

She was hoping at that point early in her career that she would get to run a very trendy division, the ready-to-wear division.  Yet, even though her results were great and she felt ready, she had been turned down already for that position.  Then she gets called to go talk to the CEO.  She wasn’t sure why because she had just been passed over for that ready-to-wear role.  When she talks to him, he offers her what she sees as a less attractive job.  He wants her to be merchandise manager for their intimate apparel division, which she felt at that point would have been a really bad move for her; selling underwear in the 1980s was a very low priority for Bloomingdale’s.

Steve Pomeranz: That was well before Victoria’s Secret.

Joann Lublin: You’ve got it.  Not only that, this was a department which at Bloomingdale’s had been run by the same man for 30 years.  He and his buyers, who were all guys, worked in a windowless office in the sub-sub-basement.  The subway was right nearby.  He asks her to take the job.  She asks for a day or two to decide because she doesn’t see this as really being a good move for her, but the CEO says, “You could transform lingerie into an exciting department and create kind of a new vision for a department that had always been kind of the backwater.”

She says later in hindsight that if she hadn’t accepted his offer, she said, “I wouldn’t have learned what it was like to dive into something where at first you feel like you’re over your head.” When you take that kind of dive, it tests your ability to become a leader.  When she gets on her way to take the job, the very first day down there in the sub-basement, she remembers that she had seen a poster of a potted plant on the wall of the HR office, the human resource office.  The poster said, “Bloom where you’re planted.”

It suddenly occurs to her that maybe if you take a job that is not the ideal job, that you see as a detour, you could perhaps make something of it because you have the potential for turning essentially what wasn’t gold into gold, and exactly what she did.  Even though these people were all men, they were older than her, she takes the bull by the horns and she makes a whole bunch of bold changes.

She does things like adding bright-colored bras and panties to what had always been white and beige underwear, and these new items sell out and, of course, the department did fabulously well during the two years that she’s in that role.  She says to me for the book, “It was a career-defining moment.” Then she later joins Avon and finds herself in similar kinds of roles where she has to bloom where she’s planted, but she proves herself.

Steve Pomeranz: There are two ironies that stand out to me.  The first irony is that there were men that were running the women’s lingerie department, number one.

Joann Lublin: Yes.

Steve Pomeranz: Number two, though she’s the first woman to take over Avon-

Joann Lublin: Exactly.

Steve Pomeranz: … Which is another irony there.  I guess it’s-

Joann Lublin: That doesn’t happen until 1999, so we’re not talking about the dark ages here.  We’re talking about 18 years ago.

Steve Pomeranz: But you also mention a good point about this idea about being in over your head.  People starting out on new jobs, they’re all in over their heads because they don’t have the work experience.  There’s this phrase that I use a lot, “Fake it to make it,” and I wonder what you thought about this idea of getting into a job where you probably have the talent, but you don’t yet have the knowledge or the skills.

Joann Lublin: Correct.  It’s often what has derailed women, I think, in advancing to the level that they want to.  Men are often promoted, studies have shown, based on their potential to do a new job.  Women are promoted on what they’ve already achieved because it goes back to some long-held stereotypes of what we expect how women and men will operate in leadership roles.

I think a very strong theme in the book is this notion of taking calculated risk.  In Andrea’s case, the calculated risk was by accepting a promotion for a less-than-desirable assignment that perhaps she could prove that she had the right stuff to move up into higher level jobs.

Steve Pomeranz: There’s a higher level of risk you talk about in the book called the mission-impossible assignment. Tell us about that a little bit.

Joann Lublin: The mission-impossible assignment is not what Andrea took on.  The mission-impossible assignment is the role that lots of people have been sounded out about and nobody wants to do, men and women alike.  You have to be willing to take on mission-impossible assignments where you think you have a reasonable chance of being successful.  You should not be taking mission-impossible assignments just for the purpose of proving yourself because you may end up stumbling.  You have to figure out whether there is a boss who’s going to have your back.  You have to figure out if you have a fallback position if it doesn’t work out.

The greatest example of that was Ellen Kullman, who later becomes the CEO of du Pont.  When she’s asked to start a totally new business for du Pont in safety consulting, it is considered so risky that not a single colleague calls her or sends her e-mail congratulations when she takes that role.  But she protects herself against the possibility of failure in this mission-impossible assignment by getting a get-out-of-jail-free card from the CEO.  He tells her, “If after six months this is a complete disaster, I will give you a lateral move to something comparable to what you gave up to take on this role.”

Steve Pomeranz: Good quid pro quo for her.  It’s high risk, basically, but high reward, but failure can kill a career or at least create a tremendous setback.  I want to talk a little bit about-

Joann Lublin: The whole point of the book is that setbacks shouldn’t be career-killers.  Setbacks should be lessons in which you try and figure out what went wrong, what should you do differently.  For the next situation like that that may come up, you don’t just have plan A and plan B.  Ellen Kullman talks about this in the book as well.  You have to have plan C, as she discovered when she had a childcare crisis on a Sunday night.

Steve Pomeranz: Tell us about that.

Joann Lublin: In this particular situation, she had three young children.  They were away on a family vacation, and as they were about to board their flight to come back to Delaware from Missouri, she learns that their pregnant nanny has gone into premature labor with twins.  It’s two weeks before the start of the school year, and she has not yet lined up alternate childcare because the nanny’s giving birth so early.

She says to me in the book, “I had nobody to watch the kids; 18 hours later, was I going to leave these children home alone?” At the airport, she starts calling up everyone she could think of to see who could step in.  The problem was that students who were in college had already gone back to school.  She luckily finds one whose college year has not started because she’s on a quarter system.

She said that after that nerve-wracking predicament, she always made sure that she had three backup plans, A, B, and C, for unforeseen childcare needs.  Frankly, in making career moves, I think you also should have plan A, B, and C.  If it doesn’t work out or if it does work out, you need to think about those alternatives, too.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.  I think it also highlights the additional challenges many women face juggling the family and career and the kind of responsibilities that most women have to do both.  I want to talk about pay a little bit because you address that in the book.  In the book, you suggest using what you call the velvet glove and other tactics to get …  You’re really discussing in the book equal pay, not necessarily just going for a raise, but to get equal pay.  Tell us about that.  We have about two minutes.

Joann Lublin: Yeah.  The problem is that the gender pay gap continues and will be with us probably for decades to come.  Lots of people say to me, “Why do companies not pay women what they pay men?” Part of the reason is that women don’t raise their hand and say, “This is what I’m worth.  This is what other people at this job are making.” This has got to be an equal responsibility.  There was a survey that Glamour magazine did a couple of years ago, in which only 39% of women said they had asked for a higher salary when they started a new job, yet 54% of the men did.  Among those who were already working, 43% of the women said they had ever in their life asked for a raise and 54% of the men.  My philosophy in that chapter, “The Pain of the Pay Pinchers,” if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Steve Pomeranz: When you say the velvet glove, what does that mean?

Joann Lublin: The velvet glove is the idea that you have a wealth of information about this job, who you’re trying to get is worth, what people who are already in that job make, people in comparable jobs elsewhere within the company or outside that workplace are making.  In other words, you come prepared to your pay negotiations, whether it’s for a new job or a higher-level job, but you do it in a reasonable way. You ask smart questions.  You show empathy for what it is the person on the other side of the table is trying to achieve, and it’s something you’re negotiating from a position of strength.  The velvet is the niceness, but it’s a velvet glove over a fist, basically.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Joann Lublin, management news editor for the Wall Street Journal, and her book is Earning It.  As I said before, it’s an excellent window into the challenges women executives face in breaking the glass ceiling and also just as a basic career guide and idea of how other successful women have met their challenges.

Joann, thank you so much for joining us.

Joann Lublin: You’re welcome.  Thanks for having me, Steve.  Bye-bye.

Steve Pomeranz: My pleasure.