Gloria Larson | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Gloria Larson

Background:  

Gloria Larson is the outgoing president of Bentley University. After 11 years leading the business college in Waltham, Massachusetts, she'll leave in June 2018. As Bentley’s first female president, Larson established the Center for Women and Business. She is also the author of "PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success," which came out in August.

The Mistake:

In 1993 I was a member of Governor Bill Weld's cabinet—I was his secretary of consumer affairs and business regulation—and he called me into his office one day and asked me for recommendations for a brand new secretary of economic affairs. This was my dream job, but I spent the next 20 minutes giving him the names of five other potential candidates without ever mentioning myself, because I felt like it would be too self-promotional. So he responded by telling me that he called me into his office thinking I would be the pitch-perfect person for the job, but that my answer made him rethink his decision.

I knew I had made a classic mistake, and in particular a classic female mistake: I hadn't advocated for myself. I'm sure he was thinking to himself, “Well why would Gloria do that?” Because as a guy he would never have done that in a million years. I didn't have the courage of my own conviction about my own capabilities and my experience base and I realized then that I needed to make a case for myself after already digging myself a hole about 12 feet into the ground. Before I left his office, having eventually offered a defense of my own candidacy, he actually offered me the job. I've been very grateful to him ever since.

Not only did I not advocate for myself, but I also put him in the position of second-guessing his own decision-making, about whether I wasn't the right person. So we had to sort of work our way back to a positive finish line.

In addition to finding your own voice, ask others help you to do so.

The Lesson:

I learned instantly from that how important it is to have the self-confidence to offer yourself and your best qualifications—whether it is for an opinion in a meeting, asking for a promotion, asking for a salary increase. This is a still a problem today for many women.

Last year Bain Capital did a study with LinkedIn and found that women are not only entering the workforce with less confidence and lower aspirations than men have even today, but then the gap persists and it actually increases over time, so that their confidence ebbs further when they're not using their voice and not finding a way to be their own best self-advocates.

It's the “lean in” argument, but of course it's a many-faceted issue. One of the reasons that women continue to lose confidence when they go into the workplace is because subliminal discrimination, subliminal bias still exists. So if they are in a meeting and they offer an opinion and their voice isn't heard, and someone talks over them or someone offers the same opinion five minutes later and gets credit for it, then they further lose confidence and say, “You know what? Maybe I'm not going to offer my opinions or maybe I'm not going to ask for that assignment, because I've asked three times and it was always given to someone else.”

It's part culture, part the workplace itself that still hasn't been made to accommodate women as it should. It's why we started The Center for Women in Business at Bentley, so that 10 years from now we're not still talking about the problem of 50-50 percent women and men joining the workplace right out of college, then at middle management that number for women drops down to something like 37 percent, and then by the time you get to the corporate suite and to corporate boards and management, the numbers are barely double digits.

There are a lot of factors at play—men as advocates for women is another piece of it—and then there's the skill sets we need, and gaining the confidence we need. Find your voice and practice finding your voice. Keep working at it, and in addition to finding your own voice, ask others help you to do so. It's helpful to find mentors and sponsors in an organization to help you climb the company ladder.

Follow Gloria Larson on Twitter at @GLarsBentleyU.

Photo courtesy of Bentley University.