Virginia Russell’s parents were both alcoholics, and because of their neglect she grew up in an orphanage with some 250 other children. Corralled in crowded quarters, she said it was difficult to feel special or stand out, an experience that left her shy and tongue-tied.
“I spent those early years going inward, trying to figure out who I was,” Russell writes in her book “Stand Out: A Woman’s Guide to Creating Your Personal Brand for Today’s Job Market.”
“In an environment that dampened spirits and discouraged spontaneity, I became a quiet observer of human behavior, which led to a later interest in all things psychological, philosophical and spiritual,” she writes. “Though I wasn’t aware of it then, within the inner recess of my mind and soul was a self-help guru waiting to get out.”
Later as she developed her voice, Russell worked at a recruiting firm that specialized in placing women in jobs, mostly sales and publishing. As time went on, she realized that most of the women she spoke with didn’t really want those types of jobs, and so she started to question them about what they did want and began helping them write their resumes and market themselves for the jobs they did want.
“My experience at the time made me question why many people, women in particular, struggled to figure out what type of job to apply to because they didn’t take the time to really think about a career plan,” Russell said in an interview. “I have always been a person with goals and feel that this is important. I started giving workshops at college clubs in New York to help women figure out what they wanted to do.”
Eventually Russell was able to gain a corporate sponsor for her this work, leading her to launch her consultancy, Careers Don’t Just Happen.
Her workshops were divided in three parts: 1) self assessment 2) career research and 3) specific career panels on individualized interests. She moved on from Careers Don’t Just Happen after giving birth to her son Christopher, transitioning to career recruitment and coaching and then into career training and management at a private company before founding RussellConsulting in 2001.
The company was focused on instructional design and delivery to many top New York corporations and nonprofits, during which time she developed the woman’s program “7 Critical Relationships That Make or Break a Woman’s Career,” a training and coaching program. The curriculum helps women navigate the pitfalls of the career ladder, including with their managers.
“An employee’s manager holds the key to her or his advancement,” Russell said. “It has also been documented that most employees leave their jobs because of their direct managers. And so, a good relationship with one’s manager is critical. I personally have coached on this issue many times. Many women and employees in general do not take the time to build a relationship with their manager.”
Russell would deliver a workshop to companies on “Managing Up” and would ask participants to fill in a worksheet on information about their managers; most of them did not know the answers. Questions included: How does your manager prefer to receive information, What is your manager’s preferred style of working, What is your boss’s decision-making style? What are your manager’s top three priorities? How does your boss handle conflict? Is your boss most concerned with numbers or people oriented results, procedures or processes?
Russell’s “7 Critical Relationship” curriculum also includes a module on “You and Your Organization.”
“Many women and men alike enter an organization and job and focus solely on that position,” she said. “They don’t take the time to understand the organization’s structure, where the power lies, where their department’s job fits in, where their manager’s job fits in and ultimately where their job fits into the organization and therefore can’t strategize and figure out who can help them get ahead.”
After successful training many women through her consultancy, Russell published “Stand Out” as a way to more deeply understand themselves and their place in the work world. It also offers advice on how women can stand out in business. Russell says the first way is to become excellent at your job, even if this means putting in extra hours.
“While I wouldn’t make a habit of this because I do believe in work/life balance, I would learn to recognize when it is important to give more of yourself,” Russell said. “For instance, when your manager is working on a big project, offer to put in more hours.”
Secondly, think about what impression you are giving off. Make sure that you are professional in your demeanor, dress and speech.
“Take the time to think about your values and make sure they align at least partially with the organization you are working for,” she also advised. “All of this becomes what you will be recognized for — your brand, so to speak. Learn to speak up. Offer to give presentations when you spot an opportunity. Take opportunities to work on extra projects especially if they involve senior management.
Russell also advised women to keep current, not only with your industry, but with current events and to be an informed citizen of the world.
“Read, read, read!” she said. “I like to read business magazines to keep abreast of what is currently going on in the corporate world. It depends on the industry one is working in, of course. Keep abreast of those issues. Keep upgrading skills — especially computer skills.”
While Russell has spent many years helping women develop career plans, she has more recently worked with Millennials “who think they already have everything figured out.”
“They make a plan and timeline,” she said. “When it doesn’t work out, they are devastated. They need to understand that today careers don’t always move in a straight line upward and also need to learn how to handle their first failure.”
Though her career has had several iterations, Russell is currently now on a non-traditional path.
“Most people in my field start out in HR or coaching one on one on maybe in non-profits or the college market and look to get into the corporate market,” she said. “I am at this point doing the opposite.”
Wherever her career path leads, Russell sees her work as more meaningful than just workplace development.
“My oppressive early childhood and experiences of female discrimination and harassment in the workplace contributed to my deep desire to help women figure out who they are, what they want, and how to overcome obstacles to achieve their goals,” she writes in “Standing Out.” “The Buddhist belief that ‘A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity’ resonated with me … Your personal brand needs to encompass the passion, values, mission, strengths, skills, achievements and experience which demonstrate the value you can bring to an organization. Creating your personal brand is a process which takes look at yourself inside out and upside down, and takes time and effort.”
Cross-posted from Opportunity Lives.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.