I worked with Donna at Claris for several years before this story took place. As a woman, she fit it well with our male-dominated team and provided a new perspective. She ran international sales and marketing, and was quite good at it. The international distributors were awful and sexist to Donna, but she stuck with it and made a name for herself in the industry.
Donna was eventually recruited to interview for a CEO position at a tech company. After going through several interviews and conversations, she was instead offered the COO position. She was told if she worked well with the founder, she’d be moved up within the year. Donna saw this as her way into the company, and she believed they would make good on their promise.
It was a Sunday and my daughter was about to be christened. My phone rang and it was Donna; I stood there in the kitchen and listened as she told me the story.
When she was done talking she asked me what I thought she should do. I didn’t hesitate—I told her to tell them to “f*** off.” She was reluctant, arguing that it might do her some good to act as the COO for a year before transitioning over to the CEO role. I told her that the likelihood of that actually happening was practically zero. No one goes in for a job interview for CEO, accepts COO and still becomes the CEO—it just doesn’t work like that. She was certain that it would work, and I was insistent it would not— that this was a “bait and switch.”
Donna did end up telling the company “no”—that she was interested in being the CEO, not the COO. Several hours later, they offered her the CEO position. I don’t believe she would have held that position had she not stood up for herself.
While the industry continues to become more friendly to the idea of women CEOs, there is still a long way to go. At the same time, women must stand up for what they want and ask for what they deserve.
My advice is simple: Learn as much as you can so you’re competent and can answer any question. Ask for what you want and if you don’t get it, move on to a situation where your talents are appreciated.