One of my greatest Lean In moments occurred the year I was up for partner at Ernst & Young LLP.
Over the course of my career, I’ve developed relationships with a number of mentors and sponsors — both women and men — who have worked with me to map out and advance my career. Those leaders all helped me to set and work toward a long-term goal of making partner.
The year I was up for partner was tough. I invested so much in the goal, personally and professionally. I was working harder than ever as part of a dual-career family with a toddler at home. My husband was also working around the clock, to follow his own dreams, as well as to support mine.
I’ll never forget, in the months ahead, when I was waiting to learn whether or not I’d been chosen for partnership. I suspected if I made it I’d get a call of congratulations, and if I didn’t I’d get invited to a “meeting.” Sure enough, I got a call from my partner sponsor with a request to meet early the following morning. He was flying back early just to meet with me.
I felt this unbelievable sense of urgency that my career plan was falling apart before my eyes. I had a two-year-old at home, had just completed a major project professionally and had planned on my career moving forward. Yet, suddenly, signs were pointing toward a potential delay.
To add insult to injury, I had a work dinner the night I got the call. It was difficult to keep my emotions in check as I imagined the events that were sure to unfold the next morning. At the dinner, I confided in one of the Ernst & Young LLP women partners about how I would likely react emotionally at the meeting. She was supportive and helpful, and she also referred me to her husband to talk further about it, from a male perspective.
When her husband and I chatted, he asked if he could give me advice for my meeting the next day. He knew I was upset, but he suggested not to focus on my anger. Instead, he prompted me to “give him something he won’t be expecting. Give him positivity and pride. Talk to him about everything you’ve accomplished.” His main point: Don’t enter the meeting defeated.
The next morning, I took his brilliant advice. I confidently walked into my sponsor’s office. Before I could say anything, he solemnly said, “Karyn, this is not going to be a good meeting.” It wasn’t that I was getting fired or even that I wasn’t going to make partner, they just wanted me to potentially wait another year. While a year may seem short in the grand scheme of things, waiting was not in line with the career plan my mentors and sponsors had helped me to develop.
To be honest, while my intuitive response was to retreat, instead, I leaned in. After he told me the meeting wasn’t going to be good, I shared my perspectives on everything I had accomplished that year. I didn’t offer tears or anger; I projected my best confidence and self-worth. I presented something he wasn’t expecting.
By starting the conversation positively, I think it reminded him of why he was supporting me — and why I needed to be a partner now, not later. By no means was the hour-and-a-half meeting easy, but he eventually said he wanted to go back and explore it further.
I still, to this day, appreciate his approach. He didn’t equate his re-evaluation with weakness. He went back to all of the decision-makers and reaffirmed his own position. He was a true sponsor and used his chits for me. I will always remember the day he eventually called me to tell me that I had made partner.
I share this because I want other women to know that good things can come from choosing to lean in, rather than to retreat. Sometimes, you have to make a counterintuitive move. I think many times if women feel things aren’t going their way, they may get overly defeated. They may want to walk away, but, the reality is, they’d also be walking away from what they worked so hard to achieve.
I also believe the word “no” is not always a final answer. Challenging a decision is not about fighting to get to “yes,” it’s about walking into situations with positivity, gravitas, confidence and self-worth, to positively influence your career and your business.