Legendary lawyer Linda Smith shares her 7 tips to stop playing nice.
Mean girls finish first.
That’s how litigator Linda Smith, 65, held court in the male-dominated legal profession for 40 years at O’Melveny & Myers, where she represented Fortune 500 companies such as Exxon, Time Warner and PricewaterhouseCoopers. She also led 200-plus lawyers in representing Advanced Micro Devices to beat Intel in a decade-long, multibillion-dollar antitrust case that ended in Intel paying AMD a $1.25 billion settlement in 2009.
She was named “the meanest woman alive” by her own clients, because she went even harder on them in preparing them to be cross-examined on the stand than the opposing counsel would actually treat them during the trial. “I would just reduce men to tears — and then when they got to their trial testimony or deposition, it was so much easier than my practice was; it was a lark,” she said. “So they started calling me ‘the meanest woman alive,’ and I loved it. And our clients loved it — they wanted the ‘meanest woman alive’ on their legal team. It became my brand.”
She defines being “mean” as being confident and upfront about what she needs. “My ‘mean’ is not walking around with a chip on my shoulder — it’s standing up for myself, taking risks, and not allowing people to belittle me, mansplain me or manterrupt me,” she said. “I can be extremely nice; I’m a good colleague, a wonderful mother, friend and former wife. But if people are disrespectful to my clients, my family and friends, or myself — then watch out.”
Smith could be onto something. CareerBuilder warns that being too nice can make you invisible, and also spur some more ambitious workers to take advantage of you. And a recent study found that colleagues actually hate on “highly cooperative and generous people,” especially in competitive environments where nice guys can make them look bad. People that were considered do-gooders in this study were also met with suspicion; that nice façade came across as inauthentic. Plus, a European study found grinning, agreeable employees have lower salaries.
So here are 7 ways that Smith suggests women start getting “mean” to succeed.
- Don’t stand for manterruptions. If a man (or anyone) speaks over you in a meeting, Smith has several ways to stop him, including: “There are a few more essential points I need to make. Can you wait a moment while I do that?” ‘‘You’ll have a chance to speak, but wait until I’m finished.” “I’m sure you think your view is very important, but so is mine.” “I’ve listened to your views, now listen to mine.” Or simply say, “I’m not done speaking here.”
- Stop leading with “I’m sorry” — even if you’re in the wrong. “Whatever you do, don’t apologize before you speak. The word ‘sorry’ should be banished from your vocabulary,” she said — unless you genuinely hurt someone’s feelings. “Do men ever say it before speaking? If you discount what you’re about to say, good luck having the men take you seriously.”
- And don’t apologize for other people’s mistakes. If your boss or colleague calls you out on something that you didn’t do, don’t just say “sorry” to smooth things over. “Don’t fall on your sword, which women do too much. But don’t complain that it’s not your fault,” said Smith. “Say, ‘Actually what happened was, I identified the problem, and tried doing this …’ or, ‘I tried talking to you about this, and couldn’t reach you,’ or whatever proactive step you took, and leave it.”
- Don’t obsess over being “likeable.” “Most men aren’t worried about being ‘likeable,’ so you have to get over it. If you’re good enough at your job, it doesn’t matter,” said Smith. “Your boss wants to get the best work out of you, and make the most money, and if you show them that you are doing that for them, that’s what matters.”
- Speak up for yourself. If you offer an idea in a meeting that gets talked over — and then someone else (often a man) says the same thing later that does get attention, call them out ASAP. “Come back into the conversation and say, ‘Rick’s right; as I said earlier, it’s important that were remember blah blah blah,’ so you’re reminding everyone that, in fact, it was your idea,” said Smith. “Speak confidently — but don’t get petulant.”
- Take opportunities; don’t wait for them. You’ve got to take risks and advocate for yourself, which goes against the nice, modest girls’ playbook. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” said Smith. “How will you ever reach your goals if you quietly perform only those assignments you are handed? Ask for plum and stretch assignments, leadership roles, salary increases and promotions.” Let’s say you’re in a meeting where your boss gives your colleague Joe the lead on a project you want. Smith suggests that you say, “You know what? I have a special interest in that, and I’ve done research on it — why don’t I take the lead, or Joe and I can take this on together?” She added, “Even if they say no, everyone knows you’ve got balls now.”
- Body language matters. “Studies show that men tend to interrupt women more often when the women lean away, smile and don’t look at the person they are speaking to,” said Smith. “So look them in the eye, lean in and take yourself seriously if you want to be heard. Use strategies that men already use: Sit at the table, point to someone, stand up, walk to the front of the room, place your hand on the table. Not only do these high-power poses make you appear more authoritative, but they actually increase your testosterone levels – and thus, your confidence.”
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