How ‘Nice Girls’ Can Avoid the Entrepreneurial Plateau

By Lois Frankel, Carol FrohlingerBusiness on Main

The authors of “Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It” examine why women often don’t break through as leading entrepreneurs.

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Women are leaving corporate America at twice the rate of men according to a study by Cheskin Research (now Cheskin Added Value), a California-based strategic market research and consulting company. No longer willing to devote their time and energy to employers who won’t meet their needs, they’re starting their own enterprises where they have more flexibility and opportunities for unlimited income and upward mobility. Or do they?

The U.S Women’s Chamber of Commerce reports that the overall revenues captured by women-owned businesses hovers around 4 percent. Compare that to the 28 percent captured by private firms owned by men and 64 percent captured by publicly held companies. Only one in five women-owned businesses nets more than a million dollars annually.

Relying on old messages they learned in childhood about behaviors that were appropriate for little girls, some women who venture out on their own miss opportunities and overlook the ways in which they can grow their businesses. We refer to these women as “nice girls.” Nice-girl syndrome has been the downfall of more than a few women’s enterprises — but it doesn’t have to derail yours.

We’ve identified five traps that can keep women entrepreneurs from achieving their full growth potential — and antidotes for overcoming them.

1. Unclear vision, strategies and tactics. Nice girls often start their businesses with energy and passion but no concrete vision for where they ultimately want to be, how much they want to earn, and the size to which they aspire to grow. They hesitate to reach broadly for fear others will think they’re too cocky, and are so busy “doing” that they fail to put time into planning.

Antidote: Define your future. It may sound simple, but it goes beyond a vague statement of being successful or rich. Your vision for the future must have teeth. Until you envision what you want and articulate the people and processes needed to achieve it, you’ll likely march in place.

2. Unwillingness to leverage connections. In an episode of “The Apprentice,” the challenge was to sell cupcakes, with the team earning the most money winning the task. The women created a plan to sell the most cupcakes. The men picked up the phone and called friends willing to pay $100 to $1,000 per cupcake. Who do you think won? The women actually worked harder, but lost. Nice girls are great at building relationships, but not so great at using them to their advantage.

Antidote: Understand and honor quid pro quos. Inherent to every relationship is a quid pro quo — something in exchange for something else. When you do favors or go out of your way for others, you earn capital that can be cashed in when you need it. Ask for what you need from the people in your network you have served well. Don’t be naive. It’s the way to win your game.

3. Difficulty creating boundaries. One of the primary reasons women leave corporate jobs is so that they have more control over their time. What many soon learn is that others perceive them as “unemployed” rather than “self-employed” and encroach on their time, space or both. How does this play out in the life of a woman business owner? Friends expect her to be available for lunch in the middle of the day now that she’s “free.” Spouses want her to take over more of the home chores. If you’re a nice girl, you may have difficulty setting boundaries around your need to spend time on your endeavor.

Antidote: Define your workday, week and space. Don’t be apologetic about telling friends you can’t join them for lunch because you’re working, or asking your spouse to pick up his own dry cleaning on the way home from the office. The more clearly you define the parameters of your work, the easier it will be to let others know where the boundaries are.

4. Diluted messaging. In an effort not to sound overly aggressive, nice girls water down their messages to the point that others have difficulty understanding what they are saying. They are unable to clearly state their company's mission or concisely explain why others should do business with them. Using more words when fewer would do, apologizing before offering an idea, and inappropriate smiling are but a few of the ways in which women fail to come across as authoritative and self-confident.

Antidote: Get to the point. Short sounds confident. Cut your communications by 25 percent.

5. Work/life imbalance. The No. 1 question women ask us is, “How do I create more balance between my work and my personal life?” When you are creating a startup, there is no balance. The most you can do is integrate the things that are most important to you.

Antidote: Avoid perfectionism, ask for help and be realistic about what you can and can’t do in any given time period. Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, had her children pack makeup in the garage — but they did it as a family. And look where it got her!

Recognizing the nice-girl behaviors that hold you back, and acting to counter them, will help you realize your entrepreneurial dream. We know because we’ve been there and done it.

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