Becoming Visible

Professor Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell surveys the new corporate playing field for women.

As an expert on the challenges that women face in the workplace—and as a woman who has done her own share of career pioneering—Professor Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell knows this better than most. In her new book, Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape (Harper Collins, 2010), Bell describes the new corporate playing field and advises women of high ambition on how to respond to emerging challenges and to succeed. "These changes affect virtually every woman with a corporate career. My objective is to bring us all up to speed."

Among the biggest changes is the death of the anonymous executive woman. "The higher a woman rises within her organization, the more important it is for her to be authentic and comfortable with herself," Bell says. "Being authentic and genuine makes you attractive as a new hire, liked and respected as a colleague, and effective as a leader. Unlike the past, when conformity was more the norm, individuality is encouraged and prized. The best leaders have learned from the experiences that shaped their lives."

In one of several personal asides, Bell recalls such a turning point in her own life. "When I started out," she writes, "I patterned myself into the white male I thought I needed to be. I got a couple of dark suits and kept my head down. But I wasn't happy, wasn't fulfilled, and wasn't getting anywhere. So I took the time to rediscover my passion and follow it. I ditched the male-centric clothing and started wearing what I liked. That's when I got my voice back, and that's when my career began to thrive.

"The key lesson for every woman is that you won't be successful as a leader unless you find your passion and bring your whole self into your work."

The substance of The Invisible Career is practical advice on finding the right career and job and the right path to advancement. It deals with cultivating meaningful business connections, achieving and being recognized for job performance, rising to leadership positions, benefiting from international assignments, and, throughout it all, remaining healthy and sane. Bell focuses in particular on the first 90 days on the job, a period fraught with danger but ripe with opportunity. "Either you figure out the lay of the land and prove you're a leader, or you're dead in the water," she says.

Part of the book's appeal is its hard-nosed refusal to buy into the "old-school paradigms" for working women. Bell flat out states that if the career choice is an extreme job (the 70-hour-a-week variety), women need to be continuously available. She supplements the old ideas of networking and mentoring with a new concept of cultivating a sponsor. She even advises women where to find vulnerable spots in those glass ceilings.

Noting that globalization and immigration are creating a sea change in the U.S. workforce, Bell says that "unless corporations have diversity in their ranks, they'll miss the mark. Women especially live in multiple worlds, and they bring different paradigms, realities, and visions to the table."