Columbia Business School recently released a study that says women who do favors or offer help in the workplace find themselves less valued by those for whom they have done the good deed. So-called feminists everywhere are using this study as yet another battle cry to show why women are disadvantaged by gender in the workplace, which is really a neat little excuse to explain why people who happen to be women sometimes have trouble getting ahead.

As an entrepreneur who happens to be a woman, my reading of the study and the complaints it voices about women's workplace obstacles is of an entirely different nature. I read it as a study on what works in terms of making oneself valued and getting one's strengths noticed, which apply to male and female entrepreneurs alike.

The principle idea is this: If you always provide services for free, don't make the most of industry networking contacts, or always look for compromise in deal-making situations, you will miss valuable opportunities to grow your business, and ultimately, to be seen as a top choice and resource by potential business partners.

Rules for Engagement

This has nothing to do with how many X or Y-chromosomes you possess, it has to do with the rules of engagement in the world of business. The Columbia study, rather than being a call to cry victim, is actually a great roadmap for anyone interested in moving his or her company forward, regardless of gender. Here are the rules of the road.

1. Your time is precious, so don't give it away to just anyone. Business contacts ask for help for myriad reasons. Most of the time, it's a good idea to offer a taste of your insight or your company's services to the person asking. Doing so can broaden the network of people you know, create deep conversations where mutual sharing of insight occurs, and open doors to future collaboration.

However, there are times when the person asking for the insight is someone you should steer clear of, either because he does not value the time you invest in the exchange, or because you feel it is a one-sided encounter rather than a dialogue. There is nothing wrong with saying no. This kind of person will undoubtedly ask someone else to whom they will be ungrateful, as the Columbia study notes.

If on the other hand, he is asking because he genuinely respects your skills, is willing to share his own insights as part of the process, and intends to act as an advocate for your expertise in the marketplace, then full speed ahead. Successful leaders of both sexes carefully allocate their time and expertise where it will serve their careers and their companies best.

2. Take a hand in your destiny. As business owners we do not always have the right answers. When that happens, it is time to reach out to people in your network and seek advice. This can be hard because it might feel embarrassing or seem like it will come at a high price. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The entrepreneur who is willing to reach out even in a tough moment is one that has the strength to stick around. Your contacts will respect that, and they will be more than willing to share a few minutes of their time or a few kernels of wisdom with you. Most importantly, they will also see you as someone they can also come to when they are in need of a reciprocal bit of wisdom. This network building is an indispensable part of advancing your business, and it can only occur if you actively make it happen by reaching out and creating bridges-;and being able to do so has nothing to do with gender.

3. Limit your willingness to compromise. The Columbia study indicates that women are in effect "punished" for their volunteerism or willingness to accept a duty no one else wants with little in exchange. Likewise, entrepreneurs who constantly seek compromise when deal-making find themselves often taken advantage of.

How can you avoid being taken for an easy touch?

  • When planning a deal, decide what you need to walk away from it with when all is said and done.
  • Also, think about what you fear most losing in the deal. Decide how to mitigate that fear rather than allowing the other side to use it against you.

With these two sets of benchmarks firmly in place, you can construct a deal that keeps you on firm ground.

If you are being asked to compromise on any of your takeaways, be prepared to walk away from the deal. Potential partners and adversaries alike will respect your clear vision, and your deals as well as your partnerships will turn out stronger for it. Firmness is not a characteristic owned by one sex or the other. It is something every entrepreneur should exercise in the name of driving her business.

You can be your own best advocate or your own worst enemy in moving your business in the direction you want, no matter what stage your company is at.