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Charlotte Beers, Trailblazing Entrepreneur, Offers Tips on Succeeding in the Workplace

Beers got her start in product management for Uncle Ben’s and skyrocketed to the heights of advertising and government. She was the first woman senior vice president at J. Walter Thompson Advertising in the firm’s 106-year history, leaving to become CEO of the advertising agency, Tatham-Laird & Kudner, where she tripled billings. Her next career move took her to Ogilvy & Mather, where she excelled as a leader. Harvard Business School still teaches their bestselling case study on leadership titled “Charlotte Beers at Ogilvy.”

She served as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs from 2001 to 2003 and earned the Distinguished Service Medal, the State Department’s highest honor.

She spoke with Forbes magazine about how women can compete against men at work, the factors that tend to keep women out of management roles, and more.

New studies show that the workplace is still heavily dominated by men. How did you build your career and compete in a male dominated work environment?

The key to success in advertising and marketing is ideas. Ideas tend to be gender neutral. I was good at idea generation and helping people get their ideas out. The other thing that matters in an agency is understanding and motivating clients. I came from the client side so I had comfort there. I think those two things kept me from being classified as “the girl”. But equally important was the way I presented myself and built relationships. I was often the only woman in the room and the men would give me direct feedback – some of it not polite. But I would immediately take it in and understand what they meant. In today’s workplace, I think that women have a hard time getting that type of direct and open feedback. We are so politically correct. Most women managers tend to be distant from the men at the top. That’s something we have to overcome.

What, ultimately, keeps women out of the inner circle of management?

Relationships. ‘But women are more adept socially’ you must be thinking. Yes, but relationships at work are a whole different ball game. Men get these kinds of relationships. And they set the rules of engagement – especially at the top. When a woman brings her uninformed concept of what a productive relationship is, it makes her look less like a leader. Another problem is that many women leaders copy men. I know I did for a while, but if a method is going to work, it has to come from the center of who you are and what you want and a rock bottom assessment of what you can offer. It’s much harder finding your own model of how to be a leader, though men are given their model practically at birth. It’s not fair, but there you are. But I promise you, women are going to set a whole new standard in authentic leadership.

Why aren’t women getting the recognition they deserve in the form of pay and advancement?

In the realm of tasks, reports, projects, good old down and dirty getting it done, women do an excellent job. But that ceases to be the point at any manager’s level. The work then becomes about propelling projects forward, getting your ideas heard, imposing them on a reluctant group, even. That’s a very different skill set, one which women have had less opportunity to develop. Women, for all their verbal excellence, are uneasy with “guts ball’ – putting it all out there, exposing their commitment and passion, pushing their audience. Particularly in even the daily presentations, this is needed to project real authority. Some women try to do this by being severe, looking tailored and buttoned up. This may project “I mean business,” but it doesn’t communicate the kind of fervor and persuasion skills needed to be seen as a leader. Authority, or taking charge, is messy, uncomfortable, edgy, challenging. It can feel foolish, daring, or pushy. This is the nature of leadership, and women have to get ready for it and comfortable with it.

What do you do if you are stuck at work and don’t know what to do next with you career?

I think the most important thing to do, if you are stuck and want to grow, is to be an ambassador for your own brand. Get out of your own department. Go and meet, relate to and ask questions of colleagues in other departments. Even the ones you don’t normally have access to. You should ignore the limitations imposed by the company culture. You should take on unexpected projects. Volunteer for things. Show genuine interest in the work that goes beyond your normal territory. You have to take responsibility for your career to breakout. 

For more from Ms. Beers, please click here.

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